1Josephine Baker in Berlin
Copyright 2011 by Erin O’Riordan
Josephine sighed and wrapped her blanket a little more tightly around her tired body. The grand old French country house was quiet now, and a little cold. The Rainbow Tribe, what was left of it, had gone to bed for the night. The children were getting older; some of them had grown up and left home. Josephine was getting older, too. When she looked in the mirror, she still saw the fiery brown eyes and strong bones of the exotic, fabulous Josephine Baker, international sensation. But after fading from the spotlight, finding her twelve little ones from all over the world and settling down to raise them at Les Milandes, Josephine had grown tired.
The room behind her lit up. Josephine turned to see who was sneaking up on her.
“Jo?” she called softly. Then the memory came back to her. How many years had it been since he’d left? Four, she remembered. Maybe five.
Sometimes Josephine’s memory failed her. Worse, sometimes it came back in full effect. She remembered the tiny apartment where she had lived with her mother and sister as a child, after her father left. She remembered sitting on the cold wooden floor and looking up at her mother. She smiled up at the woman who meant everything to her, the woman who spent her life washing other people’s laundry so that Josephine could eat. Her mother did not smile. Perhaps by then she was unable to smile.
“Wipe that stupid look off your face, girl,” her mother had said.
Wipe that stupid look off my face, Josephine thought. That “stupid look” made me who I was. The fabulous Josephine Baker, the savage woman who danced wearing nothing but feathers, bananas, and that “stupid” cross-eyed smile.
A man’s voice returned her call, snapping her out of her reverie. “Miss Baker?”
He was a small, nervous man. His hair, parted way off to the side and combed over to hide his bald spot, was slightly gray. His eyes were also slightly gray. He spoke in English, but his accent was sophisticated, not from the south of France. Paris, maybe. He told her his name, but she forgot it just as quickly.
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” she said, half-sincere. She invited him to sit. They sat together on a long sofa of thick silver velvet embroidered with red and yellow jonquils.
“I represent the office of your agent,” he said. “That is, your former agent. As you know, we have not had the honor of promoting you in a good many years.”
Josephine tried to remember the last time she’d been on stage. It had been many winters. I had to go out and earn the money for rent and heat, she thought. Why does this house always have to get so cold?
Gray-Eyes continued. “So you can imagine our surprise at receiving your letter. Do you really intend to stage another comeback tour?”
She was surprised at the question. Does he think I’m too old? she asked herself. Can he tell by looking at me that I’ve had it this time?
“Of course I intend to go on another tour. It has been too many years since the world has seen Josephine Baker. And as you know, there is simply no one else like me in the world. I don’t know how they get along without me!”
She said this with such confidence, she almost believed it herself. She laughed, loud and strong.
When her laughter died, there was a silence. Then Gray-Eyes said, “I’m sorry, Miss Baker. There isn’t going to be another tour for you. We have had some difficulty finding sponsorship.”
“No one wants to take a chance on me,” she muttered into her chest as her face sunk. No tour. No shows. No new audiences streaming in holding their breath, gasping with joy merely from a glimpse of her. No adoration. No money coming in, and going back out to the owners of Les Milandes and to the children’s schools. No money.
“That is to say,” Gray-Eyes went on, “that we have had trouble finding sponsorship in France. “As I’ve said, I’m not promising you a tour. But we can find some work for you, if you’d be willing . . . “
He reached into his gray coat and pulled out an envelope. Josephine took it from his hands. She put on her glasses. Now the postmark was clear. It was dated April 1, 1965. The address was somewhere in Berlin.
Berlin, she thought. A troubled city, very troubled. She had not been to Berlin since the time between the two great wars. It was alive and kicking then; now the city was dead. It had been divided and conquered. It had been a different world back then.
“Berlin?” she said aloud. “I haven’t been there since the 1920s.”
“You’ve been to Berlin, Miss Baker?” Gray-Eyes asked casually.
Josephine glared at him. Did he not realize who she was? Did he think that he could speak to her as if she were just another client? Did he not realize how badly she needed him to offer her work, and the difficulty of accepting the offer he brought? How could he speak of Berlin as if it were just another engagement?
