on July 6, 2007
Jean-Claude gives a well balanced account of the life and times of Josephine Baker. With unabashed frankness he describes her sexual escapades and decadent appetites, her manipulative and cunning business dealings, and her unbelievable selfishness. This biography paints a very clear picture of the woman who gave definition to the term "diva." Her demands of those who handled her and worked for her would go beyond unreasonable. For instance, she would borrow enormous sums of money from friends and would never pay them back, and would then call on them again for more favors as if she had never defrauded them. There was no request too outrageous for this woman to make. Realizing that her family in St. Louis was suffering the horrendous racial atrocities of America, she brought them to her home in France only to use them to work for her on her estate. At one point she disowned her brother because he would not allow her to adopt his child and raise it as her own. She would work her nurses, her maids, and the children's tutors so hard that the turnover became virtually unmanageable. Her maids would work extremely long hours, and as a result her employees became disgruntled and would often steal from her. She used men like one would use Kleenex. She brazenly carried on affairs with married men, some of whom were husbands of friends and fellow-entertainers. She engaged in enumerable sexual affairs (and orgies) with both men and women. Wild goings-on aside, she was a consummate entertainer--constantly reinventing herself and giving herself completely to her audience. In an era when black performers suffered atrocious injustices, she perseveared. She'd encountered terrible racism in many cities (especially when she returned to America), so much so that she was turned away from so many hotels that she had to stay with friends while under contract to perform. While not a tell-all tabloid type expose (thankfully), Jean-Claude Baker delivers a thorough account of the life of one of the world's most exciting and enduring icons. If you are a fan of historical figures and of biographies, this one is a must read.
on February 12, 2002
This is a biography of LaBaker written by one of her many adopted children. He gives the inside dish on his mom, including that both she and his adopter father were gay. He points out too that she did have some self-loathing issues regarding her race as well. This book has a great photo section. It helped me to see the ugly side of Josephine that wasn't fully presented in the great movie by HBO. I am not sure it is the best work out there, but it is a must-read for any Josephine fans and scholars. In addition, people that study Black Americans abroad or French naturalized citizens should read this.
on August 17, 2002
A perfectly balanced expose of this legendary and highly complex superstar: Amoral in extremis, manic and delusional, but blessed with indomitable human spirit. Excellent historical perspective throughout.
A beautifully written biography which does not succumb to the tawdry, despite its detailed narrative of Josephine Baker's pathologically decadent lifestyle.
Absolutely the best biography of J.B., bar none. A Must Read for Paris cabaret enthusiasts.
on March 25, 2009
When most hear the name Josephine Baker, images of her sensually dancing across a stage in nothing but a skirt made of bananas comes to mind. There's much more to her than that and Jean Claude Baker (one of her adopted sons) gives us the dish.
He recounts Tumpy's (a childhood nickname) poor beginnings in St. Louis to her death as a worldwide superstar in Paris. I'd really recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what Josephine was really like. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Good things first, she was an untouchably talented dancer who has continually inspired dancers of all generations even after her death. Her voice, a shrill and lilting instrument, grew to almost Sarah Vaughn like heights.
Despite her talents, Josephine could be a selfish and hurtful woman. She had a problem with lying all throughout her life. She never knew her father, but one minute she'd claim he was a successful black lawyer in Chicago and the next he was a simple Jewish man. Her whole early life in St. Louis would be flipped and turned around at her whim, to the point where published accounts would contradict themselves.
Luckily, Jean Claude interviewed the people who knew her best and gave true accounts of her personality. She was also extremely promiscuous in her later teens. She went through male and female lovers like underwear and had no hestitation to use others when it would benefit her career. Even her legendary Rainbow Tribe was created out of plain publicity (shout-out to the Octomom). She barely spent time with the kids and left them in the constant care of nannies.
She also had a penchant for slapping people she was angry with and her kids were no exception. She even sent one of her boys away to boarding school when she caught him with another boy, despite her own genderbending sexual history.
Although Josephine could be downright mean, Jean Claude also reveals her funny and loving side. She made an effort to smother the kids with love when she had time to spend with them and she had a quick wit.
