The story of Josephine Baker takes us on a fascinating tour of 20th-century race relations on both sides of the Atlantic, yet it leads to no conclusion, and black girls in search of a role-model tend to look elsewhere.
Part of her appeal is her startlingly unique appearance. Simply nobody has ever looked or acted like her. She fits no black stereotype. Nor does she look like any recognisable strain of Afro-American. I'd always heard she was half-white, but it seems that her paternity is unknown, and her contradictory claims on the subject don't do much to enlighten us. (We are tempted to imagine quite an exotic mix.) Her origins in sharply-segregated St. Louis, where she is said to have witnessed a lynching, do not seem to have left her embittered. Perhaps she had too much to give. There is a special innocence about that smile, and when she performs her cross-eyed gag, we are lifted into a strange pixie-world, all its own.
At any rate, Paris is where she suddenly fitted-in, in the time of the young Hemingway (who adored her), and she did much to spice that creative city, with its new American colony. Naked except for a belt of bananas, she thrilled audiences with her supple limbs that seemed to be made of rubber. Graphic artists could see great possibilities in her colour, and drew posters that are now collectors' items.
But not everyone was so enchanted, especially Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett, the uncrowned king and queen of Paris, who strongly resented the competition. She called Chevalier 'a great entertainer, a small person', and we are treated to a longish clip of him denying charges of wartime collaboration. As this is slightly off-topic, we wonder if it might be an oblique hint that Baker's own wartime record may not have been quite as loyal as it is painted.
For behind the jollity, there are dark shadows in Baker's life. Those four marriages, and myriad other rumoured relationships, do not suggest inner harmony. Unable to give birth, following a miscarriage, she sets out to adopt a polyglot 'rainbow' of eleven children in a grandiose castle in the south of France, but due to her profligate spending, she has to sell-up. Watching her sitting on the doorstep, refusing to leave, we are surely looking at a tortured soul.
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