“Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all/And, my dear, I’m still here.” Stephen Sondheim – from Follies
Jean-Claude Baker, the adopted son of American born French-entertainer Josephine Baker, has mingled with the famous and infamous. On most nights, he can be seen in the front of his restaurant, Chez Josephine, on West 42nd Street. Recently, Alix Cohen sat down with Jean-Claude to talk about a fascinating life well-lived.
L’Abbe Poulot stood straight and stern in his black cassock. “Brothers and sisters…see these shoes,” he said, raising his gown, “they were twenty bucks. The ones I wanted were forty-five bucks, but you are so mean with your offering, I could not buy them. There is a moral to my story! In a few weeks, winter will be here with snow and rain. I will catch bronchitis and have to stay in bed. Nobody will be here to bring you the will of God. Go in peace, brothers and sisters.”
Jean-Claude gets up from the sofa to enact the speech remembered from his childhood. His voice booms, his eyebrows rise. The Abbe was his surrogate father; the sole source of discipline, advice, encouragement and occasional praise. I hear his own voice in that of the priest—honest, direct, dark in his expectation of life, unwilling to suffer fools.
Many years later, he tracked down L’Abbe Poulot in a nursing home and sent $1,000 as a gift. Not expecting thanks, but with the desire to make sure it reached the old man, he telephoned. The nurse said, “It’s very strange. He received a letter from New York and we haven’t seen him since!” Jean-Claude’s eyes mist with satisfaction.
I’m sitting with Jean-Claude Baker in his deep red living room, filled with souvenirs of an extraordinary life. Each painting and poster has a story. Mementoes of his adoptive mother, Josephine Baker are evident, but not overwhelming. A large collection of mostly antique monkeys fills an étagère and spills over onto the corner of a sofa. Jean-Claude is not sure how the collection began. Perhaps it represents a family connection to, and early stories about, Madagascar. Perhaps he keeps them in remembrance of Josephine Baker’s having stopped their car on the way to an airport in Brazil in order to “rescue” fifteen monkeys from a pet shop. All but one died upon reaching Paris. The last, sequestered in her bra, made it to Prince Rainier’s zoo in Monaco before expiring. We talk about his life. Jean-Claude is candid, animated, and emotional, often reenacting his memories.
Jean-Claude Julien Leon Tronville was born a bastard in Dijon, La France Profonde (deep France) to a house without running water in a village without electricity. The Tronvilles were not poor. Life was simple. When well-dressed strangers intermittently arrived with gifts, Constance Tronville uncomfortably explained to her children that she had shepherded Jews across the border at night during the war. These were some of them. This was the only exception to what he felt was her “utter passivity.” (Opposite characteristics drew him later to the confident, flamboyant Josephine Baker). It wasn’t until a few years ago Jean-Claude inadvertently learned that his mother had been a nun, become pregnant with him, and was turned out of a convent. He’s suddenly crying. What, I wonder, would he say to her now?
Jean-Claude’s father, who had another family, sent money and came to visit. His son “hated him from day one.” He might’ve blamed Monsieur Rouzaud for the family’s being ostracized by the village, been angry that his father was an inveterate gambler, absentee and unreliable, or simply responding to what he calls “animal instinct.” His parents eventually married, perhaps, he conjectures, so that his three younger sisters could find respectable husbands. The boy swore he’d never “wear” his father’s name.
In 1957, at the age of 14, Jean-Claude took a train to Paris to find his father and have a man-to- man conversation. His mother took him to the train. Monsieur Rouzaud was staying at the chic Hotel Pax on Avenue Victor Hugo. For two days, the boy was given pocket money. For two nights they shared a bed. On the third day, his father disappeared. Jean-Claude was caught tiptoeing in that evening and questioned by the proprietors, who were sympathetic. He remembers them fondly, his features softening visibly. Determined not to go home, he arranged to keep the room and to share one meal a day for nominal charge. His mother was informed. He had to have work. The hoteliers sent the boy to Les Clefs D’Or (literally keys of gold), still the premiere concierge service in the world. What are the odds?
Jean-Claude lied about his age and was given the job of a bellhop at Hotel California on Rue de Berry. He winces describing the hat bellhops were required to wear. Every Monday, he would send 50 francs home. It sounded like a lot of money in those days. Could you afford that!? I ask. “Please. Wake up. Of course! I worked very hard and earned good money.” He’s as indignant as if I’d questioned his abilities. Next came the Hotel Scribe. Two Englishmen looking for women managed through charades to indicate what they wanted, giving the boy a wad of bills. Jean-Claude pantomimes the silhouette of a shapely figure with his hands. “I went down to Boulevard des Capucines where women were walking naked under their mink coats and said, “Show me how you are.” The prostitutes chided him for being too young, but cooperated when they saw the cash. Jean-Claude sashays a few steps and mimes opening and closing a coat. A couple of hotel bribes later, everyone was happy. At 14, he became a respected member of the staff.
