November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
The past keeps no secrets more securely than those of the stage. Little that happens behind the footlights survives for long in front of them, and the theatrical enthusiasms of one era invariably puzzle the next: Sarah Bernhardt, universally admired onstage for more than half a century, looks ludicrous sawing the air on the silent screen; recordings of Paul Robeson’s rumbling Othello are filled with sound and fury that now seem to us to signify mostly overacting.
Josephine Baker is a particularly puzzling case in point. Chasing a Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker , a British-made television documentary shown last spring on PBS, includes film clips of the kind of dancing that made this girl from a black St. Louis slum the queen of the Paris music hall. Slim and long-legged at nineteen, she races, bare-breasted, onto the stage of the Folies Bergère in 1926 and tears into the Charleston, knees bent, elbows flapping, feet stomping; she bumps and grinds and writhes and shimmies and, from time to time, puffs out her cheeks and crosses her eyes and grins into the camera.
The poet E. E. Cummings thought her an “incomparably fluid nightmare.” But the French, who have never been wholly reliable judges of American culture— they revere Jerry Lewis, after all—were genuinely undone by this frantically eager-to-please young performer whom they first called simply Joséphine. A critic called her “the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire,” and she was compared to a snake, a giraffe, a kangaroo; when she began to parade along the boulevards with a live cheetah, admirers speculated on which “animal” was more wonderfully savage, the one at the end of the leash or the one holding it.
The fact that Baker and the other members of the cast of the Revue Nègre , in which she first triumphed in Paris, grew up on gritty American streets and had never even seen Africa was cheerfully overlooked. “Their lips must have the taste of pickled watermelon, coconut, sweet pepper, and guava,” one critic assured his readers. “One sips in through the eyes the sweet saltiness of their perspiration, the sweat of a hamadryad bounding across jungles filled with poisonous flowers.”
“The white imagination,” Josephine once said, “sure is something when it comes to blacks,” and she was derisive when asked by a French reporter if she preferred black lovers to white ones: “ La peau! Pfftt! Nothing.” But the color of Baker’s own skin—and what it then symbolized for whites on both sides of the Atlantic—was very nearly everything at the start of her career, for better and for worse, and the most compelling parts of Phyllis Rose’s new biographical essay Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time (Double-day, $22.50) examine the strange workings of color that forced Josephine to serve “as a focus for decades of theorizing about race.”
To many Frenchmen, Rose writes, Caker’s tawny, writhing body was the old colonial dream made flesh—primitive, sensuous, abandoned, and, above all, exotic . “Compared with racism, exoticism is merely decorative and superficial. It doesn’t build death camps. It doesn’t exterminate. Exoticism cares mostly for its own amusement and tends to find differences of color amusing where racism finds them threatening. Exoticism is frivolous, hangs out at nightclubs, will pay anything to have the black singer or pianist sit at its table. Racism is like a poor kid who grew up needing someone to hurt. Exoticism grew up rich, and a little bored. The racist is hedged around by dangers, the exoticist by used-up toys.
“If one is to be treated as a thing, one would rather be treated as a rare and pretty thing than as a disgusting or dangerous one. But that is still to be treated as a thing.”
There was nothing remotely exotic about the girlhood Josephine fled for France, and being treated as a thing was nothing new to her. She was born in St. Louis in 1906, the daughter of a vaudeville drummer, who did not stick around long, and a would-be dancer, who blamed the baby’s arrival for driving him away and largely ignored her firstborn in favor of three younger children fathered by a second husband. Josephine wore shoes snipped from sacking, scavenged bits of coal from the railroad yards, and at the age of eight was farmed out to a white woman who forced her to sleep in the cellar with the dog and deliberately scalded the little girl’s hands when she used too much soap for the laundry. Josephine’s mother got her a new job right away, working for a woman whose husband tried to molest her.
It was clear to her early that she could rely on no one, that if she were to survive at all she would have to seize control of her own life. “There is no Santa Claus,” she resolved on her tenth Christmas. “I’m Santa Claus.” The following year she was a horrified witness to a race riot, watching as thousands of black refugees fled their burned-out homes, a searing memory that never left her. To pre-empt ridicule and mask her fear she began making the goofy faces that would one day delight Paris.
“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.
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.