Friday, July 4, 2014
Monthly Muse: Josephine Baker
When Josephine turned 13 she dropped out of school. and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position where the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. Josephine was then billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville"
She traveled to Paris, France, for a new venture, and opened in "La Revue Nègre" on October 2, 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In Paris, she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs that gave birth to the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in non-western forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris, she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.
After a short while, Baker was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films that found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.
At this time she also scored her most successful song, "J'ai deux amours" (1931), and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers and sculptors, including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino — a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a count — Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, were transformed.
In 1934, she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's opera La créole, which premiered in December of that year for a six-month run at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris. In preparation for her performances, she went through months of training with a vocal coach. In the words of Shirley Bassey, who has cited Baker as her primary influence, "… she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique'.… I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."
Despite her popularity in France, Baker never obtained the same reputation in America. Upon a visit to the United States in 1935–36, American audiences rejected the idea that a black woman could be so sophisticated; her star turn in the Ziegfeld Follies generated less than impressive box office numbers, and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run.Time magazine referred to her as a "Negro wench". She returned to Europe heartbroken.
Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married a Jewish Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. They were married in the French town of Crèvecœur-le-Grand. The wedding was presided over by the mayor at the time, Jammy Schmidt. It has been claimed that when, during the ceremony, she was asked if she was ready to give up her American citizenship, she renounced it without difficulty.
In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent”. Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, while gathering information. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she heard. She attended parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gathered information.
When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France. She housed friends who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal and some in South America, carrying information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. It would be written in invisible ink on Josephine’s sheet music.
Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa; the stated reason was Baker's health (since she really was recovering from another case of pneumonia) but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain and pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search) and made friends with the Pasha of Marrakesh, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several). After the miscarriage she developed an infection so severe it required a hysterectomy. However, the infection was not contained and she developed peritonitis and then septicemia. After her recovery (which she continued to fall in and out of), she started touring to entertain British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. The Free French had no organized entertainment network for their troops so Baker and her friends managed for the most part on their own with no civilians and no admission charge. To this day, veterans greatly remember her performances.
In Cairo, Egypt's King Farouk asked her to sing to which she refused because Egypt had not recognized Free France and remained neutral. However, she offered to sing in Cairo at a celebration of honor for the ties between Free France and Egypt and asked Farouk to preside, a subtle indication of which side his officially neutral country leaned toward.
After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
In 1949, a reinvented Baker returned in triumph to the Folies Bergere. Bolstered by recognition of her wartime heroics, Baker the performer assumed a new gravitas, unafraid to take on serious music or subject matter. The engagement was a rousing success, and reestablished Baker as one of Paris' preeminent entertainers.
The year 1951 saw Baker invited back to the US for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club's audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. Rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences accompanied her everywhere, climaxed by a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem in honor of Baker's new title: the NAACP's Woman of the Year. Baker's short-term future looked bright — six months of bookings lay ahead, with promises of much more to come. An incident at the Stork Club, however (see below), brought all of Baker's plans to an abrupt halt. Baker criticized columnist Walter Winchell, an old ally of Baker's, for not rising to her defense; Winchell responded swiftly with a series of harsh rebukes. The ensuing publicity resulted in the termination of Baker's work visa, forcing her to cancel all her future engagements and eventually return to France. It was almost a decade before US officials allowed Baker back into the country.
Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. When she arrived in New York with her husband Jo they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black. She was so upset by the treatment that she wrote articles on the segregation in the United States and began traveling farther south. She gave a talk at the all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, her subject being "France, North Africa And The Equality Of The Races In France". In addition, she refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States even after she was offered $10,000 by a Miami club.(The club eventually met her demands.) Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate shows in Las Vegas, Nevada, then one of the most segregated cities in America. After this incident, she began receiving threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan but stated that she was not afraid of them.
In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in Manhattan, where she alleged that she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (although she did in fact appear there on January 3, 1956 with Prince Rainier of Monaco). The two women became close friends after the incident. Testament to this was made evident when Baker was near bankruptcy and was offered a villa and financial assistance by Kelly (who by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco). (However, during his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Josephine Baker's sons. Having read a Blumenthal-written story about Leonard Bernstein's FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother's FBI file and, using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.
Baker worked with the NAACP. Her reputation as a crusader grew to such an extent that the NAACP had Sunday 20 May 1951 declared Josephine Baker Day. She was presented with life membership of the NAACP by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Ralph Bunche. The honor she was paid spurred her to further her crusading efforts with the "Save Willie McGee" rally and the 1948 beating of the furniture shop owner in Trenton, New Jersey. As Josephine became increasingly regarded as controversial, even many blacks began to shun her, fearing that her reputation would hurt their cause.
In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Baker was the only official female speaker and while wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur she introduced the "Negro Women for Civil Rights." Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates were among those she acknowledged and both gave brief speeches. After King's assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in the Netherlands to ask if she would take her husband's place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were "too young to lose their mother".
In January 1966, Fidel Castro invited Baker to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba at the 7th anniversary celebrations of his revolution. Her spectacular show in April broke attendance records. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje.
