The Fake Baker

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I first started to pull at this thread when I was in the midst of writing a book about Josephine Baker. Working through a collection of newspaper clippings at the Lincoln Center library, I found a shadow of a story. It never made it into the book I eventually wrote, but it kept growing, kept expanding outward. It found its way into a few talks. And so, for now, here it is. It might well find its way into another ongoing project about fakes and fraudsters, passing and subterfuge. At the very least, it seems, to me today, to be an imaginative bridge from the Baker book to this other emerging project.

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It started with a phone call. Or several phone calls, really.

The first one came in early September of 1979, introducing a previously undiscovered continental superstar with an elaborate, alluring backstory. The calls continued until they led to something like free publicity. And that free publicity laid the groundwork for a brief, revealing scam.

In a flurry of press announcements in the late summer of that year, Philip Baker presented himself to Washington D.C. as “the toast of the European entertainment world,” newly arrived in the nation’s capitol and preparing to launch what was described as “a major 36 city tour of the country.” In interview after interview, missive after missive, Philip insisted that he was the “only natural child” of Josephine and a mysterious “Harlem businessman,” conceived during her Depression-era, stateside stint in the Zeigfeld Follies.

Philip’s arrival on the scene was timely. Josephine, the world’s first modern celebrity, had died in 1975. The entire world had seen photos of her twelve adopted children – the famous Rainbow Tribe – gathered together outside of La Madeleine, the Romanesque church in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. Here, just a few years later, was her last, great secret: a previously “unpublicized child,” as the writer for Jet put it.

Jacqueline Trescott, a style reporter for Washington Post, took the bait. “It sounded like a good story,” she later remembered.  Philip had “repeated the tale around town, invoking the name of the legend he claimed was his mother and dropping the names of two or three generations of international celebrities.” His letter to the Post, promising a real scoop, had prompted a follow-up. “On a bright September afternoon,” Trescott recalled, they “sat in an outdoor café on Columbia Road” and talked about his past. Philip – charismatic, dynamic, and insistent – “wove an intriguing saga about how he had been overlooked, forgotten.” Trescott was convinced and wrote up a profile of the man for the Post.

Trescott took Philip Baker at his word. More than that, she sympathetically conveyed his overpowering sense of abandonment, the sentiments of a man who had watched his mother take care of other lost children, watched her bring them into the spotlight and celebrate their potential, watched as she kept him in the shadows.

The reporter included a large photograph of the man, wearing a fashionable hounds-tooth jacket, light-colored turtleneck, and newsboy cap. The photographer caught Philip in mid-laugh, and revealed a big, toothy smile. Not unlike Josephine’s, any reader might have thought.

She also provided Philip with official sanction and a promotional backstory, enabling the con. Her story was serialized in the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and other venues. There was nothing unusual in that, of course. But Philip also made copies, carried them around, and handed them out as a perverse sort of calling card, providing proof of the legitimacy of his claim.  The Washington Post – the paper of Woodward and Bernstein – had endorsed him as the first son of Josephine Baker.

This was a good time to be “discovered” as the lost son of Josephine. Most people would have remembered the still-recently deceased Baker for her elaborate state performances and for her voluminous and variegated Rainbow Tribe, adopted after World War Two. Setting a dozen children, brought together from around the world, in a castle in the Dordogne, Baker had been a long-adored fixture of American popular culture, even if she’d been living in France for decades. By the end of the 1970s, this interest was consolidating to create a posthumous industry of sorts: there were biographies being written, Broadway stage performances being scripted, and documentary films being planned.

Philip had a ready explanation for his long absence. Born offstage and in a different period of her life, he’d seen his mother only briefly over the years. He was a secret. When she came over for lunch or dinner, their conversation was routinely interrupted by phone calls.  On the night when she attended his first nightclub performance in Rome, she was in disguise, wearing a “wig and black glasses.” She passed him a note backstage, he remembered, wondering why he hadn’t performed any of her songs. From a distance, Philip jealously watched as she showered attention on her more famous adopted children, but when his father passed away, “she claimed me.” He knew her, the Post reporter summarized, “intimately yet distantly.”

Now, a few years after her death, like any dutiful son, Philip was interested in setting the record straight. Highlighting themes that would have resonated in African American political culture, Philip described a woman who was anything but the “superficial, materialistic, black dumb blonde.”  He knew the deeper truth.  She urged him to discover and understand black culture.  “Jo was a god in Harlem,” he insisted, “When she was there, she was home.” Inspired by her example, Philip joined the growing movement for civil rights, “drawn to fund-raising and marching.” He got a degree from Harvard.  And, like his birth mother, he was there on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for Martin Luther King’s historic speech.

In an amiable, wide-ranging conversation, full of laughter and sadness, Philip told the Post reporter that that same year – 1963 – was also a pivotal year in his career as a performer.  Things had taken off for him after the March on Washington. He’d been showcased at San Francisco’s little theatre, the Hungry I, alongside a young Bill Cosby.  And there had been an “impromptu duo” with his “good friend,” Barbra Streisand, at the London Palladium. “We sang three numbers together,” he remembered, “and we didn’t mention Jo.”