“What am I saying?” Gray-Eyes said, folding his hands in his lap. “Of course you’ve been to Berlin; you’re the legendary Josephine Baker! You’ve been to every great city in Europe. Tell me, what was Berlin like in those days?”
The question did not deserve a response. Still, a wave of long-buried memories washed over her. Before she could censor herself, she found she was telling Gray-Eyes the story.
* * *
It was almost morning. Josephine sailed around the room, her arms open wide. The party had been so fantastic, she wasn’t sure whether it had been reality or a wonderful dream. She had never seen so many beautiful women, with their short dresses and bobbed hair. And the men, in their black ties and tails. They came from all over Europe and from North Africa. Some of them, like Josephine herself, came from the U. S. All of these people, dressed to the nines, speaking French elegantly or badly, came together and danced as if there were not a bit of difference between them.
She had never seen a hotel so elegant, with its gold-trimmed ballroom with the grand staircase of dark oak, the dance floor with thousands of black and white tiles worn smooth by the heels of the finest shoes Europe has to offer. She had never tasted food like that, food that had been labored over to the tiniest piece of lemon peel, presented on fine dishes, black and white like the marvelous ballroom floor. Each time she went after one of these delicacies, a waiter in a black tuxedo offered her a flute of champagne. And it really was champagne, too, from the Champagne region of France and everything.
The food and the wine were all the sweeter because here, white men waited on Josephine.
Josephine’s head was still spinning. Her feet were still dancing. She never felt this alive in East St. Louis. In fact, Josephine felt as if she’d been dragging a ball and chain behind her all her life. In Paris she was free to move, free to throw her arms up in the air, free to dance.
There was a knock at the door. Josephine threw a glittering satin robe over her bare shoulders, covering her sheer, pale-green slip. She danced over to the door. She opened it, just a crack, and stuck out her nose.
A tall woman stood on the other side of the door. She had big blue eyes, and wore her blonde hair a little shorter than the fashion. The look on her face was serious. But Josephine was in no mood for serious.
“You’re kind of cute, for a French guy,” she said.
“Thanks, but I’m from Brooklyn,” the woman said. Her accent proved it. Her smile spoke directly to Josephine’s heart. And she hadn’t been hurt by Josephine’s little joke. “You must be Josephine Baker.”
The Brooklynite was embarrassed as soon as she’d said it. Of course this was Josephine Baker. Who else could it be?
“Come in,” Josephine said, as much to the bottle of champagne the Brooklynite carried as to the woman herself. Both entered her room.
“I’ve got good news for you, Miss Baker,” Brooklyn said, with another boyish smile.
“Call me Josephine, please,” she said. She let the robe drop from her shoulders. She spun around the room again, then bounced onto the bed. The champagne had gone to her head. “Tell me your good news. But first, pour us some of that champagne.” She pointed to a stack of glasses on the bar at the far end of the room.
Brooklyn began to speak as she poured the champagne, but Josephine shushed her. “Tell me over here,” she said. She gestured for Brooklyn to sit on the bed with her. She sat, and they drank.
“Now tell me your good news.” Josephine moved a little closer.
“Le Revue Negre is going on the road,” Brooklyn said. “We’re going to leave Paris for two months and see the other great cities of Europe.”
On the road! Josephine’s mind conjured wild images of exotic countries. If Paris was so wonderful, then the rest of Europe must be so much more! She would see more cathedrals, and palaces, and gypsies. Did all of Europe have the dazzling array of people that France had? She couldn’t wait to see how the women dressed in Amsterdam, and Barcelona, and Rome. . .
“That’s marvelous news!” she said, bouncing on the bed for joy. “Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I find out there’s more!” She threw her arms up in the air in an ecstatic gesture that stretched her entire body.
Brooklyn watched her intently, studying every graceful move of her dancer’s body. “Yes,” she said, bouncing along with Josephine rather nervously. She couldn’t believe that Josephine Baker allowed her, a mere office page for the theatre company, to get so close to her.
“Look at me,” Josephine said, and Brooklyn was thrilled. She had wanted Josephine’s attention, longed for it. And here she was, getting it. Josephine was close enough to touch. “I don’t know how I ended up here alone,” Josephine said. “I hate to be alone. What’s your name, Brooklyn?”
