Thursday, August 21, 2014
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
To begin when writing about Josephine, there would seem to be two triumphs from which to choose; first and last, beginning and end. Matthew Pratt Guterl, the author of the new book, Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe chose the former, and I'll get to that in a minute, but he might as easily have started at the end, so I will.
April 12th, aged 68, the great entertainer has returned to Paris in a musical review of her life and career, Joséphine à Bobino, 1975. The show is a hit, indeed, a triumph. From Guterl's book: "After two straight nights of Josephine (the show ran two and a half hours), Baker was exhausted. (Journalist Jacqueline) Cartier found her staring into the mirror at one point, assessing a face that was no longer young. Determinedly, Baker worked out the kinks in her hair, donned a simple black wig and sunglasses, and -- 'the picture of casual elegance' -- walked across the street from the Bobino to a little cafe, where she ordered a plate of spaghetti and a glass of beer, a 'favorite' meal. Then she adjourned to her hotel room, where she donned a flowered robe, opened up the early reviews of Josephine, and lay in bed, enjoying the universal adoration in black-and-white print. At some point -- lying there just like that, surrounded by the voice of her public -- she slipped into a coma. She'd had a massive cerebral hemorrhage." Hours later, she was dead. A documentary I watched once quoted a friend of Josephine's to the effect that whatever the medical diagnosis, he believed that she had in fact, " died of joy."
That's one way to start the story anyway, at the end. That's how the documentary I watched did it; Josephine's all-but-state funeral, the flower covered hearse winding it's way slowly through the streets of Paris, as Guterl puts it, "more like a parade" than a funeral. But this new book is not yet another sentimental star-biography. No, indeed. This is a much more serious, and important book. Instead, the author, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, starts his Prologue back at the beginning, or better say, the moment Freda Josephine McDonald, becomes the iconic Josephine Baker:
"She wore a skirt made of bananas."
And, there we are; at the beginning. In barest outline, Baker's life reads like movie, or a musical review, come to that. She was born into poverty in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, and abandoned by her father at birth. Out of school, homeless on the street, and married by the time she was thirteen, as improbable as it sounds, at 19, she would conquer Paris. Dancing in that famous costume in "La Revue Nègre" on October 2, 1925, she was a sensation; the "inventor" of the Charleston, the "Bronze Venus," etc. She would go on to become an international star, and the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934).
In the more usual tellings, Josephine Baker's biography hangs between those two triumphs, with her decorated work in the French Resistance the high point between. (After the war, she received Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. That would be remarkable in any life.)
It makes for a good story, all this, genuinely inspiring. As an admittedly rather casual fan of the lady -- read a biography or two, watched a couple of her films, own a boxed set of the recordings -- I will admit to a sentimental fondness for both the performer and the myth. But, as with any out-sized personality, the reality, both of Baker's biography and her career, was of course considerably less straight-forward than what is conjured for me when I listen to contentedly again to "J'ai deux amours".
Professor Guterl's new book is neither the standard hagiography nor a critical biography as such. Instead, by focusing on one of the most difficult and least understood episodes in Baker's life, the author does the great service to his subject of not only trying to get at the truth of her life, but also -- a very rare tribute indeed -- taking the woman seriously.
In 1947, Josephine Baker bought the castle she'd been renting in the Dordogne, Château des Milandes. In the next decade, she would populate it with a dozen adopted children from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, the "Rainbow Tribe." It was, by any measure a unique, and very public social experiment. At a time of growing racial tension in Baker's country of origin, indeed, at the dawn of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the most famous black woman in the world basically proposed a "French Disneyland" where the public and the press were encouraged to come and see this new family at work and play. She would prove a point -- and charge a fee -- to see an enchanted castle where "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." Nothing about this enterprise, or this family, proved to be as simple as that. As Guterl puts it, Château des Milandes became in fact something of "an intimate domestic imaginary where routine practice carried extraordinary weight, where a family dinner was a media spectacle, and where a little act performed together was a global miracle."
In his new book -- in my reading, for the first time -- what Professor Guterl has done is to examine this part of Baker's life with a scholarly attention to not just the facts, not just the myth, but also to the consequences, for Baker, her children, and the wider culture she, at least in part, sought to change by her example. As the author points out, too often what we know of Baker's life, and in particular at this period, comes from her own invention, from contemporary publicity, and from the self-serving memoirs of ex-husbands and various hangers-on. Sorting through all this to the truth underneath proves to be not just a matter of finding the facts at the bottom of the trunk, as it were, but also, in Guterl's reading, sitting with what he's discovered, and what it may mean.
This is the most thoughtful, and challenging book I've ever read or am likely to read now about La grande Joséphine, her place in history, in the Civil Rights Movement, in our memory and in the memories of her children. It is not an untroubled reflection. Nonetheless, I am certainly glad of the author's extraordinary effort. I'm glad I read it. It is a remarkable book, on a difficult subject, and about damned time.
On dit qu'au-delà des mers,
Là-bas sous le ciel clair,
Il existe une cité, au séjour enchanté.
Et sous les grands arbres noirs,
Vers elle s'en va tout mon espoir.
J'ai deux amours
Mon pays et Paris.
Par eux toujours,
Mon coeur est ravi...
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
"And indeed there reigned between his various parts great harmony and concord, and it could be truly said that his face was worthy of his body, and vice versa. And if I could have seen his arse, I do not doubt I should have found it on par with the whole."
From Malloy, page 144, this ed.
Monday, August 18, 2014
From The Anti-Social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole, by John Mortimer
"'I don't know what Mr. Rumpole is suggesting.' This interruption came from the prosecutor.
'Then sit quietly and you'll find out.'"
From Chapter 22