And then – as the story went – Josephine died, and Philip’s life fell apart.  For a year and a half, he confessed, “I didn’t want to deal with her death.”  ‘She was away. I never cried. I never went to the cemetery.” In his current nightclub act, Philip described, Josephine was referenced only obliquely, at the end, when “slide pictures of me and her in the park” appeared behind him, and he turns around and says, “Thank you mother, for giving it all to me.”

Not a word of this was true.

Some fakes last a lifetime. Others fade fast. Josephine’s clever deceptions and self-inventions continue to beguile. Philip Baker’s con lasted barely a month, if that. One month after Trescott’s profile, his story had been fact-checked, his biography was in tatters, and he had vanished.

The owner of the Club in Rome – the scene of that charming little performance, where a mother in disguise sent a small, intimate note backstage – refused to confirm Philip’s performance. Close friends of Josephine called the man “an imposter,” a “hoax, “ and “crazy.”  “I have never heard of him,” said Jean-Claude Baker, her fake adopted son, then working for a French television station in New York City, “this is ridiculous.” Jean-Claude had made a copy of the Washington Post profile, dispatched it to Jo Bouillon, the surviving father of the Rainbow Tribe, and threatened a lawsuit.  He also put interested reporters in touch with Lynn Haney, then working on a serious biography of Josephine.

(Years later, when I asked Jean-Claude about this incident, he snorted in disgust).

As the news circulated, and as grand promises evaporated, Philip’s false narrative unraveled. His claim of a Harvard degree didn’t match, in hindsight, the man’s rough-edge persona. And for all his big talk about global connections and powerful friends, there was no real money. A photographer who agreed to stage some publicity shots discounted her fee – a nod to Philip’s presumed status as a celebrity, and the surplus value of his prospective status as a client – but, frustratingly, only received a token portion of even that small amount. Another photographer was simply never paid. A $400 bill for promotional posters went unpaid.  Backup singers were left high and dry. Performance halls never got down payments. And, as more thorough investigative reporting revealed, no one had ever even heard the man sing.

Just a few months after he arrived, then, Philip vanished, leaving only angry creditors and jilted performers in his wake.

We could easily dismiss him as a fake, but it would be a mistake to weigh the competing claims of “fake” and “real” in this story.  A certain winking fraudulence had always been a part of Josephine’s celebrity. She had once famously presented her lover, Pepito Abatino, as titled nobility – “Count Abatino” when she knew, for certain, that he was anything but. And she’d set herself up like a queen in her extraordinary chateau, Les Milandes, a castle she outfitted with royal crests and gilt detail. She fudged her own backstory, changed her reasons for almost everything. She’d appropriated a young boy – Jean-Claude – and allowed him to pretend, in his own inimitable manner, that he was her last adopted son. Philip’s backstory thus gave him an interesting provenance, connecting him to an enigmatic woman who’d been born poor and who’d become a kind of faux aristocrat. It established him as the first child, conceived long before Josephine’s radical post-war assemblage of the Rainbow Tribe.

Though he managed to convince the Washington Post, many others were a little cynical, a little suspicious, either hearing something in Phillip’s voice, or sensing something in his performance that didn’t quite ring true. Some people doubted Philip’ story – and yet, still, the con was successful. Because others believed.

Philip’s elaborate, gutsy con, conceived in the midst of national downturn, illuminates the challenges of upward mobility, the desperate efforts of people to find a shorter, more treacherous route to the top through subterfuge and trickery that have pockmarked the history of American capitalism. It shines a spotlight, as well, on the strange atmospherics of celebrity, in which fame – a la the Kardashians – can become a quick shortcut to wealth, even when talent is lacking.

We could, of course, just read this brief, one-month deception as something like a biographical aftershock, triggered by Josephine’s death. For as long as there have been celebrities and superstars, there have also been those who pretend to be their intimates. But there is something else going on here, too. On some level, every fake is merely a copy of the supposed real thing.  And, continuing on, every act of disguise and fakery reveals a little something different about the inner workings of identity. Philip was a phony. But so, too, in a way, was Josephine. And so were many of those who came forward to challenge Philip’s claims. Fakes and fakery were everywhere. By the time the dust had settled, all sorts of people had laid claim to the truth, and those claims that won the day were only slightly more compelling than Philip’s.

When we erase Phillip as a “fake,” then, we’re underlining the idea that Josephine was “real,” and we’re lazily, half-consciously sifting and sorting through issues of authenticity and sincerity that date back to the nation’s founding.

We shouldn’t be doing this sort of accounting. It gets us nowhere. It might only get us into the fever swamps of “authenticity” and “reality” and “sincerity,” where critical thinking goes to die.

Instead, let’s re-interrogate our notion of fraud and fakery. Whose claims on wealth and class are defined as real, or honest, or verifiable, whose are read, or seen, or assessed as somehow dissonant or offbeat. How does that distinction get made? What work does it do? How and why does Philip Baker get defined, over time, as a disposable fake while Josephine Baker, made globally famous by re-writing her own life right in front of us, is celebrated for being the real thing? And what are our investments in one kind of self-creation but not another?  Why, in the end, do we read one kind of fraudster as “real” and another as “false”?