"Jazz Cleopatra" was the name given by Phyllis Rose to her 1989 biography of Josephine Baker. The title was a little misleading: Baker's association with jazz as we generally understand the term was all but nonexistent.
Nevertheless, when Baker joined "Shuffle Along" in the summer of 1922 (it had concluded a 14-month run in New York and was about to go on the road), the show was said to feature "jazz dancing," and Baker, all of 16 at the time, already was a superb performer.
Eubie Blake, who with Noble Sissle wrote the score for the show (it produced such hits as "I'm Just Wild About Harry"), once told me: "She was spectacular. There were routines worked out for her, but she would forget them and improvise wild steps of her own, some of which were hilariously funny. She had the audience screaming and yelling."
When the show reached St. Louis, Baker went home to see her mother, and reportedly was horrified at the filth she now realized had been her background. She didn't see her family again for 14 years.
In the chorus of "Shuffle Along" she had made $30 a week; in her next show, "Chocolate Dandies," she was one of the highest-paid artists at $125 a week. After working for a while at the Plantation, a club at 50th Street and Broadway featuring an elaborate black revue, Baker was offered a chance to play in a show in Paris.
The troupe sailed Sept. 2, 1925, on the Berengaria. Josephine Baker at 19 was free from the racism she had been unable to escape at home; soon she was on top of a world in which she had too long inhabited the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Although the ads for "La Revue Negre" showed grotesque stereotypes of black men, Josephine Baker was generally treated with deference. True, she was partly a curiousity to Frenchmen who had no contact with blacks, but before long she had transcended the limitations and found herself the toast of an entire country. Her banana skirt in the Folies Bergere was scandalous and savage to some, sensual and seductive to many.
Baker's romances and marriages, her adoption of a large interracial family of children, her every move made news. She was the first black artist to become a world-class show business figure by moving to Europe. She mingled with other expatriates like Bricktop and the poet Langston Hughes; she studied French, partly by reading her press clippings.
Exactly what was Baker's contribution to the arts? Basically she was an instinctively brilliant entertainer, as I observed on first seeing her in Paris in the late 1940s. Her stage presence and command of the audience were spellbinding.
Baker, though never primarily a singer, recorded off and on. Coincidentally, a lavish two-CD set covering 50 songs she recorded between 1926 and 1936, with an illustrated booklet, has just been issued on Elysee Records DJZ-2-614.
She came back to the States several times, with little success in 1936 and 1948, but in 1951 she was well-received in New York, Chicago and Boston theaters, making up to $11,000 a week. On May 20, 1951, I saw her at Harlem's Golden Gate Ballroom, where the NAACP was honoring her with a "Josephine Baker Day" testimonial.
Her last chance at enduring success back home was ruined through an incident that year at the Stork Club. The owner, Sherman Billingsley, was notoriously hostile to black patrons. When Baker visited there and complained of being mistreated, she became the object of violent attacks by Walter Winchell, a powerful gossip columnist who was a close friend of Billingsley. Winchell's incessant denigration of Baker (about whom he had previously written enthusiastically) had a devastating effect: Her U.S. bookings were canceled, her hopes for an American movie career destroyed.
The last time I saw Baker she was at the 1974 unveiling of a bust of Louis Armstrong in Nice. Baker, who had had been asked by her friend Princess Grace to star in a gala for the Monacan Red Cross, was at the Nice Jazz Festival to see the princess perform the ceremony. She had only a year to live, but at 68 she was almost as imposing a symbol of glamour as when she had first conquered Paris almost half a century earlier.
She was a brave woman, as firm in her opposition to fascism during World War II (she was awarded the Legion d'Honneur) as in her flouting of Jim Crow at home. In America she made a recurring issue of breaking down color lines in night clubs and restaurants, but in France such problems never presented themselves.
Onstage, she was a figure of unique stature; offstage, she was a fighter for just causes. Ironically, the Walter Winchells and Sherman Billingsleys of the 1950s are long gone and forgotten, but the Josephine Baker legend lives on.