“I had my little life. Walk a dog, go to the pharmacy, deliver a letter. One day I met a woman and she said to me, do you love your mother, little one? Nobody gives a shit about a child there, you’re invisible. (There is anger in the recollection). She had a wonderful voice, like a mermaid.” Jean Claude burst into tears and told her his story. “That was Josephine Baker (then 52). Don’t be worried, little one. You have no father, but from today, you have two mothers.” On his day off, the smitten youngster put on his best nylon shirt and bought the cheapest ticket to see Josephine in Paris, Mes Amours at the Paris Olympia Music Hall. “The evening was magical. I thought she was performing for me.” He didn’t try to meet her afterwards. It would be ten years before they’d see one another again.
Ambitious for advancement, he went to work for the parking concession at Le Pavillon Dauphine in The Bois de Boulogne (one of the oldest, most famous restaurants in Paris). He’d never driven a car. “Everybody came there; famous people, politicians. I knew who the wives and mistresses were.” When his boss left for the military, he took over at age 17. Nikita Khruschev was scheduled to attend a luncheon. The restaurant went to lock down, surrounded by secret service, police, and paparazzi. Jean-Claude opened the limousine door. Khruschev stepped out and kissed him on the lips! (He was very pretty). “Oh little boy,” he said, “in my country, you would be in school. Here, in a Capitalist country, you work.” Was he speaking French?! I ask. “Fuck you. Are you crazy?! Please. There was a translator!” With the Premier’s arm securely around him, he was swept into the restaurant. “It was all show, of course.” When he came back out, the press gathered around. Since he’s your friend, why don’t you go inside and tell us what he’s saying. Jean-Claude tells me he made $5,000 in bribes that afternoon running in and out, parroting the Russian. (Translation for the above cartoon: Khruschev’s balloon says: “I see that France is exploiting the respect of human rights as well as the respect to exploit children!” incident at Pavillon Dauphine, Bois de Bologne 1960).
“I decided to go to England because I needed to speak English.” Madame Ruc, the wife of the restaurant’s owner, agreed to take a British boy in exchange for Jean-Claude’s presence in the U.K. Sponsorship was necessary at the time. “Women have been very good to me.” Jean-Claude ended up in Liverpool where he became friends with Peter Brown and Brian Epstein. (Brown later went on to public relations work. Epstein became manager of The Beatles). Twice a week, he’d leave his job at The Adelphi Hotel (above) and go to The Cavern to dance. “I was a fabulous dancer.” A fledgling group called The Beatles were performing. “Dreadful haircuts. Like mushrooms.” A year later, required to fulfill his military service, he returned to France. With three months to kill, cousin Nadette suggested Jean-Claude accompany her to West Germany, where she was studying the language.
He got a job as a busboy at La Maison de France, a stylish restaurant owned by the French government on the Kurfurstendam, the Champs-Elysees of West Berlin. “An in-your-face capitalist insult to a communist empire.” On Palm Sunday, Jean-Claude collapsed in the street and awoke in hospital. The surgeons had botched an appendix operation. Turning yellow, he was transferred at night to another facility where he was patently expected to die. Jean-Claude describes an out-of-body experience as matter-of-factly as if it had been a change of bandages. He does not, he pointedly informs me, believe in God. They saved his life. Six months later, when released, he found the French government had been paying his salary all along. “I was rich!” Second and third induction notices were met with such impassioned and extreme excuses, he was forgiven service, ultimately staying 11 years in West Berlin.
It was 1962. Jean-Claude was twenty and attractive enough to turn heads of both sexes. He shows me photos. I see a lean boy with a thick head of hair and side burns, chiseled cheek bones, dark eyes and that unmistakable cleft chin. It’s easy to imagine his rather ingénue appeal. “I thought they were staring because they knew I was from the country. I never knew a man could be beautiful or that you would fuck because of beauty.” Up till then, he was apparently all but inexperienced.
Norbert Binder, who owned several clubs, took a liking to Kiki, his nickname for Jean-Claude. When Binder purchased The Kleist Casino (a famous gay club during the war, which Goebbels apparently frequented), he got his protégé involved. It was the beginning of discos. Up till then, most clubs had juke boxes. On the day of the opening, Binder’s boyfriend, who was supposed to DJ, had an accident. Jean-Claude was instructed to substitute. “But I didn’t know how! He said, you play three fast, three slow, and three cha cha cha. I became a star.” Eventually, he had his own exclusive room, a separate sunken bar. He stayed five years.
