- Historic Sites
The St. Louis Woman Of Paris
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
“That such a childhood produced an expatriate,” Rose writes, “is not surprising. What better response to the fear of exile than voluntary expatriation? They’ might drive you out of your home any minute, whether ‘they’ were your parents or rampaging white bigots.” Josephine left St. Louis at thirteen and rarely looked back; she worked in a bar, got married and divorced, danced for pennies in the street, and was married again—all by the time she was fourteen.
At fifteen she graduated from a threadbare troupe called the Dixie Steppers into the cast of Shuffle Along, the first all-black musical to reach Broadway during the twenties. Dancing with more abandon than skill while mugging furiously, she stole scene after scene. “She was not beautiful,” the singer Adelaide Hall remembered, “but she was fascinating.”
Her Paris triumph was followed by two and a half years of mostly successful touring that took her to twenty-four countries but also reinforced the lesson that race would always impose risks upon her that other performers never needed to run. In Vienna her dancing was denounced as “decadent”; in Zagreb students interrupted her performance to shout “Long live Croatian culture! Down with vulgarity!”; the Munich authorities banned her entirely.
“I don’t want to live without Paris,” she said upon her return to the city that would always remain her sanctuary. “It’s my country....I have to be worthy of Paris. I want to become an artist.” With the encouragement of her lover and manager—a former plasterer and sometime gigolo named Pepito who wore a monocle and claimed to be a count—she did just that, mastering French (and becoming a French citizen), tempering the raw energy that first propelled her to stardom, adopting dancing and singing styles better suited to the traditional music-hall revues that now eagerly formed around her. E. E. Cummings, who saw her perform again in 1930, could hardly believe she was the same person.
She wasn’t, exactly. She had become “La Baker,” a fixture of French night life and an international star for three decades. Thereafter her tentative visits to America served mostly to remind her that while French exoticism could be trying, homegrown racism was a sood deal worse.
Josephine Baker’s biographer had to cope with the fact that Baker produced six mutually contradictory memoirs.
Phyllis Rose is admirably fair-minded, understanding of the special obstacles race placed in her subject’s path but unblinking in the face of her follies—her infidelities and profligacy and egotism, the maddening inconsistency that made her admire equally Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mussolini. And she is undaunted even by the chronic desire to rewrite her own legend that led Baker to collaborate in writing six mutually contradictory “memoirs,” so muddling the facts, as Rose admits, as to render her life finally “unreproducible in its details.” The reasons for this relentless reordering of her past, her biographer believes, lay in Baker’s inbred need for total con- trol of every aspect of her life, even in retrospect; for all her onstage self-confidence, offstage she was never sure who she was, let alone who she once had been.
Still, the broad outlines of Josephine’s career are remarkable enough to hold any reader’s interest. After earning the Medal of the Resistance during World War II, smuggling to Allied agents in Lisbon and North Africa information pinned inside her underwear, she announced she would leave the stage in order to create an international tourist attraction around her château, complete with nightclub, miniature golf, and the Jorama, a wax museum devoted entirely to gussied-up scenes from its builder’s life. It was not a success.
Nor was her next project: amassing a “rainbow tribe” that grew to include a dozen children of nearly every creed and color, adopted one by one during her travels overseas and meant to serve as living proof that color didn’t count. (Her fourth husband finally left her when the tally reached twelve.) Her new role as “wholesale mother” required her to spend most of her time away from her brood, appearing wherever she could get a booking just to pay the bills. It didn’t work. In 1968 she and her variegated children were evicted, forced to seek shelter in a villa proffered by another glamorous American expatriate, Princess Grace of Monaco.
Baker married for a fifth time, continued to tour despite a heart attack, and in 1975, at the age of sixty-nine, returned to the Paris music-hall stage in Joséphine, a series of gaudy tableaux illustrating the latest revised standard version of her life. Six years had passed since she last had been asked to play the city she still considered “my country,” but the opening was a triumph, and she bathed in the applause, tears streaming from beneath her sequined eyelids.
Two days later she died in her sleep. A cerebral hemorrhage was the official cause, but a friend suggested she had died of joy.