Authors: Jean-Claude Baker,Chris Chase
AndrÃ© Daven and Rolf de MarÃ©, the theater's owner, had turned the place into a giant club (supper on the balcony, dancing on the stage) for three hundred invited guests. Mistinguett, queen of the music halls, who had just opened at the Moulin Rouge, came straight from her own show just in time to discover that she had, at last, a rival.
Josephine, however, was enjoying herself, even though, at 3
., she went home alone. Tonight, of course, Claude had been with Mabel at the party, but Josephine had other things to think about.
The disastrous day had ended well. Until she went into her bathroom at the hotel. Hearing her scream, “Call a doctor!” Lydia Jones ran to help. “Look!” cried Josephine, pointing. The goldfish were lying dead in the bidet, which was empty of water. One more failure of communication. How could a simple child of St. Louis be expected to understand the mysteries of French plumbing?
As the worst and the best twenty-four hours of her life came to an end, Josephine reviled the universe for having murdered her goldfish. That she herself had put the fish in the bidet was not a subject Lydia brought up. It was better, she decided, to go to bed and think about finding a less volatile roommate.
Years before, in St. Louis, Josephine's mother had had the same thought.
ELVIRA, CARRIE, THE BEGINNINGS
There is only one picture of Josephine Baker as a baby, and nobody is sure if that one is authentic.
She was born Freda J. McDonald on June 3, 1906, in the Female Hospital, which had opened as the St. Louis Social Evil Hospital, a treatment center for prostitutes suffering from venereal disease.
She died on April 12, 1975, in the SalpÃªtriÃ¨re hospital, which had been built to care for the prostitutes, beggars, and criminal women of Paris.
But what a dance in between! Though even through the years of wine and roses, she could not forget the slums she had run so fast and so far to escape. Despite herself, she thought about them. Despite herself because, a friend said, “Miss Baker does not like to remember. She livesÂ .Â .Â .Â in the present.”
So much did Josephine “not like to remember” that when she left America, she erased all evidence of her early life. Pictures, papers, cut up, torn up, burnt. Goodbye.
And still, this impulse to cover her tracks was at war with her impulse to get the world's attention. She would alter her story again and again, reshaping history as she went. Marcel Sauvage told me how they worked on the first memoirs, a collection of “notes, impressions, images,” when she was twenty. “Around 5
., I would go to her hotel. That was when she got up. The maid would bring breakfast, and Josephine, half naked, her pink nightgown all open, laughing, playing with a parrot, would start to remember.”
And what did she remember, in the shadows of those late afternoons?
She said her father and mother were married (they were not), and she said she sent a check home every month (at the time, she did). “Now, dear, you understandÂ .Â .Â .Â I am the great man of the family.”
She said that kings walked with pointed shoes in her dreams. “And the queens were blondÂ .Â .Â .Â sometimes I cried because I too would have liked to be a queen.”
She said she became a dancer “because I was born in a cold cityÂ .Â .Â .Â .”
She said her childhood was filled with “stories of cemeteries. A black childhood is always a little sad.”
Even when the sadness was once removed. Her grandmother, Elvira, “often talked about slave days. I adored Grandma. The songs she sang as she rocked me to sleepÂ .Â .Â .Â told of the freedom that would someday come.”
As a child on a tobacco plantation, Elvira had seen a pregnant woman put in a hole, belly down, and beaten. Her great-grandson, Richard Martin, Jr., told me she repeated that story over and over. “She used to say, âPoor Miz So-and-So, why is Master beating her on the back that way?' And she would cry, and I would just be amazed, it was as though she was living through the whole thing.
“I had no idea of slaves, but the way she was telling it made me feel very sad, not for the woman being beaten on the back, but for my great-grandmother. Each time, after she told that story, my grandmother Carrie would give her a peppermint to make her feel better.” (No matter how terrible the past, Elvira at least had family; many former slaves had lost all trace of relatives. The government cared for some of these old people in homes like the one called Blue Plains, near Washington, D.C.)