The most famous disco in the city, Makital, had been shut down by police because of scandal. Jean-Claude emptied his bank account, charmed his way onto a new lease, and opened Pimm’s Club. “My cocktail of human beings. When the gays came and said there was too much pussy, I’d say, you know what, go and bore yourself in a gay bar. When the straight people said there were too many faggots, I’d say, go and bore yourself in a straight bar. I created a theater.” By that time, Jean-Claude was comfortably “AC/DC; I could tango or I could waltz.” There would be no discrimination in his establishment. It became the place to see and be seen. Rudolf Nureyev “my best friend” and Margot Fonteyn, Errol Garner, Leonard Bernstein, Jessye Norman, Orson Welles (above)…they all frequented. Pimm’s Cup served microwaved hamburgers and caviar. Food was not the point.
Everyone knew Jean-Claude. He opened a boutique next door with clothes bought from Paris. Modeling, television and radio came calling. There was a variety TV show and an hour of radio during which he played music and improvised narrative as if walking the streets of Paris. One form of performance lead to another. Jean-Claude began to sing. You sang!? I ask in complete surprise. “Oh shut up. Please. Of course.” He shows me several records. Ah, the era of velvet jackets and ruffled shirts! (Left, a record jacket from that time).
One night in 1968, he ran into Pierre Spiers, who used to be Josephine Baker’s orchestra leader. Apparently, she was struggling. “Remember, to be a has-been, you had to have been once a star.” Jean-Claude remains proud and protective without ever donning rose colored glasses. He arranged a concert. Unfortunately, Josephine was no longer big enough to headline. “I brought The Kessler Twins from Japan and some others. The star closes the show. The twins insisted they were the stars. They were 31 and 31, so I told them Josephine was 63 and she beat them. They were furious.” Josephine was fragile, heavily made-up, and wore a wig, but came to life on stage. She still had a wonderful body.
Their intimacy was instantly reestablished. “We would finish each other’s sentences,” he says wistfully. Jean-Claude began to both personally send and also raise money to help his 12 brothers and sisters, the adopted and purloined multi-racial “Rainbow Tribe.” (Josephine’s financial stability was a roller coaster). His “second mother” showed him the city she’d played in 1926 & 1929. “She counted on me to change her life and I was happy to take on the assignment.”
For the next ten years, Jean-Claude Rouzaud acted as manager, PR man, secretary, bank, nursemaid, friend and confidante to the erratic, stubborn, outspoken Josephine Baker. “During the day, there was constant madness and meanness. At night when she and I were alone it was different.” He also became the spokesperson for his brothers and sisters of the Rainbow Tribe, “Josephine’s utopian dream of eternal brotherhood.” During the tour in Brazil, likely through the press, he acquired the name “Baker” which became official when he arrived in America. In 1983, he became an American citizen.
At their first stop in Los Angeles, The Ahmanson Theater presold only the first two, more expensive rows. Television and journalists assembled. Josephine insisted on being compensated for interviews. The press explained no one was paid for news coverage. Josephine was implacable. It wasn’t the first or last time this occurred. They opened the next day to an empty house. The tour went bankrupt. He shrugs. I’m sure it was neither easily managed nor borne at the time. A description of the smuggling out and sale of the costumes offers a glimpse into the quick thinking and loyal connections that served Jean-Claude during these years. He referred to both himself and Josephine as hustlers. Something they secretly admired about one another.
“Oh Jean-Claude, my Jean-Claude, he mimics Josephine’s plaintive voice, I’m very sad, I’m going to lose you…You have the answer to questions before they finish asking. America will be your speed. I was shocked. I thought she hated America. She was giving me away to a country she thought was great, despite her problems here, but she was breaking my heart.” In 1973, Jean-Claude finally met his adopted brothers and sisters. Two years later, April 1975, Freda Josephine McDonald (Josephine Baker) died in Paris. Twenty thousand people lined the streets for her funeral. Her own story is deliciously detailed in Josephine, The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase published by Random House.
Jean-Claude had moved to New York City. “I never had a vacation in my life. I took tap dancing, voice lessons. I had a night club act, performing at Backstage and La Chansonette, but I saw it was not for me. The women in the audience made me feel like a hustler.” When his friend, Peter Jackson, opened The Blue Angel on East 54th Street, Jean-Claude became Master of Ceremonies. He was then “…a young French singer known for his flamboyant Continental charm and an accent as thick as Maurice Chevalier’s…” (Intimate Nights–James Gavin) On the ground floor of a white brick and stucco building, the club was popular and always full. He was there December 1975, the night of the tragic fire that took the life of seven guests. Covered in soot, he was interviewed by The New York Times. “It was horrible,” he tells me taking a deep breath, “no one believed it would be a big fire.”
