Viva La Baker
Every now and then, my job brings me closer to my idols. Unfortunately, most of my idols are dead. Still, through interviewing Damian Marley or Ferdie Pacheco, I have learned a little more about Bob and Muhammed Ali. I gained far more insight that I expected from Jean-Claude Baker, one of the adopted sons of Josephine. Jean-Claude was her thirteenth adopted child, the last member of her "Rainbow Tribe."He was the only one of Josephine's children to share the stage with her; in the twilight of her life he introduced her and performed as an opening act. He wrote a well-reviewed biography, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, and he is the owner of Chez Josephine, a French restaurant on 42nd Street in New York City, which is popular with the theater crowd. Also, Jean-Claude is an unmitigated riot to interview, unabashed about sharing personal details of his mother's life. I'm talking very personal details. Because I was interviewing him about Naomi Wilzig's Josephine Baker art on display at the World Erotic Art Museum, Jean-Claude shared just how erotic Josephine actually was.
"Josephine was a naughty girl! She was today what you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also an historian. You have to put her back in the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, chorus girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading man if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accomodate black people. So they would all stay together and the girls would develop lady-lovers friendships.
"If one of the girls by preference was gay, she would be called a bull dyke by the whole cast. So you see: discrimination is everywhere!"
By nature, Jean-Claude Baker speaks in block quotations, delivered in high-speed, heavily-accented English. As the last of her adoptees, he wasn't there to witness La Baker in her erotic lady-lovers days, but having interviewed close to 2000 people for his book, he can certainly paint a vivid picture of the era.
He told me about the days when she danced at the Folies Berger, (which he referred to as "the temple of tits and asses"), how she did underground intelligence and transported documents for the French government during WWII, and how she became something of a prude and a "Victorian mother" in her latter years. Josephine even got involved with her children's fashion choices.
"At the time when the flower children were coming out, my brother wanted to get one of those hippie shirts with the flowers. Josephine said, 'No, no, you cannot have that! That is for homosexuals!' And my brother said, 'But maman, all your friends are homosexuals!' And I myself am gay, you understand. And then my brother Louis, who is a black man from Colombia, said 'But mama, what about you dancing naked with bananas?' And she said 'I don't want to talk about that!' In her old age, she had become a little prude. She didn't want any of us children to know about the naughty little things she did in her youth," Jean-Claude cackled. "I interviewed many of her costars from Shuffle Along and those films back in those days. All those girls, they had lady lovers and they fuck with everybody, but at the end of their life they find Jesus. I don't think Josephine found Jesus, I think he found her."
Jesus found Josephine Baker on April 12, 1975. Following a fantastic comeback show, she died of a cerebral hemmorage. "The last show in Paris in 1975, they were not supposed to film it. A little camera came at the end, to her dressing room. They said, 'Miss Baker, how do you feel?' And she looked straight in the camera and said 'Very good. Because at least I will know what they think of me while I am still alive.' She died the same night. She never saw that film that was broadcast the next day. She died the day following her comeback, in bed reading her own reviews. Even that is unbelievable. Like a fairy tale," Jean-Claude explained. The way he told her story was just as enchanting and magical. I half-expected him to say "the end" to conclude the interview.
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