Soon after I settled in Paris my mother arrived to check on my sock and undies drawer. She brought my father, still recovering from a mild stroke and I took them both to the Casino de Paris and after to supper at Brasserie Flo. During the dinner two painted and sequinned lesbians at a nearby table embraced; not with just an affectionate peck on the cheek but with tongues fighting for possession of tonsils. While my mother hid behind the menu, I could tell from the way my father’s eyes recovered some of their lost sparkle that he found this spectacle more interesting than what we had just seen in the theatre.
The Casino de Paris has been an entertainment venue of sorts in the rue de Clichy ever since it was created by the Duc de Richelieu in 1730.
In 1970, along with the nearby Folies Bergere (which opened more recently in 1869), it was in decline and in its final years as a ‘cabaret de spectacles’, a tits, feathers and music show with dazzling costumes and red velvet upholstery. An Erte poster or a set designed by Yves Saint Laurent may have attracted a few Parisians but the majority of the Casino’s patrons were foreign tourists looking for the vanished, belle epoque world that Manet saw when he painted Un Bar aux Folies Bergere.
Parisians have returned to the Casino and to the Folies but now it is to see heavy metal bands, Irish clog dancers and re-runs of The Lion King.
Many famous entertainers – Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Zizi Jeanmaire, Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Ginger Rogers and Yves Montand to name a few – played the Casino and the Folies, but the greatest of them all was a black girl from Missouri who danced in nothing but a skirt of gold bananas.
She was born in St Louis in 1906 to Carrie McDonald and christened Josephine. Carrie claimed her partner Eddie, was her father, but Josephine always believed it was Carrie’s white employer. The family lived in a poor neighbourhood near the city’s Union Station, an area of rooming houses, brothels and run-down apartments with outdoor plumbing. Here Josephine grew up a bare-foot street forager, scavenging for food in garbage cans. She was a street smart survivor at six and when Eddie abandoned his family she acquired a life-long mistrust of men and a fierce desire for financial independence. Josephine was also an optimist; early poverty can be a positive in the hands of the ambitious.
What little time she found for relaxation she spent in the bars of East St Louis where entertainers off the river boats introduced the latest jazz music and dances from New Orleans. There, she learnt the shimmy, the snake hips and the black bottom and the mess around, the chug, the slop and the crossfire.
She was ten when a travelling medicine man arrived in town at the reins of a painted, gypsy caravan carrying a cargo of the notorious Snake Oil, a cure-all mixture of alcohol and opium designed to cause instant relief and future dependence. To attract customers in the evenings a small stage, lit by kerosene torches, was erected and a dance competition held, with backing by a locally recruited ‘jug band’ using kazoos, harmonicas and a fiddle with the bass notes provided by someone blowing into a jug. Josephine received one dollar for winning the contest. It was the start of her career.
Two years later she dropped out of school and found work as a waitress at the Old Chauffeurs Club where she met and soon after married Willie Wells, at fifteen her senior by two years and a wastrel who decamped after a few months leaving Josephine pregnant. The records are unclear as to whether the child was lost through miscarriage or at the hands of a back-street abortionist. In either case it would mean Josephine would die childless.
In July of 1917, outraged at losing their jobs to lower paid black workers, whites rampaged through East St Louis, burning, killing and lynching, leaving six thousand blacks homeless. Although Josephine and her family were unharmed, what she witnessed would make her a life-long warrior for civil rights.
Josephine was still only fourteen when she was invited to join The Jones Family Band which played ragtime, busking on street corners. Entertaining the crowd queuing for admission outside the Booker T Washington Theatre, they were spotted by the theatre manager who invited them to join the Dixie Steppers for the current season. Josephine’s dancing stopped the show; ‘She’d jut that ass up, like a rooster flappin his tail’.
The Jones Band and Josephine toured America with the Dixie Steppers ending in Philadelphia where she found work as a chorus girl at the Gibson Theatre. There she met and married Willie Baker, a Pullman porter in his mid twenties. She would remain Josephine Baker for the rest of her life.
When it was announced that Shuffle Along, an all black song and dance show, was opening on Broadway in April 1921, Josephine left Willie and bought a one way ticket to New York. Considered too young at fifteen for the Broadway show, she was hired for the touring version, performing as a comic turn at the end of the chorus line. In 1925 after a spell in show called Chocolate Dandies, Josephine began work at the Plantation Theatre Restaurant on Broadway.
At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Director of the Theatre des Champs Elysees, Andre Davan, was searching for ideas for a new show. The theatre, incidentally, is not located on the Champs Elysees but at the far end of the avenue Montaigne and directly opposite the offices of Ernst & Young, my employers at the time my parents came to visit.