In 1976, ever resilient, Jean-Claude established Tele-France USA. Starting on Manhattan Cable Channel 10, twice a week with two potpourri hours of French life-cooking, fashion, visits to chateaux, and interviews with visiting French celebrities. The service would grow and thrive despite initial lack of vision of, and cooperation from his countrymen. Television in Europe was still a state monopoly. French government representatives here were uninterested. Not until Jean-Claude cornered Raymond Barre, then Prime Minister of France, at The French Embassy in Washington, would a door open from that sector. The very afternoon Monsieur Barre made his supportive feelings known, $75,000 in advertising contacts were secured on the sidewalk. Telefrance USA won two ACE Awards (an acronym for Award for Cable Excellence). Jean-Claude sold 51 percent interest to the French government seven years later and looked for a new challenge. He briefly affiliated himself with restaurants, then decided to open his own. (Jean-Claude with Charles Aznavour, above).
As he writes on the restaurant web site, Jean-Claude likes his steak well done and is allergic to garlic. He never pretended to be a chef. In fact, he says of an attempt at cooking lessons by his dear friend, world famous chef, Pierre Franey, “I was his only failure.” He smiles wryly. This is not a man at all insecure with his lack of expertise in the kitchen. His talents lie elsewhere.
Shown the location for what would become Chez Josephine almost twenty-five years ago, Jean-Claude was offended anyone might think he’d consider the neighborhood. It was, to say the least, risky. 414 West 42nd Street had a reputation for questionable tenants. First a massage parlor, then a restaurant called La Rousse, literally shut down mid meal by the IRS, the space was filled with rats. Jean-Claude went next door to the old Playwrights Horizons to ask about attendance. He went back again. Resolved to manifest his vision, he was having difficulty getting credit until Serge Bellanger, head of the CIC (Credit Industriel et Commercial), responded, “… do you know how boring it is to be a banker?!” A loan was secured.
Jean-Claude decorated the restaurant himself with the advice of two friends, decorators Pierre Scapula and Pierre Pothier. “Everybody was against the blue tin ceiling I wanted. (He stands up, playing the scene). Pierre Scapula arrived in his Rolls Royce, walked into the space, looked around and asked, Jean-Claude, Do you really want a blue ceiling? Yes, Pierre, I answered. Then Jean-Claude, you should have a blue ceiling.” Painted his favorite red, filled with posters and paintings of Josephine Baker, and French chandeliers, Chez Josephine, opened October 2, 1986. (The first Chez Josephine opened at 40 Rue Fontaine in 1926). Josephine Baker had premiered in Paris at Le Theatre de Champs Elysees in “La Revue Negre” on October 2, 1925.
Music has always been an integral part of Chez Josephine’s atmosphere. The restaurant’s original 1886 Grand Chickering piano with which “La Revue Negre” rehearsed before going to Paris was offered to The Metropolitan Museum. They demurred but suggested he remove it so as not to incur tobacco damage. (Smoking was prevalent at the time). The historical heirloom remained in storage until five years ago when it was gifted to Harry Connick Jr. who had been the house entertainer on slow nights at age 17.
Jean-Claude is at Chez Josephine five or six nights a week, welcoming, fussing, attending to detail. “No one can take my place.” A sigh of fatigue escapes. His elegant signature jackets and large brooches show idiosyncratic pizzazz. He’s noticed, of course, but never spot-lit. Every direction is subtly communicated with nods, looks and gestures. The staff is watchful. His brother, Jarry Baker, another of Josephine’s Rainbow Tribe, handles the back of the house. Light is flattering. Piano music fills the rooms. Little has changed over the years, even on the menu—excepting specials. “Josephine’s sister, Margaret, gave me the recipes for fried chicken, sweet potato fries, and lemon meringue pie. No one wants pie anymore.” (Josephine was, he says, a terrible cook). The sweet potato fries are ambrosial. When French guests sample these, they complain the fries are burned, Jean-Claude tells me with obvious distain. Don’t get him started on his countrymen.
With the creation of The Jean-Claude Baker Foundation, Jean-Claude preserves and celebrates the achievements and legacy of African American entertainers, 1865-1929. “I was fortunate to meet the last surviving ones doing research for my book on Josephine. Their testimony, which I’ve recorded, and the material they gave me provided inspiration for the foundation.” He lectures on these performers and the history they created. “Josephine learned from these people, helping her to become fabulous and astonishing to French and European audiences. It’s giving credit where credit is due.” The study is a passionate avocation. (Photo above, Jean-Claude with Liliane Montevecchi).
When he retires to his country house, Jean-Claude will pursue his project full time, write a little poetry, and enjoy his garden. He’s building a little theater on the property. Until then, Chez Josephine will continue to proudly, reliably and eloquently stand the test of time with her host where he feels he must be.
“I never wanted to be born. Life is such a struggle.” So many memories have been disinterred. His comment about our time together, “It was beautiful and painful” might also be a description of his life. People, he says, make it worth living. Jean-Claude Baker helps me on with my coat and walks me to the elevator. He is chivalrous but finished. Chez Josephine awaits.
Read Alix Cohen’s review of Chez Josephine.