On the passing of Jean-Claude Baker

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Jean-Claude Baker passed away earlier this week. The Times has reported that he killed himself at his home in the Hamptons. New Yorkers will long remember his outsized personality, his extraordinary showmanship, and his venerable restaurant, Chez Josephine, nestled at the edges of Hell’s Kitchen and the theatre district.

He was a flamboyant, melodramatic, theatrical human being. Some might recall that, in 2007, he ran afoul of the postal service when he tried to send out 15,000 postcards, each emblazoned with a naked image of Josephine, to friends and supporters of the restaurant. The post office refused, branding the cards as “pornographic advertising.” Undaunted, Jean-Claude added a banner that read “Censored” over Josephine’s breasts and mailed out the postcard anyhow.

He was also a friend.

Our first meeting was hastily arranged. After casually mentioning to my mentor that I was thinking about writing a book on Josephine Baker and her adopted children, I was immediately swept off to Chez Josephine for dinner. “You have to meet Jean-Claude,” I was told. After greeting us at the door in his customary Chinese silk, Jean-Claude came to sit at our table, and spent an hour talking about his mother, his brothers and sisters, and the experiment at Les Milandes. He was, of course, unsparingly candid and graphic and we all blushed. Afterwards, when my wife and I were on our way back to Queens, we laughed and laughed about his outrageous stories and his great satirical timing.

Over the years that followed, Jean-Claude – the author of his own acclaimed biography of Josephine – was the soul of generosity. He introduced me to his extended family, provided phone numbers and email contacts. When one brother flew in from Argentina, he invited me out to the Hamptons. He routinely sat down with me over long lunches at his restaurant – feeding me without a second thought – to talk, on the record, about his muse, his mother, his raison d’être. Each time, he plied me with some rich cognac, some fantastic white wine, some “just remembered” story of Josephine. More than once, after these briefer visits, I had to race to take notes on our conversations, hoping to catch the details before the alcohol hit me. He was always so wonderfully Gallic, speaking so casually about the electric histories of sex and race and celebrity with a deep French accent. When the book was finished, he proofed the whole thing, sending me hasty, encouraging emails about typos or inaccuracies. “Bravo encore,” he wrote at the end of his list of corrections, “you can be very proud of yourself.” And then, one month after I’d sent him the galleys, he wrote to volunteer himself as the host of a book party at Chez Josephine.

During a long pause in one interview, when it was just the two of us seated at a small table in the front window, I asked him about the restaurant. He was most proud, he said, of the politics of Chez Josephine, of its establishment in the midst of the HIV-AIDS crisis as a welcoming space. When almost no one else wanted anything to do with the LGTBQ community, Jean-Claude opened his restaurant for a decidedly queer Valentine’s Day celebration, a reflection of his lifelong commitment to the HIV-AIDS struggle and the gay community.

Accounts of his passing will surely describe Chez Josephine as a “New York institution,” but it should be noted that it was also rooted in a very different historical context. Reflecting his determined support for the gay community, it was rooted in the pre-history of the glittering present, before Times Square became a neon tourist destination, when it was harder to be openly gay and out, when cityscapes were grittier, more dangerous. At the same time, with its regular parade of A and B list stars – ushered upstairs to a private room, but escorted through the main room first, and greeted dramatically at the front door – Chez Josephine always reminded me, nostalgically, of a moment in time when stars and their publics weren’t so distant, when you could find them at the “in” spot after a show. And finally, there was the racial camp of the restaurant itself, which was also a part of Jean-Claude’s tremendous appeal. Here was a white Frenchman who audaciously proclaimed himself the 13th “Baker,” after having attached his life to Josephine – the famous African American superstar and expatriate – in her declining years as a chargé d’affaires, and who became the stateside guardian of her legacy, collecting materials, keeping her in the public eye, writing a searching memoir of her life, and, in the end, making it possible for others to write on the same subject.

There was nothing like him – and there never will be again.

I wrote to him in late September, wishing him a happy birthday. And he, very sweetly, responded. “We are fine,” he confirmed, “but I am getting older.”

“I will never believe it,” I wrote back, “you – getting older.”