Vive La Baker

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I joined Gale, a Cengage Company in 2016 as a Publishing Assistant and subsequently became an Associate Acquisitions Editor for digital archives. With a diverse background in international and transnational history, I'm particularly interested in social narratives and cultural trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my spare time, I like stand-up comedy, Agatha Christie and Tetris.

Vive La Baker

The International Herald Tribune, the latest periodical to be digitised for Gale Primary Sources, was the quintessential American newspaper – published in Paris. It was founded in 1887 by James Gordon Bennett Jr., who had left America for Paris under a cloud after he socially disgraced himself. (The story goes he ruined a party at his then-fiancée’s house in New York by relieving himself in the fireplace.) He consoled himself for the loss of his fiancée with both his wealth and Paris, where he established the European edition of the New York Herald. It was the paper for jet-setters and wealthy American visitors to Europe, catering to the transatlantic elite of Gilded Age Paris – it was the paper of the most romantic city in the world. From its inception, it focused on entertainment, sport, celebrity and international news. It helped shape the identities of American expats, catered to GIs who stayed on after WWII, and cultivated an image of glamour and luxury: it provided an all-American edit of French chic.

A glittering array of names are associated with the IHT from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Art Buchwald and Henry Morton Stanley. But for a figure who straddled the social worlds of France and America, who lived in Paris and was part of Parisian life but who was fundamentally American and always aware of the problems and social issues of her home country, Josephine Baker is a strong contender for an embodiment of the transatlantic glitz and international politics of the IHT.

1 “Multiple Classified Advertisements.” New York Herald [European Edition], 10 Jan. 1927, p. 3. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tXVG5. Accessed 30 May 2017.

Josephine Baker burst upon the Parisian entertainment scene in 1925, having already made a name for herself in America as the star of her black dance troupe. In 1925 she appeared in the ads and articles of the IHT 17 times; in 1926, 83; and in 1927 her name appeared a peak number of 248 times, mostly in connection with shows at the Folies-Bergère and nights Chez Josephine Baker.

With her distinctive twenties look, daring shows dancing the Charleston in revealing costumes, conspicuous wealth and wild popularity, Josephine Baker was in many ways a perfect symbol of the Jazz Age, and Paris welcomed her with open arms. By 1930 she was a star so much associated with the city that when eleven American women were interviewed in the IHT on their first visit to Paris, they ‘in chorus asked to be shown the Eiffel Tower, Josephine Baker, “chairs that sit on the sidewalk”, and the Ritz bar’[1] .

2″Multiple Classified Advertisements.” New York Herald [European Edition], 2 Oct. 1930, p. 9. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tZfj9

6 “Josephine Drives an Ostrich.” New York Herald [European Edition], 25 Mar. 1928, p. [1]. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tZdXX.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It would be wrong, however, to see Josephine Baker only as a frivolous, nude dancer. One of the first black superstars, she was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1906 and witnessed the East St Louis race riots of 1917. She always refused to play to segregated audiences, and after being refused service at the Stork Club in New York in 1951 because of her race – an incident which led directly to a lifelong friendship with Grace Kelly, who was also present – Josephine had her US work visa revoked for suspected Communist sympathies (she became a French citizen in 1937). The CIA kept tabs on her, particularly on occasions such as her visit to Cuba in 1966.

2 Kupferberg, Herbert. “The Stork Club Incident.” New York Herald Tribune [European Edition], 1 Nov. 1951, p. 4. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tXuT3

She was present at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, and was the only female speaker at the event. During WWII she worked for the French Resistance, enabled by her fame to move around with relative freedom. She received the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance for her work, and remains the only American-born woman to be buried with full French military honours. She was also known for her twelve children adopted from around the world, known as ‘the Rainbow Tribe’ and intended to prove that people of different ethnicities and backgrounds could live together happily. Tours to her chateau, Les Milandes, put these children on display to the public, and were also a source of income in Josephine’s losing battle against bankruptcy from the 1960s on.

For 50 years, Josephine Baker was an icon of Parisian society, filling column inches for the IHT and other papers with her shows, marriages, divorces, riches and bankruptcy, as well as civil rights controversies and consistently speaking out against racial segregation and inequality. In an article in the IHT’s fashion pages shortly after her death in 1975, she was described thus:

5 Hyde, Nina S. “Energy of the Imagination in American ‘Free Spirits’.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 18 Dec. 1975, p. 7. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tYLC0

Looking through the pages of the IHT, Josephine Baker stands out, perhaps not as the quintessential American in Paris but as an instantly recognisable image of a time and a place; the Jazz Age in a liberal city with new and modern tastes. Not just a ‘stringbean silhouette’, Josephine Baker as she appears in interviews, adverts for films and shows she appeared in, gossip column coverage and articles on her career and personal life, is a fascinating figure who had the ability to hold sophisticated Parisian audiences spellbound. She kept this ability throughout her life, performing in shows and reviews right up until her death. In 1960, at 54, she starred in a revival of ‘Paris Mes Amours’ and received rave reviews from Thomas Quinn Curtiss in the IHT, describing her as ‘That glittering enchantress of two hemispheres, Josephine Baker, trimmer, slimmer and more vivacious than ever’, ‘la Baker, creature of infinite variety’, and ‘more than a star…an entire constellation and a magician into the bargain’ [2].

 

7 “Mostly about People.” New York Herald Tribune [European Edition], 20 Jan. 1950, p. 5. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tZpX0.

Josephine, with her glamour, her involvement in international issues and her strong role in social activism, personally experienced the highs and lows of the twentieth century, and her appearances in the pages of the IHT reflect her enduring celebrity and her importance as a black woman who never backed down. A comment she made in 1968 when struggling to hold onto Les Milandes could easily be applied across her life, or perhaps added as an epitaph to the relatively plain gravestone in the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo – “Sure I’m going to fight,” said the American-born singer. “I’m used to it.”’ [3]

4 “People.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 30 Sept. 1968, p. 12. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tXnLX. Accessed 30 May 2017.

 

[1] “American ‘Personality’ Girls Enjoy Paris Visit as Prize.” New York Herald [European Edition], 29 Nov. 1930, p. 3. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tXVh6. Accessed 30 May 2017.

[2] Curtiss, Thomas Quinn. “The Return of Josephine Baker.” New York Herald Tribune [European Edition], 7 July 1960, p. 7. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tXqXX

[3] “People: Josephine Baker vs. Bill Collectors.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 14 Feb. 1968, p. 12. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1888-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4tYco5