Reading Josephine Baker made me realize I knew less about Josephine Baker than I thought. ‘A groundbreaking dancer’ is a pathetic phrase to go on for a woman who requires 568 pages to put a dent in what she accomplished.
Josephine Baker was the first African American woman to become an international star. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Europe would prove a more tolerant continent – Paris her adoptive home – but wherever Josephine went and saw racism, she always spoke out against it. From starting to tour at age fifteen, she never stopped performing, but took on additional acts. World War II saw her singing for troops pro bono and passing intelligence off as a spy for the French.
Unlike the husbands she’d leave out of boredom, Josephine shared everything she earned with her family. Work was made available for siblings on her estate and she later adopted twelve children from different countries. The Rainbow Tribe was an ideal she believed in, but mostly it was the collected result of years wanting to help children.
The most important aspect of Josephine’s style was her desire to make people laugh. When artist, Catel Muller, draws Josephine as the class clown in school, it’s not a budding star craving an audience. It’s a future comedian. Josephine never grew out of crossing her eyes and making faces. She made them her trademarks. After watching clips of her dancing on YouTube, you appreciate how much Muller’s young Josephine radiates the woman she’ll become, the fundamentals of her performance already in place.
Rendering a life as comprehensive as Josephine Baker’s to any sense of completeness isn’t easy. To aid in their endeavor, Muller and writer, José-Louis Bocquet, use different ways of presenting information to inject more background knowledge. There’s a timeline, a bibliography, and a short essay by Josephine’s adopted son, Jean-Claude Bouillon-Baker (whose counsel gives the project added authority).
The biography section is Josephine Baker‘s crowning achievement. Organized in order of appearance, so readers can reference names as they come across them, it’s a section that’s not personal. There are ex-husbands that don’t get biographies and artists who appear for a scene that do. What the biographies provide is context – a wider understanding of the circles Josephine ran in and the people that crossed her path. Her acquaintances are intimidating in number, but this resource is indispensable for placing Josephine in the larger world she was a part of, with friendships (Bricktop and Miki Sawada come to mind) that could be expounded on much longer.
Ditching frames when Josephine dances, and occasionally using full page prints to fast forward through shows, Muller’s skill as a portraitist is unrivaled. Memorable scenes include Josephine’s speech at the March on Washington, a visit with the husband whose last name she kept, and Josephine’s commentary during a screening of her silent film, “Siren of the Tropics.”
Growing up, Josephine loved hearing her grandmother tell Cinderella and the story becomes a reference point for measuring success. Josephine’s life wasn’t always a fairy tale but she was a bona fide princess.