the sensational josephine baker arrives in paris -- 10/26/18

Today's selection -- from Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. Josephine Baker arrives in Paris and immediately becomes a sensation:

"Josephine Baker ... sailed for France with a party of two dozen other black musicians, singers and dancers in September 1925. ... [Only] nineteen, Josephine Baker, the lithe and sensual mulatto from St. Louis, Missouri, exploded in 1925. Though so young, she was already well known on Broadway as a dancer with an ability to 'make her body do almost anything and to keep her eyes crossed at the same time.' At first, on arriving in Paris, she refused to dance bare-breasted; but when she did she created a sensation. On the stage of the small Théâtre des Champs­-Elysées, where Nijinsky had once so stunned pre-war audiences by his abandoned dancing in The Rite of Spring, 'She made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the splits on the shoulder of a black giant ... She was an unforgettable ebony statue.' After a moment's silence, the audience screamed. Here, recorded Janet Flanner, was 'a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black is beautiful ... she was the established new American star for Europe.'

"What stunned the Parisian audience (apart from the few who judged her obscene) was her extraordinary energy. Every part of her body seemed to fly in a different direction. One critic was awed by 'her springing movements, a gushing stream of rhythm,' while the more sophisticated had brought to mind Rousseau's apotheosis of the Noble Savage. The poet Anna de Noailles saw her as 'a pan­theress with gold claws,' a symbol of the most primitive sensuality. Boulevardiers became accustomed to seeing Josephine and her pet leopard, Chiquita, stalking, side by side, down the Champs-Elysées -- two superb animals out of the same jungle -- and they cheered her. Paris loved her style.

"From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées she moved up to the Folies Bergère, then at its peak of fame, where she electrified audiences by appearing out of the twilight, 'walking backwards on her hands and feet, arms and legs stiff, along the thick limb of a painted jungle tree and down the trunk, like a monkey. A white explorer was sleeping underneath ... ' By the end of 1926 she had achieved a vogue unheard of for a foreign performer in Paris: 'There were Josephine Baker dolls, costumes, perfumes, pomades,' wrote Phyllis Rose (in Jazz Cleopatra); 'women's hair was slicked down like Josephine Baker, and to achieve this look, they could buy a product called "Bakerfix."' Coupled with Picasso's recent 'discovery' of African art, there was a sudden passion for everything black in Paris: 'black orchestras, black fêtes, black balls, exhibitions of black art.'

Josephine Baker and her Cheetah

"What truly stole Parisian hearts, however, was when Josephine took to song.

"The trilling tones come down the years, evoking that frenzied age of brief, elusive pleasure, that short period of illusion called Peace -- the spirit of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Sung in a high-pitched warble, with an unashamedly Churchillian accent, her 'La Petite Tonkinoise' ('C'est moi qui suis sa petite ...') became the anthem by which everyone remembered the Paris of those years. But it was her nostalgic, highly emotive 'J'ai deux amours' ('mon pai-yee et Paree'), proclaim­ing her special bond with the city and sung a thousand times over, that seduced audiences and hard-boiled critics alike.

"Josephine's love-life was as uninhibited and frenetic as her stage perform­ances. She would dance over twelve hours a day, then make love all night; she had a legion of casual lovers, including the unstoppable writer and sexual braggart Georges Simenon. Her curiosity seemed boundless; reputedly she made love to the room-service waiter in the first Paris hotel she stayed at -- to discover what French men were really like in bed. Of Parisian voyeurism she would remark scathingly, 'The white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks!'"



Alistair Horne


Seven Ages of Paris


Vintage Books


Copyright 2002 by Alistair Horne


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