“Hadley,” she said. “Eleanore Theodora Hadley, but everyone around here just calls me Hadley.”
When Hadley went to touch her, Josephine did not pull away. Hadley reached for the strap of Josephine’s thin slip, slid it down over her smooth shoulder, and kissed the taut muscle of her neck.
Josephine inched closer to her, holding her tightly. Soon she was almost sitting in Hadley’s lap.
“Forgive me,” Hadley said. “Forgive me for being so bold.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “Tell me that you’ve wanted me ever since you first saw me up on stage. Tell me that I was the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen.”
“It’s true,” she said. “Your face, your body.”
“Tell me how I aroused you, drove you half to madness.” The other strap slipped from shoulder, and her slip fell to the waist. “Say that you’ve been crazy with lust ever since.”
“I have,” Hadley said, swallowing hard. “And this is just like my fantasies.” She lowered her head to catch Josephine’s breast in her mouth. The dancer exploded with laughter, a sound that thrilled Hadley. As Josephine reclined, Hadley practically tore the slip off of her.
Josephine bent her knee, and Hadley saw her sex, gleaming in the early morning light. Hadley reached for her belt.
“What are you going to do, Hadley?” she teased. She rolled onto her belly. The sight of her bare buttocks was nearly enough to make Hadley lose control.
“I’m going to take you,” she said. “I must have you now.”
She twisted around and sat up. Hadley took hold of her, tried to lay her across the bed, but Josephine wriggled free. Instead she sat in Hadley’s lap once again, opening herself up to her, working Hadley’s fingers inside of her. When she began to rock her hips, Hadley fought herself not to lose control.
Josephine laughed loud and strong. It wasn’t just the pleasure. It was the freedom. So it was true what they said: you really were free in Europe. Free from prejudice, free to explore the world. It was as if another ball and chain had fallen away. Her freedom was now complete. What would her sister back in East St. Louis say if she got word of this?
Josephine arrived in Berlin by train. The chorus girls kept her company. Some of them were from the South, and when they spoke lovingly of home and how much they missed it, Josephine knew the feeling well. She thought about her mother and sister, waiting for her in East St. Louis. But so were that old ball and chain. She could never go back.
Once they arrived, Josephine lost the chorus girls and found Hadley. She needed her familiar face. All around her, the world was different. The people were strange. She’d become used to the French, even if she wasn’t quite fluent at the language yet. The faces of the Germans were pale and hard. Even the buildings were different. Berlin’s apartments and shops were colorless and boxy, not like Paris’s soft curves, leaping spires, pastel palette. She wondered if the hotel would be so cold and forbidding.
Still, one thing was the same. Here she was, a colored woman walking down the street on the arm of a white girl, and no one stared.
The sun was just beginning to set on the warm summer evening. Just as in Paris, evening seemed the beginning of the day. Offices and shops were closing, but as men in business suits and ladies in elegant day wear went home, a new crowd poured into the street. Fashions in Berlin might be darker from those in Paris, but it was easy enough to recognize the night crowd. The women wore scandalously short skirts, and the men were dressed to kill. Literally; they looked like thugs. Men and women, from the merely shady to the truly seedy, poured into the taverns and cafes. Jazz pianos from competing juke boxes screamed out into the streets.
On the next corner, very thin women in cheap stockings were greeting the night crowds. Josephine could smell their even-cheaper perfume. A man in a black coat stopped, and she didn’t have to speak German to know what he was saying. Paris had its prostitutes, to be sure, but Berlin was different. This was so open, so bold. The difference both shocked and excited her.
“Looks like we’re in the rough part of town now, doesn’t it, Hadley?” she said.
But there was no answer. Josephine turned around, and Hadley was gone. She realized that she’d let go of her hand when she’d stopped to look at a store window. They must have gotten separated, and then she’d taken a wrong turn.
She only felt panic for a moment. She might not know her way around Berlin, but at least she knew the name of the hotel. And surely she could find someone who spoke English or French. She retraced her steps, calling for Hadley. But, just as she expected, she couldn’t find her again.
This is a sign, she told herself. New city, new world. Time to meet someone new. But where?
Josephine was never very good at standing still. Her body longed to move, whether across the dance floor, across the Parisian stage, or across a Parisian stage hand. So she walked, quickly, almost at a gallop. The scenery changed, a moving tableau of different bars and coffee houses, different prostitutes with different clients.
