WordPress statistics tell me that the number of viewers on this blog has increased substantially, and that most of them are coming to read about Josephine Baker. My question: why this blog? Why that post? I’ve looked online and there’s lots of stuff about Baker, much of it more comprehensive than I ever dreamed of being. Please, readers, one of you, any of you, tell me why. I’m awfully curious.
In the meantime, I happened to run across a wonderful essay about Josephine Baker by composer (and very good writer), Ned Rorem. He writes:
“As a kid I not only loved Josephine Baker, I wanted to be her when I grew up. Her records permeating our Midwest parlor with that humorous whine, or her movies at the local art cinema displaying that mocha-hued glamour, lured me with the thought of expatriation in a Latin land. I never quite became her, maybe I never quite grew up. Or was it, when I settled in France during the late 1940s, the mystique of Josephine Baker had been replaced by the more sophisticated Edith Piaf (naive now, she too, with the passage of time), if not by more sophisticated notions of negritude?”
He quotes Janet Flanner about Baker’s Paris debut: “She made her entry entirely nude, carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant… whatever happened next was unimportant. She [had instantaneously become]a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful.”
Rorem cites some fascinating particulars about Baker from the biography Jazz Cleopatra by Phyllis Rose. For instance: that she learned to dance by watching kangaroos at the zoo; that at thirteen she was a professional street musician touring the Southern black vaudeville route and by fifteen had been married twice (to deadbeats). I was also surprised to learn that she had a brief fling with her secretary, the young Georges Simenon, later the very famous writer of the Maigret mysteries.
One more wonderful quote: “Like all dynamic entertainers she gave the impression that you alone were her audience. Indeed, she adored you as she adored all creatures, surrounding herself not only with fans and lovers but with pets, including at one point a leopard. In 1940, when she went to North Africa in her guise of nomadic spy-dancer [for the French resistance], she couldn’t leave without her three monkeys, two white mice, and a Great Dane. (Ms. Rose: she knew that if positions were reversed, they wouldn’t leave without her).”
Everything began to go wrong in 1941 when a stillborn child was followed by medical complications. The rumor took fire that she was dying. Langston Hughes’ first job for the The Defender was to write her obituary. Nineteen months later, scarred, but as lively as ever, she went back to work.
After the war, she adopted twelve children of different nationalities and raised them on an estate which she also turned into a fairground open to the public, with donations going to charity. Over the next decades she gained and lost fortunes and fame, and at the same time supported her company of children, a flock of servants, and a number of family members, including two husbands (both of whom also acted as her impresarios). She also donated generously to civil rights causes.
She had many comebacks over the years, the last one in 1975, which received rave notices when it opened in Paris. To elaborate on my last post about Baker, the day after the opening, she took a nap while waiting for a journalist. She was discovered in bed surrounded by newspapers. “If officially she died of cerebral hemorrhage, some said she died of joy.”
Twenty thousand mourners crowded the streets outside the church.
Rorem tries to make sense of the high regard of the French for this black American. It’s clear that her success was due in some measure to a European fascination with Black Americans. She wasn’t nearly as talented a singer or dancer as others who never attained her fame. In fact, she was less of an artist than a phenomenon, he opines. Quoting Rose, she was a celebrity “whose every move and phrase was timed for maximum effect.”
In other words, she happened along when the world was ready for her and — unlike countless other artists — did she ever know how to market herself!