JOSEPHINE by Josephine & Jo Bouillon Baker


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What a pity that la Baker--the black Venus, ""the girl who put Harlem on the map of Europe""--died before completing this autobiography. Her account of the soar from the family shack in St. Louis to top billing at the Folies Bergère reads like a novel--not 100% believable in spots, but relatively understated and totally entrancing: a skinny, monkey-faced, cafe-au-lait kid with a dubious talent for wiggling and making faces runs away (later stows away) with a traveling show, is relegated to backstage chores (too thin, too light, too dark), but when a chorine drops out, Josephine drops in, steals the show, and is soon featured in Broadway's all-black Shuffle Along and whisked off to race-blind Paris in Revue Nègre. Colette, Cocteau, Pirandello, Simenon, and Le Corbusier go wild over her savage, bananaclad sensuality (at home she wears Peter Pan collars). So do suitors--one suicide, one madman, and jealous lover-manager Count Pepito, who helps her to become soignee and soften her image. All before age 25. The rest of the story--wartime entertaining and spy-harboring, the fight against American racism, the adoption of a dozen multicolored children, the myriad comebacks--is presented in a pastiche: overlapping chunks from Josephine, second husband bandleader Bouillon, and assorted friends and relations. The result is literate and reasonably interesting, but the sustained voice and vision are missed, especially in Josephine's bankrupt, hopeless struggle to save Les Milandes, her chateau/amusement-park/model interracial village. Was Baker, as Bouillon says, ""too pure and childlike for our times?"" With the melange of viewpoints here, one can't really tell--but one can marvel at the restless, reaching life of this self-taught woman of the world.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1977
Publisher: Harper & Row