Then she saw another lone woman, perhaps lost like herself. She recognized a sameness in the tall, pale woman with her blonde hair pulled tightly in a bun on top of her head. Why, the woman’s short satin gown was almost the same blood-red as Josephine’s.
“Hey!” Josephine shouted. The woman turned, stopped, looked at her. “Do you speak English? I’m an American, see?”
The German woman’s face broke out in a smile. Josephine was taken in by its warmth. “I speak English, a little,” the woman said with a thick accent. “Are you lost?”
“I was,” Josephine said. “For a moment. I’m half way in between lost and exploring, now.”
The woman laughed. “I got a feeling you’re the same way.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I came here from Dresden only weeks ago. They say that you can find anything you want in Berlin.” Josephine watched the woman’s eyes travel across the street, eyeing a street urchin with severely bobbed hair and a dangerously low-cut dress. “I am Ingrid. And you are?”
Ingrid’s eyes grew wide. “It’s not possible! You are Josephine Baker, the entertainer?” Josephine shook her head. “But you’re wearing a dress! I thought you walked around the streets naked, with a leopard on a chain.”
“Yeah, well, it can’t be feathers, bananas and leopards all the time. I have to wear silk and satin sometimes, too. I get bored easily.” Ingrid laughed; it was a pleasant sound. “You know your way around here well enough to help me find my hotel?”
“Good. That’ll come in handy later. Right now, Ingrid, why don’t you and I go have some fun?”
Ingrid was pleased by the notion. She led Josephine down a dark and narrow street. They emerged in the bright lights outside a coffee house with an outdoor patio. The jukebox blared good American jazz; Josephine heard the drums. Her body began to move. As she danced her way through the door, it barely registered with her that all the well-dressed people on the patio were women.
“I’m a secretary by day,” Ingrid said as Josephine took in the sights. “Sometimes I come here at night.”
Inside, the café was smoky and loud. At its small tables, pairs of lovers sat and sipped coffee over candles. Just as on the patio, they were all women. Some of them wore men’s clothes. Some of them looked at her, whispering to one another. Perhaps they recognized her. She crossed her eyes, and they broke out in applause.
Josephine didn’t know what to say or do. Even the movement of her body in time to the jazz beat was stilled. In Paris, there were whispers of women who loved women. It was never spoken aloud. She hadn’t even said the words aloud to Hadley. She’d certainly never been to a place like this in Paris. And the folks in East St. Louis wouldn’t have believed this. Wouldn’t have stood for it, either.
“You like to come here, Ingrid?” Josephine asked.
Ingrid nodded. Josephine watched as the woman behind the coffee bar, a silver-haired matron in a sharp black jacket and a bowler hat, waved hello to Ingrid. They exchanged words in German. She said to Josephine, “Have I done wrong, to bring you here?”
Josephine felt as if she’d stumbled into a secret world that was none of her business. She didn’t know what to expect. And yet part of her was intrigued. She’d been in unfamiliar places before, and she always found a way to fit in.
It wasn’t so bad. Besides, she liked the music. Josephine’s body was telling her what to do. She had to keep moving.
“No, Ingrid,” she said, sliding her hand around Ingrid’s narrow waist. “You haven’t done bad at all. Dance with me.”
Ingrid fairly squealed with glee. Josephine’s dance was so wild, so free, that the other women on the floor stared at her. Then they lined up to take Ingrid’s place. Josephine and Ingrid separated, danced with new partners. A woman with very short black hair and very big hands asked Ingrid to dance. As she watched them together, Josephine found herself oddly jealous.
It couldn’t be. She couldn’t be attracted to this strange German woman, this Ingrid with the innocent eyes and secret desires. But somehow, Josephine found herself wanting to be touched, wanting to be held, wanting to be kissed. And she wasn’t thinking about Hadley.
Their dance went on and on. When Josephine finally asked Ingrid to help her find her way to the hotel, Ingrid smiled at her. “Of course,” she said. She took Josephine’s hand, and Josephine squeezed Ingrid’s small, pink palm in hers. She didn’t want to get lost again.
