Review: Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time by Phyllis Rose Print E-mail

j_baker(San Diego Union-Tribune December 22, 1989)

Picasso of the Stage

Singer, dancer, comedian, actor, expatriate, heroine of the French Resistance, civil-rights worker, mother to a dozen adopted children, la belle dame of the Parisian stage for over five decades: Josephine Baker had nearly everything in Europe that she could never have had in the United States. Baker, an African-American, was one of the lucky ones.

Living fifty of her seventy years in France, thereby escaping the racism of her St. Louis upbringing, she was the darling of an adoring music-hall public which never tired of her provocative performances. She was as famous as Chevalier, as patriotic as de Gaulle, as sentimental as Piaf and, at death, as lionized as Napoleon.

To reveal why Baker's star shines in such a constellation, biographer Rose (her previous work includes a life of Virginia Woolf) has fashioned her ode to the era—continental culture between the wars—as well as to the woman. "In Her Time" reads the subtitle.

There is something troubling about this need to make people into symbols of their age.

Rose overstates her point—that Baker was forged by a guilt-ridden and dying imperial Europe: Unable to repress its secret lust for black women, the decadent society does its penance with Baker, exalting her to a station on the cross of beauty. Such analysis, although deftly organized and saturated with lore, explores little of Baker's inner life, the woman who performed not to represent someone, but to be herself.

By the time we finish Rose's tribute, I'm not sure we know Baker as well as we know her time. Baker got her start as a chorus girl in the all-black cast of Sissle and Blake's 1921 jazz-dancing musical hit "Shuffle Along."

With her dancing and comedic talents, she quickly became a headliner: "Onstage . . . she burst into frenetic action. She seemed to move every part of her body in a different direction at once. She clowned outrageously, unable to stop herself. She crossed her eyes. Her feet tripped over each other while the other girls were kicking neatly in step . . . (The dancers) had a simple term for what she was doing: scene stealing. But audiences loved her."

In 1925, secure with Broadway accolades and only nineteen, she sailed to Europe and began her reign of the Parisian night.

There she starred in the Revue Negre—if not exactly a racist show, certainly a colonialist one.

As part of the Folies-Bergere she became "the native girl, clad in a skirt of fake bananas, who climbs down the limb of a tree and into the life of the white explorer as he lies dreaming under his mosquito net." She would then dance an original Charleston, in which she celebrated her rear end.

Baker was never abashed about showing off her proportions, although she once said "there are rear ends so stupid, so pretentious, so insignificant that they're good only for sitting on." Emphasizing the derriere in dance was not European, but African—flat-footed, ecstatic, the body more like fire than glass.

And in modernist Paris where Picasso, Stravinksy and Cocteau had already deified the primitive sensibility in art and music, Baker embodied it on the stage.

She was an anachronism, part fantasy but often an available part of the Paris streets, where one could find her out walking, eager to meet her fans. The next season Baker stoked the French imagination further by appearing nude, at first hiding behind only a pink flamingo feather.

Scandal gave way to long lines and huge profits, and in the '30s and '40s demand for her shows spread worldwide. Except in the U.S. It was only after her derring-do in the French Resistance during WWII that her celebrity became legitimate back home—and further renown came sparingly once she combined exotic spectacle with civil-rights activisim. There were hardships.

Marriage was particularly difficult; she had to be in charge of everything, dominating her several husbands and her immediate family.

But she let her children (all twelve adopted from different nationalities) grow free from undue control, a value she reflected on stage—witty, gracious, unpredictable, capable of warming the coldest hearts. "Jazz Cleopatra" is impressive not so much for its warmth but for its analysis.

"(Baker's) whole life was a jazz improvisation, turning itself inside out every few years . . . . Whether we call it her black identity or her American identity or, metaphorically, as in the title of this book, jazz, something beneath the French superstructure formed the core of a self that endured."