Wednesday, October 12, 2011

La Belle Josephine: The Spy

First thing tomorrow, be sure to go to the Poisoned Pen Press Blog ( and read Jeanne Matthews' informative and entertaining report on the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Jeanne ended the piece with a particular hook for me, the mention of an exhibit having to do with Josephine Baker. "What?" you ask. "An entertainer from the Roaring Twenties, represented in a spy museum?"

You bet.

Josephine was born in St. Louis in 1906, went to Paris in 1925, and took the city by storm with her sensuous singing and dance routines. She continued as a show business superstar for the next fifty years. Racial prejudice prevented her from ever achieving success in her home country, but the French adored her throughout her life - for good reason. Not only was she a singular entertainer, she engaged in dangerous spy work for the French underground during World War II (for which she received the Medaille de las Resistance). Post-war, she adopted twelve orphans of different ethnic origins, to put into practice her belief that children brought up to respect and honor human differences would not engage in xenophobic behavior as adults. She referred to her children as her Rainbow Tribe. When she died in 1975, Paris gave her a military funeral, 21-gun salute and all. Twenty thousand Parisians came to stand outside the church.

It's not surprising that there exists a wonderful Josephine Baker musical automaton, probably manufactured at the time of Josephine's heyday. It's 21-1/2 inches tall, and bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Josephine in facial appearance, hair style, and costume, as seen in the cover photo of the book, Josephine, by Josephine Baker and her then-husband, Jo Bouillon.

Want to know more about Josephine Baker? Aside from the Baker-Bouillon reference, you can read Naked at the Feast, by Lynn Haney; Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose; The Josephine Baker Story, by Ean Wood; and Josephine, The Hungry Heart, by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase. Jean-Claude, the proprietor of New York City's Chez Josephine Restaurant, was a young teenager, working as a bellboy at a French hotel, when Josephine took him into her home and heart many years ago. Any time you're in New York, consider stopping at Chez Josephine for dinner. Jean-Claude is a marvelous host, the food is outstanding, the live music just right, and the walls are covered with Josephine Baker photos and other memorabilia.

Oh...and why not make a habit of tuning in daily to the Poisoned Pen Blog? Start your days with short wake-up pieces on all manner of topics, by one or another of the Poisoned Pen Posse of authors. You'll see why the Press' slogan is "Publishing Excellence In Mystery."

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