Davan sought advice from French artist, Fernand Leger. ‘Give them negroes’ said Leger who had just visited the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs (hence the term ‘art deco’) where he had been impressed by an exhibition of African statuary. Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso had also seen in African carvings and statues a simpler and more abstract expression than found in contemporary western art. Davan was still pondering on Leger’s advice when American socialite, Caroline Dudley, called at his office to ask if he was interested in presenting an authentic negro vaudeville show. His mind now made up, Daven told her to return to America and bring him back a show.
Josephine, who Dudley had seen in Shuffle Along, was one of her first signings along with New Orleans clarinettist Sidney Bechet who would spend much of his later life in France.
Sidney would trigger a rush of black American singers and musicians to Paris where they were received with open arms, or, in the case of Existentialist singer, Juliette Greco, when she encountered Miles Davis – with open legs.
Maud de Forrest, a short, dumpy blues singer, was the appointed star of the show and the whole troupe sailed for France on 15th September, 1925. When Josephine entered the dining car of the boat-train to Paris she sat and ate with white people for the first time.
In Paris things did not go well in the beginning. The publicity campaign was behind schedule with affichiste, Paul Colin, producing, at the last minute, an art deco masterpiece.
Paul Colin would also become Josephine’s first conquest on French soil. At rehearsals Maud de Forrest failed to produce the excitement the producers hoped for and the show became focused on Josephine’s dancing.
La Revue Negre opened at the Theatre des Champs Elysees 2nd October, 1925 and was an instant success. Josephine stole the show by dancing the Charleston on top of a drum wearing two ostrich feathers.
American journalist, Janet Flanner, gave this account of the first night in her book ‘Paris Was Yesterday’:
‘Josephine made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the splits on the shoulder of a black giant. Mid-stage he paused and, with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around the waist, swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood, in a moment of complete silence. A scream of salutation spread through the theatre.’ Paris was hers. First in the conga-line of admirers waiting outside the theatre was a young Belgian journalist, George Sims, who would become Josephine’s lover and later find fame as the writer of detective fiction under the nom de plume of Simenon. Before he died George claimed to have had sex with over ten thousand women. His wife said it was more like twelve hundred.
She went to the Salon De L’Automne at the Grand Palais and to tea dances at Jean Cocteau’s restaurant, Le Boeuf sur le Toit. Couturier Paul Poiret, a man who had liberated women from the corset and petticoat, made her his muse, model and perhaps more. His dresses were nothing but something. A dress designed for Josephine he called ‘un rien’ cost a small fortune.
She took easily to wealth and celebrity. She bought a parakeet, two baby rabbits, a snake and a piglet she called Albert after the doorman of her hotel and which she drenched in Lanvin’s ‘Je Reviens’. She acquired Le Beau Chene, a thirty room mansion in the Paris suburb of Le Vesinet where she became a benefactor of the local poor community and godmother to all fifty children in the local orphanage, who were given the run of her garden.
Josephine abandoned the European tour of La Revue Negre to star in the 1926 season at the Folies Bergere. The show, ‘La Folie du Jour’, in which she danced in little else except a skirt of plastic bananas, cemented her fame and made her an icon of the Jazz Age. From then on she would be known as ‘Black Venus’, ‘The Black Pearl’ and ‘The Creole Goddess’.
A year later, when filming ‘Siren of the Tropics’, she became the first African American to star in a major motion picture.
She posed for Van Dongen, Foujita and Picasso. She appears in F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Babylon Revisited’, going through her ‘chocolate arabesques’. Alice B Toklas created ‘Custard Josephine Baker’ the main ingredient being bananas. The Maharajah of Kapurthala and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as architect Le Corbusier, were taken up as lovers and later discarded. Ernest Hemingway came across her in Le Jockey Club in Montparnasse. After dancing with Josephine, who was naked under a fur coat, Hemmingway claimed she was ‘the most sensational woman anyone ever saw’. A Hungarian draughtsman, finding her unresponsive to his letters, stabbed himself in front of her as she left a night club, wounding himself severely but not fatally.
There was still a strong whiff of Empire in France in 1931 and when Paris hosted its Colonial Exhibition, Josephine was the obvious choice to star in that season’s Casino revue ‘Paris Qui Remue’. This time it was a song, J’ai Deux Amours (mon pays et Paris), rather than a banana skirt, that caused a sensation. Especially written for her, she would sing it at every performance she gave for the rest of her life. The King of Siam was sufficiently moved to offer her an elephant and the Casino’s director, Henri Varna, gave her a cheetah that she called Chiquita and took everywhere, including her bed and to a performance of La Boheme, where it stopped the show by jumping into the orchestra pit.
Varna knew when he gave her the cheetah that Josephine was one of the few women with the self-confidence to take such an animal shopping on the rue St Honore or to lunch at the Grand Vefour, showing just the right degree of nonchalance as if it were a dachshund on the end of the lead.
