Jean-Claude Baker bawled like a baby when he first laid eyes on the 6-by-10-foot canvas that he commissioned for his theater district restaurant, Chez Josephine.
“I had cried for 20 minoots. I’m not shoking!” he said in his thick French accent, hands delicately crossed over his chest, while looking with fondness at the mural’s artist, Mireille Gannat-Miller.
Ms. Miller spent two years converting boxes of Mr. Baker’s snapshots into the group portrait of 110 people all arranged in the dining room of Chez Josephine, many of them famous-Siegfried and Roy! Jessye Norman! Pierre Franey!-and others long dead.
On the afternoon of Oct. 30, in the TriBeCa artist’s studio where the painting is being housed until it is installed at Chez Josephine early next year, the 56-year-old Mr. Baker was wearing a black satin jacket from Shanghai Tang. As always, he was enveloped in a cloud of Vetiver, the woodsy cologne he says he has worn since he was 17 years old, a few years after he met Josephine Baker.
In 1958, Mr. Baker was a 14-year-old self-described “bastard” from Dijon. He was living alone and working as a bellhop in the Hôtel Scribe in Paris. (His full name, including his biological mother’s last name as his own last name, was Jean-Claude Julien Léon Tronville.) At the hotel, he met Josephine Baker, an African-American dancer who had been a sensation in the 1920′s when she wowed Paris’ Folies-Bergère with her topless banana costume. In 1958, she was 52 years old, and in the midst of an adoption spree that would eventually give her a 12-member multiracial brood that she called “the Rainbow Tribe.”
“Don’t be worried, my little one,” Josephine Baker told Jean-Claude that day in the hotel. “You have no father, but from today on, you will have two mothers.” Mr. Baker became the oldest member and, eventually, a kind of spokesman for the Rainbow Tribe.
He went on to manage Josephine Baker’s career in the last years of her life. When she died in 1975, he moved to New York. Fascinated by the rags-to-riches mythology that Josephine Baker had woven for herself, he spent the next 20 years researching a book about her, trying to separate fact from invention. The book would become Josephine: The Hungry Heart . The New York Times liked it. In 1986, he bought an old massage parlor on Theater Row, and despite an allergy to garlic and a lack of knowledge about food and wine, he turned it into a restaurant, Chez Josephine, named after the club his adoptive mother opened in Paris in 1926.
At the artist’s studio in TriBeCa, he was talking about his years in Berlin. In the mid-1960′s, he moved to the city and opened a nightclub called the Pimm’s Club. He wore ruffled shirts and long hair and hosted Orson Welles and the Beatles. He also regularly hosted Rudolf Nureyev, “who was like Ricky Martin,” he said, “but of course with much more talent.”
In the Chez Josephine painting, Nureyev is standing awfully close to burly heterosexual Anthony Quinn. One night, Nureyev performed a flamenco seduction dance in the middle of the club for a young German man who happened to be straight. At this point in telling the story, Mr. Baker (who, just a couple of months ago, got over a painful bout of sciatica) re-created the dance. He broke into a wrist-flicking, foot-stomping flamenco dance in the middle of the floor, accompanying himself with a rhythmic chant of ” Denk, day ga denk day ga denk day ga denk, denk! Denk day ga denk …”
“I nevair fucked with Rudy. He fucked in my bed many times, in my apartment, but I nevair fucked with him. Straight people think, Well, if I talk about a man, well, you must ‘ave fucked with him. I know Nureyev have a big deek, but he was not for me.”
Mr. Baker scanned the painting.
“Ah, Jackie O!”
In the painting, there she is, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a pretheater regular at Chez Josephine, seated at her favorite banquette next to the bar, which also happened to be right next to a big garbage can. Mr. Baker said she preferred the trash can to human neighbors, and she would always eat “a leetle feesh.”