In her later career, Baker faced money troubles and made comments like, "Nobody wants me, they've forgotten me." However, family members encouraged her to continue performing. As a result in 1973, she opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation, and in 1974, she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. That same year, Baker performed at the Monacan Red Cross Gala, celebrating the forthcoming anniversary for her 50 years in French show business. With Josephine's advancing years, and with exhaustion, her memory was becoming unreliable. Sometimes she had trouble remembering the words of her songs, and her speeches between them tended to ramble, nonetheless she continued to captivate audiences regardless of their age.
In 1964, Josephine Baker sold her castle after Princess Grace offered her an apartment in Roquebrune, near Monaco.
Baker was back on stage at the Olympia in Paris in 1968, in Belgrade in 1973, at Carnegie Hall in 1973, at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1974 and at the Gala du Cirque in Paris in 1974. On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed notably by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.
Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on April 12, 1975. She received a full Roman Catholic funeral which was held at L'Église de la Madeleine. The only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Baker locked up the streets of Paris one last time. She was interred at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo.
Josephine Baker came from humble beginnings and established herself as one of the most iconic performers of her era. During her lifetime Josephine was a performer, spy and civil rights activist. She was the first black woman to appear in a feature film. During Baker's work with the Civil Rights Movement she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe". Josephine wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Château des Milandes tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe" were.
After Josephine's death Place Joséphine Baker in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor. She has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and on March 29, 1995, into the Hall of Famous Missourians. The Piscine Joséphine Baker is a swimming pool along the banks of the Seine in Paris named after her.
Two of Baker's sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York, which celebrates Baker's life and works.
Château des Milandes, a castle near Sarlat in the Dordogne, was Josephine Baker's home where she raised her twelve children. It is open to the public and displays her stage outfits including her banana skirt (of which there are apparently several). It also displays many family photographs and documents as well as her Legion of Honour medal. Most rooms are open for the public to walk through including bedrooms with little cots in where her children slept, a huge kitchen and a dining room where she often entertained large groups. The bathrooms are made in art deco style but most rooms retained the French chateau style.
In 2006, Jérôme Savary produced a musical, A La Recherche de Josephine – New Orleans for Ever (Looking for Josephine). The story revolved around the history of jazz and Baker's career.
In 1991, Baker's life story, The Josephine Baker Story, was broadcast on HBO. Lynn Whitfield portrayed Baker, and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special—becoming the first Black actress to win the award in this category.
In 2002, played by Karine Plantadit in Frida.
Josephine Baker appears in her role as a member of the French Resistance in Johannes Mario Simmel's 1960 novel, Es Muss Nicht Immer Kaviar Sein (C'est pas toujours du caviar).
The 2004 erotic novel Scandalous by British author Angela Campion uses Baker as its heroine and is inspired by Baker's sexual exploits and later adventures in the French Resistance. In the novel, Baker, working with a fictional black Canadian lover named Drummer Thompson, foils a plot by French fascists in 1936 Paris.
Her influence upon and assistance with the careers of husband and wife dancers Carmen De Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are discussed and illustrated in rare footage in the 2005 Linda Atkinson/Nick Doob documentary, Carmen and Geoffrey.
Diana Ross famously portrayed Josephine Baker in both her Tony Award-winning Broadway and television show An Evening with Diana Ross. When the show was made into an NBC television special entitled The Big Event: An Evening with Diana Ross, Ross further embellished her role as Josephine. She worked for years to make a feature film of her life; to no avail. Diana considers it a "lost dream".
The italo-belge francophone singer composer Salvatore Adamo pays tribute to Josephine Baker with the song "Noël Sur Les Milandes" (album: Petit Bonheur – EMI 1970).
Beyoncé Knowles has portrayed Baker on various accounts throughout her career. During the 2006 Fashion Rocks show, Knowles performed "Dejá Vu" in a revised version of the Danse banane costume. In Knowles's video for "Naughty Girl", she is seen dancing in a huge champagne glass á La Baker. In I Am... Yours: An Intimate Performance at Wynn Las Vegas, Beyonce lists Baker as an influence of a section of her live show.
In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, Baker appears with her cheetah during the musical number "Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)".
A character clearly based on Baker (topless, wearing the famous "banana skirt") appears in the opening sequence of the 2003 animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville.
A German submariner mimics Baker's Danse banane in the film Das Boot.
In 2010, Keri Hilson portrayed Baker in her single "Pretty Girl Rock".
Artist Hassan Musa depicted Baker in a series of paintings called Who needs Bananas?
In 2011, Sonia Rolland portrayed Baker in the film Midnight in Paris.
Josephine Baker was heavily featured in the 2012 book Josephine's Incredible Shoe & The Blackpearls by Peggi Eve Anderson-Randolph.
In July 2012, Cheryl Howard opened in The Sensational Josephine Baker, written and performed by Howard and directed by Ian Streicher at the Beckett Theatre of Theatre Row on 42nd Street in New York City, just a few doors down from the restaurant "Chez Josephine", run by two of her children.
In July 2013, Cush Jumbo's debut play Josephine and I premieres at the Bush Theatre, London
In August 2013, Rumor has it that pop singer Rihanna is to portray Baker in a biopic film. The film is about the life of Baker, who first became notorious for dancing topless with a tutu of fake bananas in 1920s France, is set for release next year.