Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Josephine Baker

I’ve long known this name, that she was a black entertainer who made her career in France sometime before I was born. I thought all she did was take her kit off and wear exotic costumes. It turns out there was a little more to her story than that.

She was born in 1906 in St. Louis Missouri, Josephine Freda MacDonald, an illegitimate child of a black woman who also part Native American, Apalachee. Her parents were also entertainers. Josephine’s father drifted away and her mother, Carrie, married a man who was described as nice enough, but he had a mean temper and suffered from depression. They were poor, the kind of poor that involves hunger, cold and rats. Carrie was never very warm to Josephine perhaps because the child reminded her of the man who had rejected her. All her life, Josephine’s mother denied that she was attractive in any way, saying she was either too light- or dark-skinned, too thin, even too long-legged.

She entered show business at the age of 7, dancing in a contest that won her a dollar. Though she did short stints at housekeeping, dancing was her chosen profession and she managed to get a chorus girl job at the age of 13, by saying she was small for her 15 years. At 13 she was also married to husband #1, only a few years older than herself, for a very short while. They lived in her parent’s house and after a fight in which Josephine ably defended herself with a broken bottle the husband took himself off for medical attention and never came back. I wasn't clear that she was ever legally divorced (if an underage marriage was legal to begin with).

Husband #2 was where she got her stage name but their cohabitation was also very short, though the marriage – if it was even legal – was not dissolved for some while. She left Willie Baker to go to New York with her job. There she was making $125 a week and in New York she was discovered at the end of the chorus line ‘like an exclamation point!’ and invited to work in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysee for $250 a week. She was 19.

It wasn’t just the money or the excitement of travel that drew her to France. She had heard that black people were treated as equal there. I think it’s quite sad that she said when the ship taking her to France passed the Statue of Liberty, she knew she was free. She said that America was evil back then, and in that time from a black person’s perspective it was probably fair comment.

That she made a successful career in France is obvious. What I hadn’t realized was that her fame was truly world wide. Admittedly her initial success was about her beauty and her bared body, but she was by all accounts an amazing dancer and very athletic. One of her early trademark costumes was a skirt made of fake bananas. She later acquired a pet leopard named Chiquita. (This made me wonder about the Chiquita brand of bananas I grew up with.) Eventually she moved more into elaborate costumes and singing and became a famous personality, not just a naked dancer.

Like many people who started out very poor and became very wealthy she was profligate with her money and careless with her valuable possessions. She loved animals and let them run wild in her house. You can imagine that monkeys and silk draperies might not be a good combination. She wasn’t able to have children and so she adopted with yet another husband -- 3 or 4, I lost count -- a Rainbow Tribe. If her children wrote books and perhaps they did, I don't know, they would surely tell of a strange childhood. Josephine spent a lot of money helping poor people stay warm and fed and of course supported her family back in the US. She was a difficult personality who was both insecure and knew her power. She got involved in political issues and sometimes it worked very well; being very outspoken and often undiplomatic, she sometimes made a mess of it. In short she was pretty much how you would expect someone with her background to be given the amazing life she found herself living. However, she was also far more.

During World War II she played a role in the French resistance; Josephine’s position as an American born and famous entertainer gave her access to a wide range of powerful people. After the war she was involved in the Civil Rights movement in the US, though she declined to be given an official position. She gave up her American citizenship and became French which, given her experiences of living and even returning to the US, is understandable; naturally she still felt in some ways that America was ‘home’. A song about ‘two loves’, referring to these two countries, was another of her trademarks.

Even people who initially dismissed her work as tawdry came around to amazed admiration at how she developed and what an artist she eventually became. She was widely recognised as an icon of her time. She was the first black woman to make a full length movie and was once listed as the wealthiest black woman in the world. I would ask how they defined wealth, perhaps the highest paid is what they meant. The last figure I recall was $10,000 per week. It’s difficult to imagine the breadth of her influence. She had access to heads of state in many parts of the world, airlines held up their flights for her, Grace Kelly gave her a house on the French Riviera. Josephine worked hard, always having several shows, a restaurant or café and several causes on the go at one time. Her spendthrift lifestyle meant that she could not retire and she worked right up until her death from a stroke in 1975, aged 68. She is buried in Monaco.

I really enjoyed this book, not just because I learned about Josephine Baker, but also because of the insights into black culture, the history of blacks in entertainment, the grand background of Europe and other parts of the world during the 20s, 30s and 40s and the continuing struggle of black people for equal rights. The book about her life took me on a long and fascinating journey.

There were also interesting little tidbits. Did you realize that the woman who played Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, Billie Burke, was married to Florenz Ziegfeld? I made a note to look up a Parisian designer I’d not heard of, Jean Desses. I’m going to look for any of Josephine’s movies that might be around for purchase.

I tagged many pages that I would love to share but, really, you need to get your hands on a copy of The Josephine Baker Story by Ean Wood. I will only re-type this excerpt, which provides great motivation for improving one’s posture! It is a quote from an American writer and sculptor Barbara Chase Ribaud who went backstage to meet Josephine in 1970:

I thought, ‘Anybody’s aunt from St. Louis. What is all the fuss about?’ The bright but melancholy eyes, the extravagant eyelashes behind bifocals, the aging jowls, the slight dowager’s hump, the small, rather dumpy figure looked ridiculous in the chorus-girl costume cut high on the hip. Yet in the midst of a rather grandmotherly conversation La Josephine, then 64, received her cue to go onstage. And before my unbelieving eyes, the superstar emerged from the frump and folds of age.

She appeared to shed pounds. The line of her back straightened, her upper thighs tensed and lengthened, her stomach flattened, her jowls disappeared. Her eyeglasses were hurriedly exchanged for a rhinestone microphone, her chin lifted, the head went back, and the Josephine of Parisian dreams suddenly appeared as if by magic onstage. A huge and collective sexual sign seemed to rise from the audience upon her entrance, the smooth siren voice slid out over the audience. I turned to Geoffrey in amazement. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I told you she was something else.’

No comments: