• Sam Darling

Josephine Baker

Josephine_Baker_48f72e6e889f4

The French embraced jazz music very early. It may have been that there was a direct pipeline from the  cradle of New Orleans to the streets of Paris that allowed the music to immediately find roots in France. The French continue to love jazz to this day and it has become an integral part of French identity. Although the French can be as bigoted as any nation, they do seem to practice color blindness when an individual has sufficient talent to “surpass” their roots and they are able to grab art forms from whatever nation they emerge.

Consider someone like Josephine Baker.

Someone so beloved by France that she became a French citizen all the while rejected in the nation of her birth for her controversial nature. Also due in part because she said she was pro communism, which — in case you didn’t know — Americans do not like. True, the French made a fetish of her exoticism, but they also respected her talent. Many Americans have forgotten Baker but she’s still a part of the French culture. Baker was also the trailblazer for people like Mia Farrow or Angelina Jolie with their many adopted children of multiple nationalities. She was a trend setter in many ways.

Baker

As an aside, you can’t fully trust any of the biographies or biopics of Baker. As with many entertainers of the time period it is impossible to parse the truth from the legend. It’s even hard to say if Josephine Baker was a “nice” person. She could be cruel to the people closest to her. She was also anti-American in many ways and that may be why she doesn’t have much of a fan base in the USA. This despite the fact that many African Americans were involved in her rise to fame.

Baker was a homeless child of a former slave in St. Louis and survived the riots of 1917. Her dancing got her into a vaudeville act. She was a part of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City in the 1920s and became known for her comedic skills as well as her singing and dancing.

Some of her earlier dancing clips look kind of crazy by our modern standard, but then she was playing it big for a Vaudeville audience and silent film camera. Cabotiner pour la caméra


The music on this clip is not the original and I don’t think it matches well. I think it would have worked better with Daft Punk, a la


Baker traveled to France in the mid-20s and became famous for her strip tease. Most of her fans are quick to point out that she managed to do this nude dance without vulgarity. If you know the difference between burlesque and stripping then you know the line and she didn’t cross it. She became an icon of the Folies Bergère. She was part of the emergence of the Art Deco style and you can almost see her body and movements in some of the famous statuary of the time period.

Deco

Although I don’t love the way her race was used as a fetish I respect the hell out of Baker for using her fame and fortune to force integration of theaters back in the United States. Not to mention working for the French Resistance as a spy while she traveled with the Red Cross during World War II. How could I not?

Later in life, Baker had to be bailed out of a financial rough spot by her good friend, the princess of Monaco.

One does wonder what a blue blood New Englander like Grace Kelly and a child of American slavery found to talk about. Their ex-pat status? Their hatred of racism? Their love of French cooking? I think their relationship is a delightful testament to human friendship overcoming all differences.


Baker had a successful come back later in life financed by her friends in Monaco. As you can see in the clip she always set the standard for bling and was a trendsetter well into her sixties. She died in her sleep of a stroke on April 12, 1975, after only fourteen performances of Joséphine. Twenty thousand people “attended” her funeral at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, including my mom, who was a fan.

And if you’re thinking that some of these moves and costumes remind you of modern-day pop divas, that’s no coincidence.

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