In the 1920s, Josephine Baker left her native America to become the toast of Paris and Berlin. The ultimate music hall performer, she caused scandals and raised pulses with her famous “banana dance,” where she cavorted around the stage wearing nothing but a girdle of tumescent bananas. In surviving footage of this act, La Baker does Charleston-like dance moves that are redolent of the twenties, then abruptly breaks into the kind of pelvic thrusting seen in dance clubs the world over today. In the 1930s, she starred in two films, Zou Zou (1934) and Princess Tam Tam (1935), which remain as tantalizing records of her goofy, sexy charisma and star quality.
“I’m the historian of Josephine Baker, she was my mother,” says Jean-Claude Baker, one of her twelve adopted children (she called them her “rainbow tribe”). “When Vincent Canby from the New York Times was supposed to review Zou Zou and Princess Tam Tam, when they were restored and presented by me at the Film Forum,” says Baker, “he had time to see only one, and it was Princess Tam Tam, and he gave it a fabulous review. I prefer Zou Zou, most people do. Zou Zou is Josephine’s story.”
In Zou Zou, Josephine is paired with the taciturn Jean Gabin, who makes a fine contrast to her ebullience. “This is one of seven movies where Jean Gabin sings, he started out as a chorus boy,” says Baker. “Josephine and Jean Gabin became really great friends. During the war, Josephine was in Morocco because she had a beautiful apartment in Paris that was requisitioned by the [Vichy] government. Who did they put in it but Jean Gabin, and the great love of his life, Marlene Dietrich. And Josephine was furious! She said, ‘When I sing, that German cow is sleeping in my blue satin sheets with Jean Gabin!’” Josephine was not fond of Dietrich. Later on in life, Josephine was told after a concert that Dietrich had asked who had done her lighting. “Ha!” she cried, according to Baker. “I’m not surprised. She copied me all her life. The only thing left for her will be my funeral!”
Watch Zou Zou on Fandor.
In both Zou Zou and Princess Tam Tam, Josephine has several musical numbers that showcase her silvery vocalizing. “She never trained her singing voice,” says Jean-Claude Baker. “She could do whatever she wanted! She could copy Maria Callas, she was dancing on toe, on toe! Everything that she learned, it was from black America, from Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters. America was very divided. 99% of black entertainers, the whites had never seen.” Baker admits that Josephine was a star rather than an actress (“Josephine is never good in any movie she did, she was Josephine Baker! Even if Josephine was a nun, it would be Josephine Baker nun!”), but he also recognizes her startling modernity. “The only one in those movies that is timeless is Josephine Baker,” he says. “There are pictures of her, from before she left for Paris at nineteen, and she could be today, 2011, front page of Vanity Fair or Marie Claire.”
Jean-Claude Baker himself was born in a town in Burgundy (“120 people, 200 cows,” he says) and at 14 he was working as a bellhop at a hotel when Josephine swept him up into her life. “I knew nothing about show business,” says Baker. “But I knew that I was in the presence of a goddess, right away. She always introduced me as her adopted son, and I was always the spokesperson of her utopic dream of universal brotherhood, and I embraced that.” When she first met him, Josephine was something of a “has-been,” says Baker, “and I say ‘has-been’ with great respect because you must have been a been first, please do not forget that.” Gradually, she started to make a comeback as a live entertainer, and Baker was there for Josephine’s triumph at Carnegie Hall in 1975, shortly before her death. “Josephine was in a body stocking,” Baker says, which gave her the illusion of eternal youth. “Very few men refused to sleep with her,” he maintains.
On the road, Josephine always had spaghetti bolognese after her performances, and this dish has pride of place on the menu of Chez Josephine, the Manhattan Theater District restaurant that Jean-Claude Baker has run as a tribute to the goddess for nearly twenty-five years. When Baker found the building in 1986, he says that it had a sign in the window that read, “Ten Dollars: Complete Satisfaction.” The previous owner had been a money launderer; Baker was told that there might be cash hidden in the walls. “First six months, I bang on the walls, but no money hidden,” he laughs. Upstairs, there was an exhibition of photographs that were not to his taste: “Kind of perverse photos, erotic, and I’m old-fashioned,” he says. “I kept only a big one, a picture of Rudolf Nureyev, who was a friend of mine. After I open, a person come and say, did you see any photos on the second floor? This was an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe! I throw away pictures of his worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today! The money was not in the walls, it was hanging on the walls!” he cries.
Baker is a born performer himself, and he has had steady customers who have appreciated his hospitality through the years, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (“When I was painting Chez Josephine, Mrs. Kennedy’s son John-John help me to paint the ceiling. That’s a view I will cherish until the day I die! John John, on a big ladder, in shorts, little shorts!” he remembers). He treats everyone who comes to Chez Josephine like a long-lost member of Josephine’s rainbow tribe. “When I decided to open this place, I’m crazy, I’m allergic to garlic, and I don’t give a damn about food,” Baker says, “I know nothing about wine, but I do love people.”
And so Josephine Baker’s spirit and legacy is still alive and well, both in a world-class restaurant, and in those two precious movies from the 30s, where her beaming smile seems made to soothe away the world’s ills.
Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in The House Next Door, Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema, and the L Magazine, among other publications.
Watch Princess Tam Tam on Fandor.