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I have two loves, 1951

I have two loves, 1951

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The grand reception hall of the George V hotel was buzzing, its huge crystal chandelier glittering over the wealthy tourists who’d come to marvel at the City of Light. An American journalist swerved his way through them, heading to the elevator where a security man was waiting. “John Wise, I’m John Wise!” he explained to the man, who brought him up to the third floor. The journalist went over the questions he wanted to ask the great dancer, the great actress, the great singer: Josephine Baker. The security guard knocked on the door. It opened, and there she was: Josephine Baker in her leopard-print dress. She wore an expression that said nothing in the world could surprise her. John Wise sat in an armchair and fumbled with his pen. Josephine Baker began speaking, trying to put him at ease:

“You know, it really is very handy being me. As soon as I’m announced in a city, the invitations start pouring in. Whether it’s Seville, Madrid or Barcelona, it’s always the same! When I go to consulates or embassies, I meet a lot of interesting people...I bring back their names, information, anything I want to remember, noted down on little papers that I pin inside my corsage...”

“Aren’t you worried about getting caught at the border?” the journalist gasped.

“I’m not afraid of anyone. And who would dare strip-search Josephine Baker? Anyway, my trips through customs are always a relaxed affair — the agents all smile at me and ask for papers...with my autograph on them!”

“But what did you hide during the war? I know that you were part of the resistance.”

“Yes, after General de Gaulle’s call to service in 1940. I'm a patriot, you know. My song about having two loves, France and Paris, that wasn’t just hot air. Love is worth fighting for. It’s not enough to just sing your way through life. Not that singing and dancing isn’t important – in fact I think it’s the most beautiful thing one can do, because it’s the thing that brings us closest to freedom.”

“Performing seems to be an act of emancipation, an act of love for you.”

“I’ve been married several times, as you know. I haven’t always been lucky in love. But the love I feel for France is another story. France has never let me down. France made me who I am today, and I shall always be grateful to her. Americans never really understood me; they couldn’t see what the French saw in me. In France, there are talented artists to go where I go, to inspire me, paint me, film me...France is a gentle place, it’s a nice place for folks of colour to live. Haven’t I become the darling of Paris? They’ve given me everything, especially their hearts. And I’ve given them mine in return.”

“Of course, you’re a star, adored around the world.”

“Oh, do you remember my trip to Lisbon?”

“Of course, Madame Baker.”

“One night, I gave an unforgettable show. A show that deserved to be portrayed in a film or a great novel. Little did the audience know I had a microfilm hidden in the wiring of my bra! I sang, I danced, I paraded in front of them, and in my bosom I held the names of the top Nazis, the names of France’s enemies. Monsters in my breast; anti-Semites and racists.”

“It’s an incredible story. Speaking of which, we know that you converted to Judaism before the war. Do you still keep that faith?”

“I did, in 1937. I was in love with a Jewish man who made me love his religion. Now…well that’s ancient history.”

“So, Madame Baker, what are you fighting for these days?”

“The same things I’ve always fought for and always will: the rights of blacks, the rights of women and the honour of France.”

Josephine Baker was well used to hosting journalists from all over the world. The interviews she gave were captivating, and journalists often left her company feeling more than a little love-struck. The actress turned activist, singer turned diplomat, the dancer considered herself to be French until the end. A photographer present in the suite wanted to capture the journalist with Josephine Baker. “Come closer! Don’t be scared, I won’t bite,” Baker laughed as she posed with the reporter. The journalist laughed and responded, “I thought you might when I first walked in!” The photographer asked for a smile and counted to three. The moment was frozen in time, a memory to be cherished forever.

Alan Alfredo Geday


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