Josephine Baker Rocked

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Josephine Baker (1906-1975) could act, dance and sing—and she did all three in risqué costumes on screen and stage. Ernest Hemingway described her as “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw”. Fleeing America’s Jim Crow South, she moved to the Continent in 1925.  She symbolized the beauty and vitality of Black American culture, which took Paris by storm. She went on to become one of the most popular music hall entertainers in France. In 1926 she travelled to Berlin for the first time, where she performed in the “Revue Nègre”, a musical.

On Friday Berlin’s National Gallery opened a small exhibition that celebrates Baker, in particular her queerness (she had relationships with women and men) and her pioneering work as a black woman in cinema. Baker was not only a performer, but also a spy, a civil-rights activist and a resistance fighter during the second world war. These different aspects of her life are explored in an array of pictures and footage from museums and private collections. Art that Baker was said to have inspired, including Henri Matisse’s gouache découpée “La Négresse”, is also included.

Although she was born near my hometown in St Louis, Missouri, I knew her best from dining in Chez Josephine, a restaurant in New York.  It is a bubbly return to the joie-de-vivre of Paris of the 1930s – le Jazz Hot with soul. A tribute to legendary entertainer Josephine Baker founded in 1986 by Jean-Claude Baker (her son), Chez Josephine offers a French-American menu and live piano music in an intimate Parisian setting.

This landmark jewel is inviting and romantic with its blue-tin ceiling, red velvet walls and cavalcade of chandeliers that light up vintage portraits of La Baker. Ideally located on West 42nd Street along Theatre Row, Chez Josephine is a magnet for dining before or after the theater; as well as a Hell’s Kitchen haven for a leisurely dinner or quick drink at the bar.

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