“She would get up to go to the bathroom and, to my horreur , 10 women stood up at the same time. They want to be able to say, .I pee with Jackie O!’ I rushed past her to the men’s room, which ees empty, and I said, madame , why don’t you go in and I weel stand guard for you.’ I want her to pee privately. The 10 women come, look at me, and say, ‘You don’t do that for us,’ with looks that could keel me. I said ‘You , madame , are not the ex-First Lady of America!’”
Now Mr. Baker was pointing at Harry Connick Jr.
“Asparagoose!” he cried.
In the 80′s, Mr. Connick played $50 gigs two nights a week at the restaurant. Mr. Baker remembered the first time the teen-aged Mr. Connick walked into the restaurant. “He look like asparagoose, you know what I mean? In my head, you know, because he was young and tall, he look like asparagoose. To me! Someone is onion, someone collie-fleur, whatever you want. He was asparagoose!”
In the foreground, next to Al Hirschfeld, sits Billy Joel gazing mournfully into his lobster cassoulet.
“I will tell you why he is sad, because the first time he came to my place was when his wife left him and got married. Chreesty ‘ad chust drop him with the kid. It was not very nice, I sink, what she did to him, and a friend of his, and friend of mine-I won’t tell you ‘is name-called me on New Year’s Eve, and said, ‘Jean-Claude, if you promise not to ‘ave the press-I could have People magazine, whoever I wanted!-we come with Billy tonight, because he feel lonely.’ I feel sorry for the guy, you know what I mean?”
I wondered if Mr. Baker had been intimate with anyone in the mural.
“Who ‘ave I fucked? I’m glad you asked.” Mr. Baker pointed to a man named Clive Panton. “Yes, Clive, he was my black boyfriend. He was the only one here with whom I ‘ave sex.”
He looked sad for a moment.
Way way in the back, alongside Louis Armstrong (one of the handful in the painting whom Mr. Baker has never met), sits Woody Allen, in whose upcoming film, Sweet and Lowdown , Mr. Baker has a small part. “I played myself, but my name was Guy.” Alan Alda and Liam Neeson told him that Mr. Allen responded well to improvisation. Mr. Baker took note.
“I cried on set, at the end. I was brilliant! Woody was having these open eyes behind his glasses. Total silence. Everyone has tears in zere eyes. And so I get up, from in front of the camera, and nobody says a word. Then, Woody Allen says, ‘Excellent.’ And everyone come around me and applaud me and say, ‘Excellent? He never said zat! I ‘ad done the best! I ‘ad already learned my Academy acceptance speech. Because, what’s her name, Judi Dench, who came to Chez Josephine last year, she won for eight minoots. And I was speaking for almost two and a half minoots, so I could have won an Oscar!”
But after the shoot, he learned that his work had been lost on the cutting room floor.
“I was destroyed! I should go to a shreenk and an acting class.”
Ah, Maman . There she was, in the painting.
“Muthair,” said Mr. Baker, “you’re in the painting-that’s enough!”
Mr. Baker flicked a dismissive wave at Josephine Baker, who occupies the very center.
In his biography of his adoptive mother, Mr. Baker wrote: “I loved you. When you were cruel, I blamed your actions on a racist society, and the injuries you had suffered. I wanted the verdict of history to read, ‘Guilty, but with an explanation.’”
It wasn’t easy being a member of the Rainbow Tribe. “My fake Jewish broser died two years ago,” Mr. Baker said, explaining that Ms. Baker, lacking an Israeli member of the tribe, plucked a 14-month-old kid from a foster home outside of Paris, put a yarmulke on him, and called him Moïse. “It’s creemeenal !” he shouted. “And my poor broser, the fake Moses, says, when he find out, ‘What’s this shit! I’m not one of the Jewish people. I’m Catolique and I’m from Brittany!’ It traumatized him. He died two years ago from cancere. He was a bum living on the streets. He had to be a fake Jew all his life! I’m tired of Josephine! It’s time I come out, sank you! Let me speak now.”
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