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The Buzz, 3-31: The Baker Centennial
Celebrating Josephine's Greatest Love

"As Charles Trenet said, 'A long time after the poets have disappeared, their songs still echo in the streets.' In your manner, you were a poet. Your soul of a star has become a star."

-- Jacqueline Cartier, paying tribute to her friend Josephine Baker on the day of her death, April 13, 1975, in France Soir.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

CASTELNAUD-LA-CHAPELLE, Valley of the Dordogne, France -- There could hardly be a better way to celebrate Josephine Baker on what would have been her 100th birthday than the event being planned by the late singer, dancer, and decorated Resistance leader's neighbors here for June 3: a new statue depicting Baker as a mother embracing a faceless child, erected outside Les Milandes, the sprawling chateau in this verdant land overlooking one of the most breathtaking vistas in France, now a museum dedicated to her memory, where she sheltered the original rainbow tribe for decades before being ignobly evicted along with her ailing cat some 37 years ago.

Baker almost literally danced and sung herself to death in April 1975, in the midst of her triumphant return to Paris with a series of concerts at the Bobino theater in part compelled by impressive debts. On April 10, two days after a gala which brought many to the verge of tears and a congratulatory telegram from the president of France, and following a night in which she had jokingly accused her coterie of being "a bunch of old people" and boasted "I am the most young of all' when they declined to stay up all night partying, Baker lay down for an afternoon pre-show siesta from which she never woke up, suffering an attack of cerebral congestion. After laying in a coma for close to three days -- one of her last visitors was fellow ex-pat Princess Grace -- Josephine left us on April 13, 1975.

To listen to a recording of one of those concerts is to understand that somewhere deep within, Josephine must have known she was saying farewell to the city that she had electrified 50 years earlier, even as France had given her the career that the racism-addled America of the '20s would not.

"30 years have passed since the day Josephine Baker left us," notes Alain Bogaert of Operation Josephine, the organization of local residents which has commissioned the sculpture from local artist Anne Dominique Marichal, also known as Chouski. "She was a music hall icon, as well as a Resistance activist during World War II. Mother of many, she was adopted by the Perigord, and lived her dream here at the Chateau des Milandes of creating a 'World Village.'" The Perigord, sometimes also known as the Dordogne, is in the Southwest of France, in an area known for truffles, foie gras, walnut liquor and tarts, pre-historic cave paintings and as the place where the science of pre-history began. Natives include Jean-Paul Sartre. One can still see Cro-magnon cave dwellings in the limestone mountains.

The base of the sculpture will include some of that lustrous stone from local quarries as well as stones from Baker's native Missouri.

Operation Josephine is open to members from around the world. The membership fee -- which will help pay for the sculpture -- is 15 Euros or, at current exchange rates, $18. Checks, payable to "Operation Josephine," can be sent to Monsieur Alain Bogaert, Operation Josephine, La Chesnaie de Lascaze, 24250 Daglan, FRANCE.

To see an image of the planned sculpture, as well as read more about Operation Josephine, please visit the organization's website or e-mail amisdejosephine@aol.com. To read more about Josephine Baker and her museum at Les Milandes, please click here.

 

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