The Incredible Josephine Baker, Warts And All

After reading Josephine: The Hungry Heart yesterday, all I could do was shake my head.  The five hundred page biography by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase brought Josephine Baker to life in such a way that I felt as if I watched her transform before my eyes from a gangly black St. Louis teenaged misfit into a vivacious French speaking chanteuse who stole the spotlight whenever she was on stage.  

There is a picture of Josephine Baker in our basement that depicts her in her famous banana costume. This, and the fact that she adopted a dozen children from around the world called the Rainbow Tribe to live in a big house in France were pretty much all I knew about the legendary entertainer before reading this book.

If you are looking for the historical record of Ms. Baker’s life, this isn’t the book for you.  This is a story told through the many different voices of the countless people whose lives crossed paths with the dancing sensation, with all the attendant inconsistencies and embellishments that often varnish old memories and recollections. But it is these same voices which give the narrative a vitality most biographies seem to lack. The most compelling aspect of this treatment of Baker’s life was the way it refused to shy away from the negative facets of her persona, dealing with them as fully as it did with her numerous professional triumphs.

Author Jean Claude Baker, in his own way, is as obsessive and self absorbed as his famous subject. Josephine adopted 12 children – the 13th, Jean Claude, adopted her when he was an adult, taking her name and attaching himself to her side as a confidante and manager when she was old, short of cash, and struggling to get bookings.

The hustle, the drive, the need to be talked about and fawned over – none of this would have mattered without the body Josephine Baker possessed. The irony of quel cul elle a! – “what an ass!”- at a time when women the world over were fighting for gender equality was not lost on me, but Ms. Baker and contemporaries seemed to have so much fun during her heyday that in the end, it didn’t matter.        

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