The hotel was a short distance away, shorter than Josephine had realized. “Ah, Miss Baker!” the hotel manager said in perfect English. “The other members of your party were quite worried about you. Let me show you to your suite.”
Josephine was still faintly amazed every time a white person spoke respectfully to her. She started after the manager. Ingrid followed. What was the harm, Josephine thought, in letting Ingrid see the suite?
The room was larger than her suite in Paris. The walls were painted earth-brown and cloud-gray, with enormous square windows that looked out on the dark city street. Ingrid sat down on a cushion in front of the window.
“Is there anything you require?” the hotel manager asked.
“Yes,” Josephine said. “Please find Miss Eleanore Hadley; she works for the stage manager. Please let her know that I’ve arrived safely.”
Ingrid looked sad. “Who is this Hadley?” she asked.
“A friend,” Josephine said. “Don’t look so sad. I hate being with sad people more than I hate being alone. Look, they’ve left some champagne for us. Let’s have a drink and be happy again.”
Ingrid poured the wine while Josephine turned on the radio. The music was dreadful, some gloomy Germanic march. She was going to turn it off again, but Ingrid seemed to like it. “Shall we dance?” Josephine asked. She drained her champagne glass.
It didn’t matter how awful the music was. Once Josephine was up on her feet and moving, everything felt fine. Ingrid’s small body, slowly swaying in her arms, felt fine. When Ingrid kissed her, Josephine let it happen. She didn’t stop Ingrid from sliding her hands up the back of Josephine’s gown and resting them on her buttocks. Even this felt right.
Ingrid slipped from Josephine’s embrace and out of her gown. Her skin looked ghostly pale in the low light of the suite’s chandelier. As she sat on the bed, Josephine wondered what would happen next.
“Come now, you can’t be so shy,” Ingrid said. “Not you, the wild one who scandalizes Paris by dancing naked on the stage.”
It wouldn’t be so bad, Josephine thought, to find out how Ingrid’s small breasts felt under her fingertips. As she started to explore, Ingrid kissed her. She felt the same glow being lit inside her that Hadley, and the others before her, had ignited.
Josephine tasted Ingrid’s lips, her throat, her pert little breasts. Then it was her turn to be tasted. Ingrid started at the nipple, worked her way down Josephine’s belly, and found her sex. Josephine gasped. Ingrid’s mouth was so hot, her tongue so quick. It hadn’t been like this with Hadley. She hadn’t needed Hadley so urgently.
Josephine’s body knew what to do, as it always did. She and Ingrid moved together in a passionate dance that left them both exhausted.
Late that night, there was a knock on the door. Josephine stirred, looked down at Ingrid’s delicious little body, and decided not to answer.
ray-Eyes sat on the silver velvet sofa in quiet disbelief. He could think of nothing to say, except, “That’s what Berlin was like in those days, I suppose. Decadent. Amoral.” And then, “But what happened to Hadley?”
Josephine gave him a hard look. Then she said, “I don’t know. I suppose she went on working for the theatre company. Perhaps she took up with one of the chorus girls.” She was tired of telling her story. “I will call your agency tomorrow with my decision.”
“Thank you for your time, Miss Baker,” Gray-Eyes said, getting up from the sofa. Josephine realized that he still wore his coat. “Bon soir.”
“Bon soir,” she said as she led him to the front door. When he left, she was careful to lock it behind him.
The house was quiet again. Josephine turned on the radio, letting the old-fashioned jazz drift softly through the room. She recognized the vibraphones, the beats. They used to play music like that in Berlin, in the ‘twenties.
She hadn’t thought about Berlin in years. She’d half forgotten about the utter freedom of her nights with Hadley and Ingrid. Josephine was sixty. Sometimes her memory failed. She’d long ago been relieved of the constant need to move her body.
I once worked because my body demanded it, she thought. Now I work because the landlord demands it. She looked around at the house, thought of her children. Yes, her Rainbow Tribe, all of them different. Yet they were all one family. I will never be lonely again, Josephine thought. Not like before. And freedom from her loneliness was, perhaps, the sweetest of all.
She would go to Berlin. It would be a different city, and the old ghosts would not haunt her. It would be as if she’d never been there before.
Originally published at Oysters and Chocolate (www.oystersandchocolate.com)