She travelled the world performing, finding success everywhere except in her own homeland where her refusal to perform unless members of her race were admitted to the venue as well as her public support of the civil rights movement enraged the authorities. Starring in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 Josephine stayed at the St Moritz Hotel on Central Park South where management were happy to have her as a guest provided she enter and leave through the rear service entrance. Although Vincente Minnelli was in charge of sets and costumes and Ira Gershwin wrote the music, the show displeased the critics. Time magazine, to its eternal disgrace, referred to Josephine as ‘a negro wench’ with no particular talent.
Back in France in 1937 she married Jean Lion, a wealthy Jewish businessman and became a French citizen. Thereafter, when she sang J’ai Deux Amours, her two loves would be France and Paris. Her allegiance to France was cemented when she added an accent over the first e of Josephine. Later there was another pregnancy, another miscarriage and, in1940, another divorce.
Kristallnacht, the night Nazis set about burning Jewish property and killing Jews, prompted Josephine to join the International League against Racism & Anti-Semitism, her liberal and anti-semitic credentials freshened by the news that she had been declared a ‘decadent artist’ by Goebbels and banned by Mussolini from appearing in Italy.
From then on, performing life took second place as she reported each day for work at the Red Cross centre where she made pot au feu for the refugees streaming in from Belgium. She used her pilot’s licence to fly Red Cross supplies and wrote hundreds of letters to French soldiers manning the Maginot line. Because of her high level contacts and connections she was recruited into French Military Intelligence as a spy.
When the Germans arrived in Paris in June 1940 she left for Les Milandes, a 15th century chateau in the Dordogne valley that she had bought earlier and which now became a meeting place for resistance fighters. Later she left for Spain and Portugal before crossing to Morocco, passing information to her French ‘handlers’ by way of invisible ink in her sheet music or messages tucked into her underwear – probably not the safest place as she soon fell pregnant again, losing her child to the inevitable miscarriage. Was the father the Pacha of Marrakech, Si Thami El Glaoui, Lord of the High Atlas, who had entertained her at his palace? We will never know.
Over the next two and half years she travelled the North African coast from Marrakech to Cairo entertaining British, American and Free French soldiers. She returned to Paris in 1944 a heroine and holder of the Croix de Guerre. Later De Gaulle would make her a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.
After the war Josephine devoted more and more of her time to charitable work, gathering twelve orphans from different races and religions (the ‘Rainbow Tribe’) under her care at Les Milandes. She also pursued her personal war against racism.
On 28thAugust, 1963, after performing in a series of benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall, she stood with Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the Lincoln memorial and two hundred thousand civil rights protesters. Wearing the uniform of the French Air Force, she was the only official female speaker.
‘I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee’.
After King’s assassination his widow, Coretta, offered her unofficial leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine declined, saying her children were ‘too young to lose their mother’.
The reduction in paid performances and the cost of a ballooning retinue of retainers and dependents forced Josephine into debt: soon creditors were threatening to possess Les Milandes. Brigitte Bardot, a fellow animal lover, made a televised appeal for funds; King Hassan of Morocco chipped in. Andre Maurois helped set up a fund to protect her childrens’ future. Josephine called Gianni Agnelli, President of FIAT, and asked for a new car which arrived the next day. All this was a help but eventually Les Milandes fell to the creditors and Josephine and her entourage were homeless.
Years before, when Josephine was performing in New York, Grace Kelly had come to her help when she was refused service in the Stork Club. Learning of her more recent misfortunes Kelly, now Princess Grace of Monaco, stepped in again, providing Josephine and her Rainbow Tribe with an apartment in Roquebrune Cap Martin. She also hosted a show as part of the annual Monaco Red Cross Gala. It was called ‘Josephine’, a salute to her fifty years as an entertainer.
‘Josephine’ was so successful that it transferred to Paris, opening 8th April 1975 at the Bobino Theatre in the rue de la Gaite. Among the audience were Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Pierre Balmain. Sadly, Josephine died of a stroke four days later. She was still young, only sixty eight, but she had started life earlier than most. As a decorated war hero she was given a funeral with full military honours including a twenty one gun salute.
She was the last survivor of an age when women were still clothed in coquetry and mystery. ‘Women’ wrote Andre Breton ‘have nothing left to teach us – they are becoming too much like men. Their curiosity value has declined’. Femininity was to become the first casualty of the feminist movement. Josephine’s attitude to marriage may seem casual and there were many lovers, including Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and French novelist Colette, but the sexual freedom of actresses was something French society had come to accept. Naive, impulsive, extravagant and a born exhibitionist she was also brave, passionate and generous. Her dance shocked and seduced but her real asset in life was a personality that carried well beyond the footlights.
Tell me that this was not a fabulous woman.
The Josephine Baker Story, Ean Wood, Sanctuary Publishing, London, 2000.
Paris was Yesterday, Janet Flanner, The Viking Press, New York, 1972.