Think of Paris in the ’20s, and Josephine Baker clad in a belt of bananas and a few beads leaps to the mind’s eye: an exotic image of the legendary Josephine, who somehow managed to be not only a star of stage, screen and music hall, but also the recipient of the Croix de Guerre for her work in the French Resistance. What else do we know of her? Perhaps that she was as kind and talented as she was bad-tempered and ambitious; and that she was the adoptive mother of the “Rainbow Tribe,” a multiracial group of abandoned children that she amassed after the war.
Fortunately, one of her adopted offspring has filled in all the gaps by penning what is undoubtedly the definitive biography of his mother. Jean-Claude Baker (real name: Tronville) was unofficially adopted by Josephine Baker when he was 14 and working as a bellhop in a Paris hotel. When she asked him to tell her about his life, he was amazed: as a bastard child who had just run away from Dijon, he was not accustomed to people being interested in him. Their relationship lasted nearly two decades, during which time she either smothered him or rejected him. One moment he was her son, the next her servant. However, if you are expecting “Maman Dearest,” forget it. This is a labor of love: the result of 20 years of research, undertaken after her death in 1975, “because I loved her, hated her and wanted desperately to understand her.”
Mr. Baker was in Paris in November, promoting the French translation of his book (originally written in English with the assistance of Chris Chase), and I asked him how he felt when he finally finished the work that resulted from his vast research: “Empty. I wanted to cry and I felt that in some way I had betrayed the people in the book by telling the very personal stories which they had shared with me. There was great sadness in knowing the search was almost over.” Almost? Despite his remarkable work as historian and detective he doesn’t feel that one can wholly “understand” someone simply by digging into the past.
Despite five volumes of “autobiography” and countless biographies that have appeared since her death, the truth about Josephine Baker has thus far escaped us, largely because the subject was a compulsive liar, not in the least averse to inventing a new life or marital status whenever it suited her. Reading “The Hungry Heart,” one is aware of a battle of wits between mother (piling falsehood upon fable) and son (checking and double checking each detail). The more outrageous lies are often greeted with asides such as “Good work, mother,” but Jean-Claude Baker perseveres and emerges the victor.
The facts seem to be the following: Josephine Baker was born Freda J. McDonald in St. Louis in 1906. Her mother was a sometime laundress named Carrie McDonald, the father’s name appears as “Edw.” on the birth certificate and it is reasonable to assume that he was white. The future star scrubbed floors for pennies, avoided school and escaped to the theater whenever she could. By the age of 11 she was playing the trombone with a family of musicians. Two years later she was married, only to leave her husband at the ripe old age of 14 in order to join a vaudeville troupe.
By 1920 she had worked her way into Broadway musicals and Harlem nightclubs. She had also picked up a second husband while neglecting to divorce the first. Five years later she was a name to be reckoned with and on her way to Paris with “La Revue Nègre”; and the rest, as they say, is history.
One critic at the time wrote: “Is this a man? Is this a woman? Is she ravishing? Is she horrible? Is she black? Is she white?” The French found her très africaine and a child of nature, but Mr. Baker points out: “They were mistaken. Josephine was not a natural child, she was a complicated, driven 19-year-old. She herself had created that ‘magnificent dark body’ out of her will and her need to be noticed.” Just as she created the body, she invented the persona to go with it.
Needless to say, neither her career nor her tumultuous personal life ended there, and her adopted son lovingly documents the following 50 years of triumphs and disasters. “Josephine: The Hungry Heart” is more than just the biography of a fascinating woman, it is also a social history of our century, with its staggering injustices and unique possibilities.
When I asked Jean-Claude Baker if he thought Josephine would have been as successful had she not come to Paris in those long-forgotten days when the city was renowned for its absence of racism, he replied: “You know, Josephine was a hustler. She would have made it anywhere.”