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Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe

Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe

Matthew Pratt Guterl
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe
    Book Description:

    Her performing days numbered, Josephine Baker did something outrageous: she transformed her chateau into a theme park whose main attraction was her Rainbow Tribe--12 children from around the globe, adopted as the family of the future. Matthew Pratt Guterl concludes that Baker was a serious activist, determined to make a positive difference.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-36996-2
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Prologue (pp. 1-9)

    She wore a skirt made of bananas.

    In her former lover’s 1927 portrait—the portrait that made the skirt iconic—she seems a slip of a thing, light on her feet, arms held aloft. Her back is to us and her face is turned away, but still a nipple winks at us, a dark spot on what is otherwise presented as a uniformly light brown body. Jubilantly coiled, she is all curves and bent limbs, without a single straight line. A banana skirt rings the very center of her body, with her upper torso and her arms being perfectly balanced...

  4. 1 Too Busy to Die (pp. 10-27)

    Josephine Baker was dead. Or so the rumor went.

    It was 1942, in the midst of the terrible world war, when the news first broke in Harlem. Lingering in exile in Casablanca after the conquest of Paris, and “heart-broken before the Nazi terror,” Baker, the story went, had taken “her last bow on the human stage, ill, disillusioned, and penniless.” No cause of death was revealed, and there were few medical details of any kind. “Death came,” the obituary continued melodramatically, emphasizing the performer’s tragic fall from grace and fame, “as she lay between the tawdry sheets of a charity...

  5. 2 No More Bananas (pp. 28-46)

    In a photo taken forParis Matchin 1951, a very different Josephine Baker appears. She is in a full-length gown, her shoulders bare. A long, layered ponytail cascades behind her. Her back is arched, her face in profile, her chin tilted up, her full body in a regal, balletic pose. She seems on the verge of a twirl or a jump. Here she is La Baker in full postwar costume, restored to greatness, an updated, mature edition of the young girl who earned her fame inla danse sauvage. To accentuate the revision, La Baker’s skirt is decorated with...

  6. 3 Citizen of the World (pp. 47-65)

    By 1951, evenLifemagazine—the conduit for the beloved American middlebrow—agreed: “La Baker Is back.”¹ In a story that sprawled over several pages, the magazine celebrated the performer’s return to Broadway, where she had been “singing love songs in five languages,” switching out costumes frequently. The performance was a kaleidoscope of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Once, and briefly, she invoked the minstrel tradition to get a few laughs. “You make me so happy,” she shouted out, her eyes crossed, her head turned to the sky, her hands grasping the sides of her golden pleated pantaloons. In another skit,...

  7. 4 Southern Muse (pp. 66-85)

    When theAfro-Americancorrespondent James Hicks rolled into Las Vegas, he wasn’t sure what he’d find. Carved out of the desert, the city was a frontier backwater in 1952, but it was growing fast. If the real high rollers still preferred Havana, smaller cities where gambling was also legal, such as Galveston, Texas, had begun to lose ground to the modern oasis in the middle of nowhere. The once sleepy, loosely segregated Las Vegas, Hicks reported, had recently imported a stricter version of Jim Crow alongside a large body of black workers, brought to the arid West from Louisiana to...

  8. 5 Ambitious Assemblages (pp. 86-106)

    In early 1953,Le Mondereported that Baker was on the verge of becoming “the mother of a family of all colors.” “Joséphine Baker,” the headline read, “adopte une famille panachée.” Speaking to the press corps from Monte Carlo, Baker described her new family of adopted children, drawn to France from around the world, but especially from the global South—from Southeast Asia, from North and West Africa, from Latin America. Describing Baker as “an ardent proselyte of the antiracial struggle,” the paper emphasized the political function of the family, noting that the children would be “raised like brothers,” though...

  9. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  10. 6 French Disney (pp. 107-130)

    The language of “show business” is infectious, easy to use and hard to control. It helps to explain something that seems unnatural—not the family itself, but its perversion into a public property by a woman who often seemed far more mercenary than maternal. The various landscapes of Les Milandes were like the carefully constructed scenic backdrops from a Hollywood movie set or the rides of a theme park. Like the rides at Disney World and Disneyland, they established mood and sentiment for whatever performance Baker wanted to script, whether it was a late-night song-and-dance routine with the children gazing...

  11. 7 Mother of a Wounded World (pp. 131-158)

    In the spring of 1964, sixty-year-old Josephine Baker arranged for several appearances at Henry Miller’s Theatre in New York City, part of a larger American tour. “Josephine Baker—the Toast of Paris” featured a wardrobe from Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain, and the House of Lanvin worth a quarter of a million dollars, including one gown made of forty fox pelts—dyed pink, of course, and with pearls sewn into their skins, and worth roughly thirty thousand dollars. Singing into a bejeweled microphone in French, English, Italian, and Yiddish, and wearing an “astonishing array of splendrous raiment and towering headdresses,” she was...

  12. 8 Unraveling Plots (pp. 159-184)

    Looking out over the Mediterranean from her new modernist flat, Baker seemed increasingly like an outlier. Les Milandes had been a perfect example of bootstrapping: a place bought on Josephine’s terms, sited in a location of her choosing, and reimagined to her exacting specifications. Roquebrune, in contrast, was a place of refuge for the Tribe in unhappy exile, its very existence an emphatic skewering of the myth of the self-made Josephine Baker, an emptying of the fairy tale. “Some of the old elegance and murderous chic is gone,” a reporter drolly commented, noting how far Baker had fallen from her...

  13. 9 Rainbow’s End (pp. 185-205)

    The story of Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe ends, as one might expect, with a final burst of energy, an enthusiastic leap into the spotlight one last time, a last commercialization of the self for the good of all. She set out to create a fabulous review of her life, a monument to her enduring magnificence, all for her Parisian fans. And, of course, for her beloved Tribe. It would be a spectacle bigger than any other, more ambitious than any previous performance, with many more gowns and costumes than usual, many more songs and dances, and far more...

  14. Epilogue (pp. 206-216)

    Jean-Claude Baker’s Manhattan restaurant, Chez Josephine, sits on 42nd Street just west of the Port Authority bus terminal, on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen. The building that houses the restaurant used to be a massage parlor—“a sign in this window right here,” Jean-Claude tells me, “used to read, ‘$10 for Complete Satisfaction.’”¹ A perfect reflection of its amiable host, the narrow restaurant with red brick walls is chockablock with Josephine memorabilia. There are paintings and statues and figurines and menu decorations, hints of bananas and feathers in every sight line. At night someone famous might show up and play...

  15. Abbreviations (pp. 217-218)
  16. Notes (pp. 219-240)
  17. Acknowledgments (pp. 241-244)
  18. Index (pp. 245-250)