“People who are in show business should never have children,” insists Jean-Claude Baker. “Their first love is the applause and their public.”
Baker is not recalling a passage from the now famous biography, Mommie Dearest, chronicling the relationship between actress Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter, Christina, but rather his own relationship with his “adopted” mother, the pioneering African-American performer Josephine Baker, who left the segregated world of America to become a phenom in the cabarets of Europe in the 1920s.
“I was 14 years old,” he recalls, working as a bellhop at a Paris hotel when he met the aging actress for the first time in 1957. The two immediately established a rapport.
“There’s a magic vibe between two human people,” he explains in a thick French accent. “We were both traumatized—traumatized children—and spoke the same language.”
Baker was born a “poor, colored girl,” as Jean-Claude describes her, the victim of a difficult childhood, and he was forced to face the stigma of his “illegitimate” birth, the result of an adulterous affair during World War II.
Baker escaped to Europe, where her race and talents made her the toast of the aristocracy and intelligentsia and he scraped by until the aging diva took him in.
“She was a diva. She was famous and slept with (Pablo) Picasso and many famous kings and queens of Europe, but then she started adopting children at the age of 50…she used to call me the 13th of her 12 adopted children,” he says.
And her children, who accompanied her on her travels, received quite an education as a result.
“There is no school, no university to give you such an education. But, when you are older and your sex appeal is gone, it’s difficult to cope with that. Marilyn Monroe was very lucky to be remembered in her prime,” Jean-Claude says, attributing her personality to two factors. “She was a Gemini with two personalities: Josephine, the aging star, the legend, the first black sex symbol. But, as an older mother, she was very strict. Of course, I was the only one to see both sides of Josephine.”
The relationship became even more complicated as Jean-Claude accepted his homosexuality. Coming out was anything but an easy experience, despite his mother’s work in show business with many homosexuals.
He remembers one instance when the entertainer snapped at one of his adoptive brothers, Louis, a “gorgeous black man from Colombia,” who selected a colorful shirt for a nighttime outing during the late 1960s.
“I don’t want you to wear a flower shirt. That is what homosexuals wear.’ I said to her, ‘But, all of your friends are homosexuals’,” he says to no avail. “She was impossible.”
Later when he did come out and had met a lover while the family was performing in Detroit, she boasted to all the members of the company, “Look what good taste her son has.”
The biggest irony was that Baker herself was bisexual.
“She always said that at a certain age, a woman should not have sex with a man anymore,” says Jean-Claude, “I didn’t know she was gay (at the time), but she opened the door.”
At the time, it was very common for women in the theater, particularly in Europe, to engage in sexual and emotional relationships he calls “lady lovers” friendships.
His own experiences bring a unique perspective to the fight by gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children. She was ahead of her time, he insists, but wonders if she were to have another child if she would not secretly wish for it to be straight to avoid the “trouble” gays and lesbians face growing up in an intolerant society.
After many years performing with his mother, acting and modeling, Jean-Claude finally settled in New York City, with the blessings of his mother. After work as a singer and the successful production of two-time Ace Awards for a French language cable television show, Baker opened Chez Josephine, a popular theater district restaurant that honors his mother’s legacy.
Over the years, he has supported the careers of many young performers, including Harry Connick, Jr., who played piano there for two years, and Sopranos actor Michael Imperioli. His dear friend Angela Lansbury threw a party for the cast of her latest production, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the restaurant, and opera star Jessye Norman is a regular. He works there with Josephine’s third adoptive son, Jarry, a Finn who is also gay, and treasures the country home to which he escapes the hectic city life on the weekends.
“She would have been thrilled,” he says of the restaurant, which shares the name with three other establishments his mother was associated with in Europe through her life. “The restaurant is the love of my life,” he says, and calls its 27 employees “his” children.
Jean-Claude spends much of his time sharing his mother’s legacy and authored a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography that was two decades in the making. (Baker wrote seven biographies at various stages of her life.)
In honor of Black History Month, he will discuss the remarkable life of the legendary songstress at Miami Beach’s World Erotic Art Museum, 1205 Washington Ave., on Monday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m., focusing on her early years as the first African-American performer at the Follies Bergere and commenting on the museum’s exhibit highlighting his mother’s career.
Of course, he’ll be happy to share his own stories about Miami, too, including his first appearance in 1974 at the little theater in the Eden Roc Hotel.
Still, Jean-Claude insists, “There was no one like Josephine.”
Jean-Claude Baker will appear Monday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m., at the World Erotic Art Museum, 1205 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. For more information, call (305) 532-9336 or go to www.weam.com