“Josephine Baker’s Last Dance” is a novel is about one of the most interesting woman of the 20th century. The book is divided into five sections or “Acts.” The first deals with Josephine’s early years in St. Louis, where she was born into poverty to a mother who didn’t love her and later was abused by a wealthy white woman who Josephine worked for.
The next section covers Josephine’s experiences when she begins performing at age 13, doing comedy and dancing with Negro troupes. She left St.Louis at 19 to perform in Philadelphia and New York, commencing the third act.
When Josephine is offered a chance to go to Paris, she quickly takes Paris by storm, virtually “owns” the city. She then goes on her first world tour. In Berlin, the Brown Shirts begin showing up at her shows—foreshadowing grim times. In 1935, Josephine returns to New York, where she’s far from welcome because of segregation laws.
In the fourth section of the novel, Josephine is recruited by the Resistance to spy for them during World War II. She succeeds and is rewarded at the end of the war for her work. During this time, she renounced her American citizenship and became a French national.
From 1951 to her death in 1975, she became a committed civil rights activist. This is the final act. She forced Miami to integrate their audiences, refusing to perform unless they did so. She called a press conference with the NAACP in New York when she was refused service at the famous all white Stork Club. She spoke at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
She also adopted 12 children from different countries. This was her “Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine had always wanted children, but was unable to bear children because of several abortions and finally had to have a hysterectomy. She also wanted to show that children from all countries could live together.
Josephine Baker was a complicated and complex figure, but the depth of her personality is not fully developed in this novel. The writing is trite at times and the story is disjointed. The author also glossed over some things in Josephine’s life. When I did some research, I discovered a lot of things that were mentioned only in passing or not at all.
She was bi-sexual and converted to Judaism, later to Catholicism. Josephine was sick several times with pneumonia. She also had a relationship with God, and had a vision when she was young about God giving her a crown to wear. One can’t help but wonder how these issues were reconciled because of her rather loose morals.
“Josephine’s Last Dance,” would be a good book for a book club because it offers a glimpse into the Jazz and Flapper era, and the cabarets of the day. The book also made me want to know more about Josephine Baker.