Elvira had been born on a tobacco plantation in Holly Springs, Arkansas (when she died in 1936, the death certificate listed her as being “about ninety”), and Josephine would always be in conflict about her,
partly proud, partly ashamed that her grandmother had been a slave. She sometimes claimed that Elvira was an Indianâhadn't the red man been in America when the first white man came ashore? In fact, the tiny five-foot-tall woman may have been part Indian; she had long, straight, black hair.
During the period that Josephine was mistress of the chÃ¢teau Les Milandes, one of the men who worked for her told me she grew tobacco by the front door. She never revealed that the tobacco was a tribute to Elvira.
Elvira grew up to marry a Virginian, an older man named Richard McDonald. They could not have children, and in 1886, in Little Rock, Arkansas, they adopted a baby, naming her for Richard's sister, Caroline. (Caroline and her husband, Charles Crookâalso a much older manâhad had two children, but both died in infancy.) In time, the two couples and baby Carrie moved together from Little Rock to St. Louis.
At the end of the nineteenth century (we know the family was there as early as 1896, because of Carrie's school records), St. Louis was a rapidly growing city. In 1849, it had survived a cholera epidemic that killed four thousand people, and a waterfront fire that spread from burning steamboats to destroy hundreds of buildings in the narrow streets along the Mississippi. By 1874, the Eads Bridge had been built across the river, which meant the city could be reached by train from Cincinnati, rather than by ferry. The population of St. Louis was polyglot; the French settlers had been followed by Spaniards, Germans, Irish, and British. There was also, in the mid-1800s, an influx of blacks like the McDonalds and the Crooks from the rural South. By 1900, there were 575,238 people in the city, 35,516 of them black.
Charles Crook had a government pension of fourteen dollars a month. He had been one of 186,017 black soldiers to join the Union army during the Civil War; he had fought with Company D of the Sixty-first United States Colored Infantry, and suffered a gunshot wound in his left hand. In St. Louis, he found a job as a porter in a store; his two incomes established him as head of the household. He, his wife, and the McDonalds shared a third-floor railroad flat in a row house at 1534 Gratiot Street. Richard McDonald worked as a laborer, Elvira worked as a laundress, and little Carrie was left at home in the care of Caroline Crook.
When Carrie McDonald was seventeen years old, a conductor working
for the St. Louis Transit Companyâelectric cars were replacing the old horse carsâwas paid twenty-one cents an hour, and the city was playing host to a World's Fair. The fairâtechnically the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904âbrought visitors from all over the globe, but did not treat them all equally. One restaurant on the exposition grounds posted a sign,
NO COLORED PEOPLE SERVED
, and the company with the fresh-water concession refused to set out water for blacks “even when they offered to drop a cent in the slot, as do white folks.”
Slavery was long gone, but many people of color felt that true freedom came only to those with light skins. A member of the black press who called himself Dr. Midnight wrote in
The Indianapolis Recorder
that he had visited a lady friend in St. Louis and been appalled to find her ironing her hair. “These men here don't go with kinks,” she told him, “so if you want to shine in St. Louis, you must do away with kinks and get straight. I also have a preparation for making my face white by degrees.”
“Some of our women look like circus riders,” Dr. Midnight railed in another newspaper. “Rosy cheeks, ashy faces and wigs seem to be the goÂ .Â .Â .Â Negroes clamouring for recognition in this world, but they will not get it as long as they are getting away from themselves. It is disgusting to hear colored women say, âHe's too black.' ”
Other black editors reflected on white people's fear of “Negro domination.” The
Gazetteer and Guide
printed the words of a white man named Tom Watsonâhe had run for vice president under the banner of the Populist party in 1896âwho agreed that such fears were baseless. “What words,” asked Watson, “can paint the cowardice of the Anglo-Saxon who would deny âequal and exact justice' to the ignorant, helpless, poverty-cursed Negro, in whose ears the clank of chains have scarcely ceased dominationÂ .Â .Â .Â .”
By then, Carrie McDonald, who was without racial prejudiceâshe liked pretty boys, no matter what color they wereâwould have been able to follow Dr. Midnight's musings if she had stumbled across them; she was the first person in the Crook-McDonald household to learn to read and write. Coal black, pretty, tall, slender, full of life, the only child cared for by four adults, she was a bit spoiled.
She and Elvira adored each other. Aunt Caroline was the disciplinarian, demanding that Carrie study hard. To catch up with the white world, one had to fight.
But Carrie was young, and the streets of St. Louis were filled with music, especially if you went down to the red-light district (Market Street, Chestnut Street) where there were gambling joints, gin mills, and the sounds of ragtime pianos pounding through the nights. During the summers, ladies of the evening would stand outside the houses where they worked and sing blues songs. To Carrie, all this was a lot more fascinating than staying home listening to Aunt Caroline's sermons.
Or going to school. Carrie loved to dance, and one of her boyfriends, Eddie Carson (thought by many to be Josephine's father), was a good dancer. Years later, Josephine's half-sister Margaret would remember, “Mama was the most popular girl at the dance hall on Sundays. No one could dance like she could, with a glass of water balanced on her head, not spilling a drop.”
But Carrie worked, too. By the time she was nineteen, she was employed as a laundress. An improvident laundress, because she got pregnant, and Aunt Caroline turned her out. Elvira had nothing to say about it; Caroline ruled the roost, and was fierce in judgment. Hadn't she warned Carrie a hundred times? Wasn't Carrie too wild? Hadn't the family given her everything, and hadn't she returned bad for good?
In St. Louis, I was lucky. I found Helen Morris (nÃ©e Williams), whose mother had been Carrie's friend. “Mama's name was Emma Williams,” says Helen, “and she and Carrie worked together at the laundry owned by my aunt Josephine Cooper. When Carrie's folks put her out, she ended up at Aunt Jo's house, she didn't have anywhere else to go. She stayed there until the baby was born, and that's when Aunt Jo said, âCarrie, if it's a girl, name it after me,' and Carrie said, âI will.' ”
The records of the city of St. Louis tell an almost unbelievable story. They show that Carrie McDonald (“colored”), twenty years old, was admitted to the Female Hospital (at that time, almost exclusively white) on May 3, 1906, diagnosed as pregnant. She was discharged on June 17, her baby, Freda J. McDonald, having been born two weeks earlier. The baby's father was identified simply as “Edw.” Why six weeks in the hospital? Especially for a black woman who would customarily have had her baby at home with the help of a midwife? Obviously, there had been problems with the pregnancy, but Carrie's chart reveals no details.
I think Josephine's father was whiteâso did Josephine, so did her familyâand I think he cared about Carrie. He's the one who must have got her into that hospital and paid to keep her there all those weeks.
Also, her baby's birth was registered by O. H. Elbrecht, head of the hospital, at a time when most black births were not. Besides, Freda sounds German to me, and people in St. Louis say Carrie had worked for a German family. (Although it certainly didn't matter; Josephine was never called Freda.)
I have unraveled many mysteries associated with Josephine Baker, but the most painful mystery of her life, the mystery of her father's identity, I could not solve.
The secret died with Carrie, who refused till the end to talk about it. She let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along.
Josephine knew better, though her version was also folklore. “My father was Eddie Moreno, a good-looking boy with olive skin,” she would say. Or: “My father was a Spanish dancer.” Helen Morris says, “You could look at Tumpy and tell she was not entirely black.”
(Tumpy was the nickname given Josephine as a baby; she always said it was because “I was fat as Humpty Dumpty.” But if she was fat, she was also lucky. At that time, according to the records of the health department in St. Louis, three out of five children died before the age of three. A Dr. Temms, writing in
The St. Louis Argus
, described the city's more poverty-stricken sections as “a great breeding ground,” saying, “Next to the Russian Jews in point of being prolific came the Negroes and then the Italians.”)