Jazz Cleopatra

In 1925, at age nineteen, Josephine Baker made her Paris debut in a “Danse Sauvage” created to display to full advantage her immediacy and sensuality as a performer. A year later, she was the vogue: Josephine Baker dolls and women with slicked-down hair like hers, using a product called Bakerflex, could be spotted throughout Paris. Along with other expatriate American artists--especially black ones--Baker achieved a recognition in Paris initially denied her in her native country. Born into an impoverished family in St. Louis, she was relegated to the black vaudeville circuit; in Europe, she became an international celebrity, transforming herself from a music-hall oddity into a cosmopolitan cabaret star. Singing in French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Yiddish, she would embody her personal philosophy of world citizenship. Baker took risks not only on stage. In World War II, she did undercover work for the French Resistance, and in the 1950’s, she insisted on a nondiscrimination clause for her appearances in American clubs. She also transformed her country home in France into a combination tourist attraction and model community adopting children of different races to demonstrate the possibility of world brotherhood. This scheme would burden her with debts, and, phoenixlike, she would appear in yet another one of her farewell appearances, nearly as numerous as her lawsuits.

Biographer Phyllis Rose vividly conveys the excitement “La Baker” generated on stage by providing first-hand descriptions--by, for example, Langston Hughes and E.E. Cummings--of her performances. Sixteen pages of photographs further enliven a readable if often glib text. Rose’s attempts at determining what motivated Baker verge on pop psychology. Her analysis of Baker’s place in modern art as well as contemporary social movements, however, distinguishes Rose from most celebrity biographers, who rarely delve much behind scandalous headlines.