Although the negative attitude of Josie is discussed at great length, Jean Claude isn't stepping into "tell all" territory. He obviously loved her, all flaws aside. He just wanted to create a more human portrait of a woman whose life has been clouded in myth and mystery.
on May 10, 2012
Out of the many biographies I've read in my life, this is by FAR the BEST I've ever picked up, and has to be considered the definitive account on The Late, Great Josephine Baker, one of the most important celebrities in modern history. First, there are many great professional and candid pictures which I appreciated. More important, though, is that foster son Jean-Claude Baker did exhaustive research in writing this book, tracking down every major Josephine contemporary to interview and reading through hundreds of her personal letters, legal documents, and even her own multiple autobiographies to bring her back to life. But this is not just the tale of one entertainer. It's the detailed story of a brimming entertainment era from long ago. Through this book I was introduced to Florence Mills, Fats Waller, Butterbeans & Susie, Bricktop, and the like. I learned about many past entertainers of all colors, and their work, especially The Late, Great Mistinguett, so the reading experience is educational as well as entertaining.
The end result is a colorful, globe-trotting epic that never slows down and that leaves the reader both transported and spent. Of course, the book's subject contributes to this effect: Josephine Baker was a very courageous, usually outrageous woman filled with shocking contradictions and paradoxes, some of them offensive, others heartbreaking. I will admit that a few incidents were difficult to read: my heart hurt for her when she was blatantly discriminated against personally or institutionally, and I marveled at her bravery to perform in racially-hostile countries (including none-other-than America). I was impressed at her tenacity to eradicate racist treatment towards other blacks and segregation either through her grassroots protesting or the creation of her large, integrated family, The Rainbow Tribe. Yet I shook my head whenever I read things like her bleach-filled baths and rejections of portraits because she looked "too Negroid" (she even loved a particular photographer because he could adjust the lighting so that her skin looked white). I was (somewhat) taken aback at her brazen adultery, I was horrified at her professional treachery (ducking those she owed money to), and how she often treated younger women as she aged, especially the Brazilian TV host's girlfriend, ouch! I was disappointed in her financial and parental incompetence. She was a fabulous entertainer, a great humanitarian, a masterful enchantress. But, frankly put, she was horrible in the roles of businesswoman and mother. And she never seemed to learn from her mistakes.
While Jean-Claude's brutal honesty in regards to Josephine's experiences and behavior can sometimes make things downright ugly, believe me, this isn't an attempt at some kind of revenge. It reads more like therapy, like someone trying to come to terms with the world he lives in and this flawed woman he loved so much. And it's commendable that he chose to lay it all out this way. It would've been far easier for him to smooth over incidents, to leave out a slur here, to leave out a professional tantrum there, to not mention that affair she had with her married conductor as his poor wife silently suffered the affront. It would've been far easier for him to give into human nature and present some blissful ignorance, or to idealize his mother's character; he must've known it would've been much easier for us readers, too, if he had. But he chose to give us full fact and not selectivity or revisionism. That's not to say there aren't positive, even warm, moments contained in The Hungry Heart. Josephine Baker had great loves, great professional triumphs, and lived in splendor most of her life. She had great, dazzling times. She was a hero and entertainer who worked hard and earned all of the credit and luxury that she got. And as mentioned, Jean-Claude loved her- there is even a very poignant letter to her at the end of the book. Elsewhere, he admits that there were a few things he decided to leave out because they were a little too outrageous. A part of me hopes that he dishes out the rest in a follow-up edition. I am very glad I've read this and definitely plan to read it again. I highly recommend it!
on August 31, 2003
Josephine Baker was enigmatic during her lifetime and even more so after her death. A chanteuse, a sex symbol, the mother of 12 adopted children, French Resistance heroine, Baker reinvented herself as often as necessary to stay at the top of her trade - whatever that trade was at any given moment. Jean-Claude Baker (one of her 'adopted' children) chronicles her life in this engaging biography with a mix of love, admiration, and incredulity. The lady had balls, and while not a tell-all book, The Hungry Heart does her ample justice.
on May 26, 2011
Jean-Claude Baker does an excellent job of love and research in his biography of his second mother, Josephine Baker. Through exhaustive interviews and fact-checking (where they can be checked), he sheds as much light as possible on Josephine's early life before she became a star, and the successes and excesses that came after. While obviously loving Josephine and bewitched by her charm and star power, he neither shies away from the star's self-serving side nor fails to describe for the physical and emotional toll her chosen life style cost her. A dramatic, dazzling life story that shows how different celebrities are from the rest of us.