Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Barenaked Lady: The Life and Times of Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker, the dancer who shook Paris to the core.

Her ass, if you'll pardon my French, made Josephine Baker famous. It was as expressive as her face and she bared it on the stage of the Folies Bergère in Paris for all to see, when she made her European debut in 1925 wearing only a belt of bananas. Everyone wanted a piece of it impresarios, politicians, journalists, even royalty and while she exercised ultimate control, her croupe, as the writer Georges Simenon affectionately called it, succeeded in wiggling its way into the popular imagination as a brash new symbol of the times. Her dancing was natural, untaught, rhythmic, sensual, writes the late Jean-Claude Baker, in Josephine: The Hungry Heart, and she could do it for hours without sweating.

La Baker, as her adoring French fans called her, personified the shedding of inhibition that came with the Jazz Age.

But because she was black, she also represented the bitter face of 20th-century American racial politics. When she returned to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1935 after her European triumphs, Manhattan hotels shut their doors in her face and she finally had to rent an apartment in Harlem. The Stork Club, where she went to dine with white friends, made her unwelcome. The white comedienne, Fanny Brice (immortalized in the film Funny Girl), once told Josephine to get the fancy French words out of her "nigger mouth," and her fellow black performers resented her for trying to act white. She never quite fit in. But today, more than 90 years since her birth in the slums of St. Louis, she is being embraced by a new generation of admirers, among them Miuccia Prada and Beyoncé, who recognize her as an entertainer ahead of her time  challenging gender and racial stereotypes and unabashedly celebrating female sexuality before it was cool to do so, notes Vogue in a 2016 profile.

Baker herself was of mixed blood. Her mother, Carrie Macdonald, a washerwoman the color of coal, was ashamed her entire life of giving birth to an illegitimate daughter who was as light as café au lait. Her father was unknown, believed to be a fair-haired German immigrant living in Baker's home town of St. Louis, who allegedly influenced the decision to baptize her Freda, a popular Rhineland name.

The mystery and shame staining Baker's beginnings spawned two themes that shaped her life: the constant need to reinvent herself, often by means of telling the most shameless lies about her origins; and the never-ending search for the unconditional love and acceptance that her mother had denied her.

She aimed to fill the void in various ways: seeking public adoration by means of displaying her magnificent body, serving as an undercover agent for the French Resistance, adopting twelve orphans from around the world whom she called her Rainbow Tribe. She was always a spendthrift, and sheltering her multiracial brood precipitated her ruin. She was forced to keep working in order to raise funds for the upkeep of the family home, a money-draining castle in the Dordogne.

From Prada to Beyoncé, Josephine Baker’s influence lives on, more than 90 years after her birth in the slums of St. Louis.

Indeed, when she died in Paris in 1975 at age 78 she was in the midst of a glitzy stage show, the last of countless comeback performances for which she kept resurrecting herself in order to pay the bills. To the end, she was a tireless worker, "a beast of the stage," to quote one observer, who had the foresight to say of herself, "The day I miss a performance will be the day I am put in my grave."

Baker was a composite of extremes: an international sex symbol with a barren womb; a fledgling civil rights activist who bathed in Javex to make herself look white; a populist with elitist cravings whose friends included Fidel Castro and Eva Peron; a bisexual femme fatale who courted the church with statues of herself made up like the Virgin Mary; a savvy entertainer who was also so politically naive she continually threatened to sabotage her own career. Like the girl with a little curl in the middle of her forehead, Baker could be good but she could also be horrid, embracing strangers but casting her own brother into the street, and banishing one of her adopted children when he proved to be homosexual. Her hypocrisy was staggering.

Yes, the famous fanny had warts. But until the publication of this superb 1993 authoritative biography, her flaws have been largely masked by illusions created by Baker and perpetuated by misty-eyed admirers. At one time Baker's manager, Jean-Claude Baker, a former nightclub owner, TV producer and owner of the popular New York restaurant Chez Josephine who took his own life in 2015, finally sets the record straight.

His bond is sure. Josephine openly declared him to be her 13th child, though she never formally adopted him. Regardless, he was clearly in awe of the pluck and determination that propelled Josephine out of the most abject poverty to international fame. At the same time, however, he is disgusted by the vanity that allowed her to treat rivals with contempt and her brood of adopted children as props to enhance her image. Allowing the good with the bad, Jean-Claude has written what feels like a true account.

His research into the life of the woman who both delighted and hurt him took over 20 years to complete. But the result is one of the most honest, comprehensive and ultimately affectionate books about Josephine Baker to have ever been written. Mixing juicy anecdote and sobering detail, he and co-writer Chris Chase have successfully recreated a life as riveting as the naked body that once gave it potent expression.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

No comments:

Post a Comment