"Those who have experienced Paris have advantage over those who have not. We are the ones who have glimpsed a little bit of heaven, down here on earth." - Deirdre Kelly

Thursday, December 10, 2009

La Grand Diva Magnifique ~ Josephine Baker

"I was not naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on." Is this statement more than a bit naughty on it's face? Yes. But when you look a bit deeper, let the sentiment shimmy around in your psyche. It's still scandalous to be sure - but it is also insightful, provocative and quite radical in a diva-feminist sort of way. It's also my favorite quote, proudly uttered by mon icone ultime de Paris - Josephine Baker.

It comes as no surprise to me that Paris and Ms. Baker found each other and fell madly in love. In many ways the two - the city and the woman - were/are eerily similar. They are a study in contradictions: simple &; elaborate, humble &; vain, tragic & triumphant, plebeian &; royal, valiant &; fragile. Yes, it's no surprise that not only did Paris fall madly in love with her, all of France did. So much so that, when she petitioned, France readily made her a citizen in 1937.

She is known by many names: the Bronze Venus, Black Pearl, Creole Goddess, and La Baker. Josephine Baker's life was so fabulous, so tragic, so outrageous, so...DIVA that no fictional writer could have composed such a tale from a fertile imagination. And it's all true.

Born 3 June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, La Baker was living in the streets by the age of 12, where by day she worked as a street-corner dancer; by night she scavenged for food in garbage cans and slept in cardboard shelters. By 15, La Baker was working as a dancer in the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville review. Soon thereafter (2 October 1925), La Baker opened in Paris at the Theatre du Champs-Elysees, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing, practically in the nude. She soon became the most successful American entertainer in France.

She shimmied, shook, and sang her way into the hearts and minds of all Parisians and became the muse for the legendary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors of her time, including: Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. La Baker was close/personal friends with the likes of Charles de Gaulle, Princess Grace, the Pasha of Marrakesh, and Eygpt's King Farouk.

The Bronze Venus was the 1st African American woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1st African American woman to integrate an American concert hall, and the 1st African American woman to become a world famous entertainer. Still, the Creole Goddess was not merely an 'entertainer.' She was a tenacious and fierce warrior for good.

During World War II, Ms. Baker volunteered to spy for her adopted country. She was an "Honorable Corresspondent" - reporting any important 'gossip' she heard at cafe society parties, frequented by Italian facsists, German national socialists, Spanish nationalists, as well as members of the French elite (with and without ties to the fascism that was spreading across the continent).

La Baker sent Christmas presents and 'care packages' to French soldiers. When the Germans invaded France, she fled to her home in the south of France (Chateau des Milandes) where she secreted Belgian refugees and members of the French Resistance (including Charles de Gaulle).

Using her connection of friends in high places, La Baker obtained visas and passports to get people out of France. She further assisted the French Resistance by smuggling secrets written in invisible ink in her sheet music, and pinned notes with information inside her underwear. Later, she performed at the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration/death camp for the inmates who were to frail to be moved.

On the American front, La Baker was on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. She stood at the side of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington (1963). She was the only woman to speak at the podium. Upon Reverend King's assasination, his widow (Dr. Coretta Scott-King) asked Ms. Baker to take her fallen husband's place. After careful consideration, Ms. Baker declined.

Sadly, the United States was unwilling to acknowledge this remarkable amazing woman, but the French had no such difficulty. Josephine Baker was the 1st American born woman to receive the French military honors the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de al Resistance; and she was made Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by then General Charles de Gaulle. Yet through it all, the Bronze Goddess battled heartbreak, long bouts of sickness and poverty, and the racism of her native country.

La Grand Diva Magnifique died of a cerebral hemorrhage 12 April 1975, at the age of 68. 20,000 people attended her funeral, it was broadcast on French national television, and traffic and life in Paris on that day literally came to a complete standstill.

I was first introduced to La Baker nearly 35 years ago by my mother. Mom had a collection of Gramophone 78rp records and one of them was a recording of the Josephine Baker hit "J'ai Deux Amours" (1931). Thank goodness for my mamma, because the world had not yet re-'discovered' the Black Pearl and the internet did not yet exist. My mother not only introduced me to La Baker's music, she told me about her life. From that moment on I was entranced and became a life-long fan.

This girlhood discovery was one of my first fledgling connections to Paris. I was eager to learn about and visit this magical place that had not only recognized La Baker's Black-Sistah-Divatude but reveled in it and wanted to claim her as their own. While her life in Paris was not always easy or glamorous, and was downright dangerous at times, she was excepted, loved, and revered. And her beautiful bronze skin was not only not a detriment, but a boon - something to be celebrated. Josephine Baker, besides my mother, was one of my first concrete assurances that Black truly was, truly is, beautiful - magnifique!

Josephine Baker didn't give a flying banana peel about stereotypes, limitations, or constricting expectations. At the age of 12, she determined that she was the arbiter of her destiny. One could either come along or get the hell out of the way. La Baker was not solely content to make a way out of no way - which she did. Josephine Baker carved out a whole new, distinct, and unique path for herself. And she did it in high-heels, red lipstick, feathers, and little else. She embraced and exploited her sexuality (on her terms) and literally changed the world in the process - a lipstick feminist to be sure.

"I was not naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on" - has a whole new meaning now, eh?

I've found this beautiful hommage to Josephine Baker - Enjoy...

Vivre! Rire! Aimer!


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