A woman of infinite variety

Monday Book Reviews

May 20, 1991|By Lawrence Freeny

JAZZ CLEOPATRA: JOSEPHINE BAKER IN HER TIME. By Phyllis Rose. Vintage paperback. 321 pages. $12.95.

ESSENTIAL facets of the public and private life of Josephine Baker, the American-born dancer who won acclaim in France, are scattered and re-assembled like a jigsaw puzzle in Phyllis Rose's "Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time."

Baker's name appeared on marquees and in entertainment gossip and general news from the 1920s until her final performance in Paris the night before she died in 1975. She was given a state funeral that was nationally televised.

Her career was just depicted in "The Josephine Baker Story," starring Lynn Whitfield, on HBO. Another version is planned by the Turner network, with Diana Ross; and a movie by Dolly Parton's Sandollar company is in the works.

Baker resided in France most of her long working life, and the American public caught fleeting glimpses: a glamorous figure with a magnificent chateau; word of the "Rainbow Tribe," her term for the 12 multiracial children she adopted as infants; and occasional returns to Broadway.

Since Baker's often-contradictory accounts of herself were baffling, Phyllis Rose's carefully researched biography delves deeply to define the core of a complex subject.

Rose, who previously wrote "Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf" and "Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages," spent five years in producing "Jazz Cleopatra." Her zeal has produced a fascinating depiction of both a fabled person and a frenetic age.

Baker, born in 1906 in a black section of St. Louis, escaped her family's bug-infested shack at age 13 to sing and dance with a troupe called the Jones Family Band.

After touring the black vaudeville circuit in the South with another group, the Dixie Steppers, she ventured to New York and became a protege of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, winning a chorus line spot in their Broadway productions, "Shuffle Along," 1922, and "The Chocolate Dandies," 1924. She also appeared in New York shows headlined by the jazz singers Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith.

Baker was 19 when in 1925 her Parisian debut in "Revue Negre," part of a variety show, bestowed immediate fame. French reviews were ecstatic. The performance was noted in the "Letters from Paris" report in the New Yorker. A Russian dancer, Mura Dehn, said she walked onstage with "her heinie moving so fast behind her like a little hummingbird." She clowned, crossed her eyes and twirled like a human top, then charmed with grace and beauty, witnesses agreed. "Her dancing was a series of unexpected changes, and unexpected changes are the essence jazz," says Rose.

Rose's painstaking research and reasoned interpretation of Baker the disciplined at odds with Baker the free spirit make clear that the public star often blended fact with fantasy to

invent parts of her own life story.

There were four marriages and many lovers including a young journalist, Georges Simenon, before his fame as a prolific novelist and creator of the fictional Inspector Maigret. At age 20 Baker was making money and spending it freely. Though lacking business sense, she was practical in recognizing her fragile assets, saying: "A violinist had his violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself . . ."

She found an elegant, witty Italian known to nightclubbers as Pepito, or "The Count." He became her invaluable business manager and later her husband. Rose sums up Baker's inventiveness: "When Pepito entered her life, her habit of making up her life became even more exaggerated. She tried on different parts as though they were dresses, to see which suited her . . ."

There was far more to Baker than a self-absorbed dancer whose exuberant love life raised eyebrows. Having acquired French citizenship through marriage to Jean Lyon in 1937, she became a heroine in World War II by joining the French resistance and actively spying, writing messages on her sheet music in invisible ink. While on tours she was accompanied by a secret agent, identified as her secretary, who sent the data to Charles de Gaulle in London.

Years later, Baker drew criticism from some civil rights activists in the United States, who said she was more French than American and too little involved in the struggle for racial equality. But she flew from Paris when invited to join other noted entertainers at the march on Washington in August 1963.

Although Baker was unable to have children, her sexuality and loving nature were maternally directed when she and her fourth husband, the French band leader Jo Bouillon, began assembling the Rainbow Tribe. The first child was adopted in Japan when they toured there in 1954. Thereafter, Rose notes, Baker "brought back children from her travels as one might bring back souvenirs."

In the finale -- a sort of appreciation that follows the book's eight chapters and several photographs -- Rose remarks that Baker was "Venus in a black body with an irresistible smile. She was Cleopatra, another embodiment of that contrary character of whom Shakespeare wrote . . ." Then, quoting from "Antony and Cleopatra": "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."

Lawrence Freeny writes from Baltimore.

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