If you have been reading me for a while, you’ll know that I love “resurrecting” the past, through affectionate remembrance of figures, not always “great” ones, but the “also” figures. Today’s topic occupies a bit of both categories.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975), born Freda Josephine McDonald, from St Louis, Missouri.
She took Paris by storm with “La Revue nègre” in 1925 at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, the very same Art Deco theater that saw the riot over the “Rite” 12 years prior. Such a sensation caused the nightlife-loving Ravel to exclaim “I must go soak myself in this bouillon of culture.” He would cannily use stylized blues and jazz references in his Violin Sonata, his opera “L’Enfant et les sortileges,” and both piano concerti.
Baker became a French citizen in 1937, and worked for the French Resistance in WWII. Nothing is quite so irresistible as a beautiful sexy female spy, and a world celebrity evaded some of the scrutiny that would have been given to someone “official.”
France has always loved its exotic “others,” sometimes in a way that doesn’t disguise the colonial/paternalistic racism hidden within the admiration. Nevertheless, the hysteria was real, and there wasn’t the exact sort of racial prejudice that was prevalent in the US. When she did the “banana skirt” dance, with her loose flapping limbs and barely-there top, she embodied the sexuality normally repressed by “polite” society. Because this was a “performance” by someone viewed as an outsider, it was acceptable.
Her road to this success was not always easy. Born into a vaudeville entertainment family, she was put onstage from her earliest years, but she had to grow up by her own wits, her parents being not married. She was a “street kid” in the slums of St Louis, doing menial housekeeping work, and being abused by her employers. All this undoubtedly created what one of her (many) adopted sons called her “hungry heart.”
Once she achieved fame and a bit of fortune, a certain mania overcame her. She was blissfully unconcerned with finances, spending freely on every sort of luxury and pleasure; and she was oblivious when it all started to unravel as well. Still, she was a “star,” with that seemingly requisite quality of egotism that makes for the highest levels of fame.
Her “Rainbow Tribe” was the name for the dozen or so adopted children she sheltered at various times. She wanted to show that children of different races and ethnicities cold live happily together. (Way before Angelina Jolie . . .) One of them, Jean-Claude became a successful New York restaurateur, opening his café “Chez Josephine” on Theater Row in the 1980s, with his (adopted) brother Jarry. The café is still in business.
The kids and Baker lived in a chateau “Les Milandes” in the Dordogne. The neighbors weren’t always appreciative of the flamboyant human “tigress next door.” She, who had gone onstage with her pet cheetah “Chiquita,” the cat with the diamond collar that terrorized the orchestra! She wasn’t always the kindest mother, ruling with a sort of chaotic intensity that characterized her entire life. The chateau is open to the public today, with most of the rooms visible, and you can even see the banana skirt.
She was the first African-American female to star in a motion picture, the zany, if somewhat minor “Zouzou” (1934). “Princesse Tam-Tam” followed in 1935, and there were five other movies, one silent, all forgotten. Her most famous song, given her limited vocal talent, was the charming anthem “J’ai deux amours,” which has been covered countless times. The two loves: my country, and Paris, of course.
Baker was married four times, first when she was 13!
She refused to perform in segregated halls in the United States, a contribution to the civil rights movement that was recognized in the late 1960s by Coretta Scott King.
Next time you’re in the produce section, maybe you’ll think of your bananas differently?
© 2013 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs