414 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Chez Josephine is an adventure close to my heart, one that brings together the legend of Josephine Baker and the love for people we shared. Listen closely and you will hear the joie-de-vivre of a timeless and passionate era.
Jean-Claude Baker, opening night of Chez Josephine, October 2,1986
Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.
Service: Busy and impersonal.
Atmosphere: A cabaret. A red velvet museum to Josephine Baker. Chandeliers. Red banquets. Posters from the Belle Epoque and the Folies Bergere. Feathers, masks and mirrors. A great place to experience theater before your theater.
Food: Tired. We had the pork chop, amish chicken, char and salmon. The bread was particularly bad-a stale dinner roll. Why? Who cares, life is a cabaret and its the theater!
Energy: High, theatrical and noisy. Piano bar in a bordello. Air kisses and assignations in the corners.
Forget the food. Enjoy the history, the energy and the piano player before you go to the theater. The closest you will come to dining in French cabaret hall (or maybe a bordello) in New York. Enjoy the Belle Epoque posters and artifacts. Appreciate the amazing life of Josephine Baker.
In the 1960s and 1970s, West 42nd street was infested with pimps, pushers, prostitutes and places like the Body Rub Institute and the French Palace Massage Parlor. The French Palace offered massages for $10 and promised “complete satisfaction.”
In 1986, Jeane-Claude Baker decided to open his restaurant. He took over the space previously occupied by the French Palace Massage . The block was grim, dark and dangerous.
The restaurant’s theme would be based on the life of Josephine Baker. It would be called Chez Josephine. Fortunately, Jeane-Claude’s restaurant was located next to the Playwright’s Horizon. André Bishop, the artistic director of the theater at the time recalled:
A theme restaurant based on Josephine Baker? Mon dieu! And the décor looked like a bordello.
But the cafe was an immediate success driven by the opening of “Driving Miss Daisy” at the Playwright’s Horizon. (Playright’s also staged Sunday in the Park with George in 1984. We were seeing a revival of the play.) This marked the beginning of the transformation of the Off Broadway theater district.
Notes on the history of Chez Josephine:
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was a pre-theater regular, would always go to the powder room before leaving. Jean-Claude would make sure the men’s room was empty and stand guard while Mrs. Onassis was in it.
October 2, 1989: Chez Josephine celebrates its third anniversary with a dinner honoring 82-year-old Evelyn Anderson, one of the last two surviving chorus girls of “La Revue Nègre” the American export that made Josephine Baker an immediate sensation when it opened in Paris in 1925.
Celebrities, of which there were many, could be either extremely gracious or very demanding. Angela Lansbury is of the former; Lauren Bacall, was of the latter. When the lights would go from dim to bright, then dim, then brighten and dim yet again, the waiters knew Ms. Bacall was on site. This was not so that she could make an entrance. It was so that she could read the menu.
April 2009: Chez Josephine hosts a birthday party for 105-year-old Doris Eaton Travis, the last surviving Ziegfeld Girl. President Woodrow Wilson waved at her. Babe Ruth autographed a baseball for her. George Gershwin played her family’s piano. Charles Lindbergh dropped by for tea.
Famous people who’ve played Chez Josephine: One New Year’s Eve, Billy Joel, heartbroken after his breakup with Christie Brinkley; 17-year-old Harry Connick, Jr., playing two nights a week for $50; Chris Curtis, who would go on to write the Broadway musical “Chaplin.”
October 1995: When Pope John Paul II went whizzing by Chez Josephine in his Popemobile, customers and waiters waved white cloth napkins which the Pontiff blessed. They wanted to keep them as souvenirs. Jean-Claude then petitioned His Holiness for special prayers that God would send business his way. “Surely, as the One who created the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, He knows how tough the restaurant business is.”
Fall 1998: Woody Allen invites Jean-Claude to play Guy, a maître d’, in his new film, “Sweet and Lowdown.” He has two lines about the jazz legend Django Reinhardt and somehow manages to stretch that out into three minutes of screen time. Jean-Claude readies his Oscar speech; “Guy” ends up on the cutting room floor.
The Story of Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman and her father, Eddie Carson, was a vaudeville drummer. Eddie abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after her birth.
Josephine spent her youth in poverty before learning to dance. She swept steps, scrubbed floors and stole coal to help support her family, and went to the theater every chance she got. She moved to New York City and performed in The Chocolate Dandies (a Broadway musical) and at the Plantation Club where she quickly became popular.
In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and exoticism,Josephine went to Paris. She performed in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The following year, at the Folies Bergère, her career exploded. This was described by Vogue:
It was the summer of 1926 at the Folies Bergère in Paris. Hordes of white Parisians flocked to the famed theater to see La Revue Nègre, a musical show that emerged from France due to the country’s fascination with jazz culture. And there, wearing little more than strings of pearls, wrist cuffs, and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas, Josephine Baker descended from a palm tree onstage, and began to dance. This dance—the danse sauvage—is what established her as the biggest black female star in the world.
The show was wildly popular and Josephine was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe. She was admired by Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. She was known as “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” She is said to have received more than 1,000 marriage proposals. Josephine rivaled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the world.
Josephine sang professionally for the first time in 1930 and landed roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. In 1936, Josephine returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfield Follies. She was hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country. However, she was met with a hostile and racist reaction (The New York Times called her a “Negro wench”) and she quickly returned to France. She was heartbroken.
She worked for the French Resistance during World War II. At the end of the war, Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honors. During the 1950s and 1960s she devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States.
After decades of rejection by her countrymen and a lifetime spent facing racism, Josephine performed at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and was given a standing ovation before the concert began. She was so touched that she wept openly before her audience.
In April 1975, Josephine performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, in the first of a series of performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Parisian debut. Numerous celebrities attended, including Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco. A few days later, on April 12, 1975, Josephine died in her sleep. She was 69.
On the day of her funeral, more than 20,000 people lined the streets, and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute. This made her the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors. Her gravesite is in Monaco.
Jean Claude Baker
Mr. Baker was born Jean-Claude Julien Leon Tronville in Dijon, France, on April 18, 1943. He met Josephine in 1958 at the Hotel Scribe in Paris, where she was living at the time. He was a teenage bellhop and living on his own. His parents were not married. His father was a gambler and lived in a hotel for prostitutes. Jean-Claude wrote:
Josephine listened to all this,” he wrote of their first encounter, “and then she said, ‘Don’t be worried, my little one; you have no father, but from today on, you will have two mothers.
Josephine began calling Jean-Claude the thirteenth of her adopted Baker’s dozen—her famed Rainbow Tribe. She unofficially adopted him when he was fourteen. He helped her arrange her international tours and she let him sing a song or two between her acts.
A few years later Mr. Baker moved to West Berlin, where he was a singer and opened a nightclub called the Pimm’s Club. It drew a mix of gay, straight and glittering crowd such as Mick Jagger, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Orson Welles. Pimm’s was called the Studio 54 of that era.
In 1973, Jean-Claude moved to America and settled in New York. He became a nightclub singer and then the producer-host of “TeleFrance-USA,” the first French cable television program for an American audience.
In the early 1970s, Jean-Claude took Josephine’s last name. Before her death in 1975, Mr. Baker served as her manager, companion and assistant.
Jean-Claude wrote a biography about Josephine called “The Hungry Heart” which was published in 1994. He wrote the book because “I loved her, hated her, and wanted desperately to understand her.”
According to the New York Times:
Those emotions drove his book, and they drove him to do vast amounts of valuable research. The result is mesmerizing: a battle of wills with Josephine as the mastermind, concocting fables about her life, and Jean-Claude as the detective, breaking them down into facts.
Jean-Claude Baker died on January 15, 2015 at his home in East Hampton, New York. He was 71. Mr. Baker’s body was discovered in his car. The cause was suicide.
Jean Claude Baker
The Revival of West 42nd Street
Sunday In the Park with George