The Real-Life Josephine Baker: What the Movie Didn't Tell You. despite Vivid Performances, No Medium Has Captured the Essence of Legendary Star's Life

By Whitaker, Charles | Ebony, June 1991 | Go to article overview

The Real-Life Josephine Baker: What the Movie Didn't Tell You. despite Vivid Performances, No Medium Has Captured the Essence of Legendary Star's Life


Whitaker, Charles, Ebony


The Real-Life JOSEPHINE BAKER: What The Movie Didn't Tell You

Despite vivid performances, no medium has captured the essence of legendary star's life

DUKE Ellington raved about her comely looks and charismatic showmanship.

Ernest Hemingway called her "the most beautiful woman there is, there ever was, or ever will be."

Langston Hughes collected her pictures, postcards, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia with a schoolboy's fanatic devotion.

Noted European artists and intellectuals such as Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Luigi Pirandello trailed her about Paris like lovesick puppies.

The object of this adulation was an enigmatic international personality who defied the bounds and barriers with which society attempted to define and contain her.

Before Michael or Janet or Prince, before Whoopi or Whitney or Diana, even before Dorothy or Sidney or Lena, there was Josephine Baker--larger-than-life, brighter than the sun, a star whose brilliance still mesmerizes those who behold it in vintage film clips or restored videos or who hear of her fabulous and turbulent life and career.

Even today, 16 years after her death at age 69, Josephine Baker still casts a magical spell over two continents as is evident by the continued exploration of her legend in books, documentaries and, most recently, the HBO movie, The Josephine Baker Story.

Although actress Lynn Whitfield offered an affecting and insightful portrayal of Baker in the HBO movie, no medium has sufficiently captured the essence of her mystique or fully explained the world's fascination with the expatriate Black American singer/dancer who through will, talent and constant reinvention grew to become the most successful music hall performer ever to take the stage.

What seems to confound biographers and movie producers alike is the task of finding a tidy and complete way to present the many layers of Josephine Baker's life and persona. For she was, according to many who knew her, a complex woman whose life defies easy categorizing.

Baker herself believed that telling her story was too immense a task for any one artist. In the early 1960s, she unsuccessfully attempted to engage Langston Hughes and James Baldwin as collaborators on the fourth installment of her autobiography (her first autobiography was written when she was just 21 and the new rage of Paris). "Three Negroes writing about a Negro woman's life," was how she envisioned the three-volume project. "There will be three books because my life is so full."

To many, such a statement may have the ring of unabashed egotism, but a cursory examination of Baker's life bears her out:

Twice married by the time she was 18, the self-taught dancer from St. Louis won rave reviews as a cross-eyed chorus girl in two Broadway shows (Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies) by the Black songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.

Spirited off to Paris at age 19, her sensual, topless dancing made her the personification of the freedom and exuberance of le jazz hot, and she became the international standard bearer of glamor and beauty, copied by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth. After the German invasion of France in 1940, she joined the resistance movement and relayed underground intelligence to the Allies. Later, she challenged racism in the U.S., and attempted to teach the world the meaning of brotherhood by adopting 12 orphans of different races and nationalities. In between, there were two more marriages, countless affairs, financial woes and showbiz comeback after showbiz comeback.

As Jean-Claude Baker, the poor young man whom the star informally "adopted" as a teenager and reared along with the 12 other members of her "rainbow tribe," has said: "My mother lived more in one day than most people do in an entire lifetime."

Yet what emerges in many treatments of Baker's life is a shallow mix of myth, hyperbole and pop psychology that fails to convincingly convey her allure as a performer or her strength as an individual with an indomitable and generous spirit. …

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