Sunday, June 29, 2014

Naked At The Feast A Biography of Josephine Baker by Lynn Haney

This well written and researched biography tells the rags to riches then back to rags story of Josephine Baker (1906-1975), a woman born dirt poor in the slums of Missouri who became the toast of Paris in the 1920s.

Exuberant, enthusiastic, and egotistical, Josephine’s life was, by her own design, a fairy tale, crafted to resemble the story of Cinderella that her grandmother read her. She saw herself as a Negro Joan of Arc, destined to deliver her people from the shackles of oppression. She was always moving, it was like the ragtime music of the time was in her bones.

After a short-lived marriage at age thirteen, she began her show business career as an underage chorus girl on the vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit” with other black performers. She soon married her second husband, Willie Baker, a Pullman porter who shared her wanderlust and love of excitement.

After enjoying some success in cabarets in Harlem, she traveled to Paris as part of an all black cast for Le Revue Negre. Josephine fell in love with Paris and Paris fell in love with her. She became a popular artists’ model and, after overcoming her initial fear about dancing in the nude, became a star. Appearing as a bare-breasted and barefoot jungle savage in a skirt of rhinestone covered bananas at the Folies-Bergere brought her all the jewels, satins, silks, and furs she had ever dreamed of. She was the highest paid entertainer in Europe. Instead of rags she now wore couture clothes designed by Schiapareilli and Poiret. And in Paris she was free of racial scorn and prejudice, and segregation; she was welcome everywhere. She could walk into a shop and try on clothes and hats just like a white woman.

She lived lavishly, being wined and dined and bedded by celebrities and royalty, bought a chateau, and acquired a large menagerie of both exotic and ordinary pets. She starred in movies, lent her name and image to advertising beauty products and clothing, opened her own nightclub, Chez Josephine, took numerous lovers because she could not bear to sleep alone, and served chitlins, greens, black-eyed peas, and rooster combs on her table alongside Cordon Bleu cuisine.

The man she called her “no account count,” her lover/manager, the faux count Pepito de Abatino, a gigolo/dance instructor, played Pygmalion to her Galatea and helped her to acquire all the outer trappings of a lady.  Only then, in 1935, ten years after she had left, did she dare return to the United States, hoping to triumph there as she had in Paris. But America wasn't ready for Josephine, she was forced to use the servants’ entrance at the hotels she stayed at and bombed at the Ziegfeld Follies. Soon Josephine back in Paris, on the stage of the Folies-Bergere. She blamed Pepito for her failure, and cast him out of her life, leaving him to die alone. But though the lovers came and went for the rest of her life, everything from chorus boys to crowned heads, even some women if the rumors were true, she never found anyone whose love and devoted equaled or surpassed Pepito’s.

Her third husband, a millionaire sugar broker, taught her to fly, but expected her to give up her career and become a housewife. The union didn't last.

When World War II erupted, Josephine gave all her energy and dedication to the war effort. She was devoted to France, her adopted country. She worked untiringly for the Red Cross, sending gifts and letters to servicemen, entertaining the troops, and joining the Resistance, and even serving as a spy, using her numerous international connections, to free her beloved Paris from Nazi occupation. In Casablanca, she gave premature birth to her only child. It was stillborn and Josephine was forced to undergo an emergency hysterectomy and almost died of infection and fever.

Knowing that she would never be a mother, sent Josephine spiraling into a deep depression, made worse by continuing health problems, but she dragged herself out of bed and forced herself to go on entertaining the troops.

The Josephine who returned to Paris in 1944 after the Liberation was a calmer, older, and sadder Josephine, no longer the savage wild child. At the age of forty-one, she married her fourth husband, orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and devoted her energies to restoring and operating Les Milandes, her 15th century chateau, as a working farm and tourist attraction. She continued performing, but no longer in the nude, and campaigning against racism and segregation. But on a visit to the USA, an ugly incident in the Stork Club involving columnist Walter Winchell, led to her being labeled anti-American and a possible Communist and her own people began to turn away from her.

Back at her chateau, Josephine decided to fulfill both her dreams of motherhood and racial harmony by adopting a child of each race, to prove they could all live together happily and peacefully. Between 1954 and 1965 she would adopt twelve children; her very own “Rainbow Tribe.” But it all had the air of a publicity stunt; though the children clearly adored her, Josephine was often an absentee mother, leaving them to the care of governesses, her husband, and other relatives and servants.

But everything slipped through her fingers, either fast or slow, in time she lost it all. Her health, her home, her family, her possessions, which were sold at auction. In 1964 she was photographed, sixty-two years old, barefoot with a mammy cap covering her balding scalp (the lye she used to straighten her hair had gradually destroyed the follicles) sitting on the backstairs of her chateau, crying in the rain, after she had been forcibly evicted.

Princess Grace of Monaco came to her aid, but Josephine, desperate to satisfy her creditors, returned to the only life she had ever known. Trading on fond memories and the novelty of seeing an elderly woman in feathered headdresses, sequins, and spangles, sometimes roaring onto the stage astride a Harley Davidson motorcycle or dancing the Charleston, she made a successful comeback, but even that slipped away too, as the march of time continued and senility set in. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, Josephine slipped away quietly, without ever regaining consciousness on April 14, 1975. Princess Grace was at her side as last rites were administered and arranged for Josephine to buried in Monaco beneath a simple black granite marker.

I remember seeing the made-for-tv movie, The Josephine Baker Story, years ago, so when I saw this book I was very curious and eager to read it. I love the history of the theater and the Golden Age of the movies, and Miss Baker’s remarkable life story is a fascinating and poignant Cinderella story of the dizzying highs and lows of celebrity. She was a brave woman who did much to help people, but ended by only hurting herself, she was always chasing rainbows and could never hold on to what she had.

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