NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a man who sees New York from his perch just off Broadway; restaurant owner Jean-Claude Baker.
"I am allergic to garlic. I don't give a damn about food. I know nothing about wine, despite that I was born in Burgundy, and I decided to open a restaurant,” says Jean-Claude Baker.
You can probably guess from his accent that Baker is not from the Bronx, or Brooklyn, or anywhere near this city. But for more than 30 years, he's been a New Yorker.
“You are an artist. Indeed, every day when I open the place I have the same canvas, but every night, depending on who comes, who I sit here and there, it's a different painting," he says. “There is a kind of vibe in the room which maybe people don't feel, but I feel it. And that vibe is good and everyone is happy."
The restaurant, Chez Josephine, is named after the woman Baker calls his unofficial adopted mother, entertainer Josephine Baker. He met her when he was 14, while he was working as a bellhop in Paris.
He eventually became part of her large extended family, and traveled and performed with her during her last years in the 1960s and 70s. Now his stage is a small strip just off Broadway.
“Every night is an opening night, and I'm worried that nobody is going to show up tonight,” he says. “I'm the quintessence of a real actor like [during] the time of Josephine - nothing was granted. Right now I have people who are going to the theater at 8 p.m., and my motto is, ÎI deliver you dead or alive, and you’ll sit two minutes before the curtain rises.’"
When Baker opened Chez Josephine in 1986, 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues was already home to several businesses, some of them even legal.
“When Playwrights Horizons opened first, this was still a massage parlor,” he says. “Very few patrons wanted to come down to the theatre, and when few would come, the ladies of the night would come out of this place, which is now Chez Josephine, and go and grab the gentlemen and say, ’Come, I give you a better time.’ It was literally like that.”
Baker came to America as a singer with his mother in the early 70s. He had performed in West Berlin, and soon began playing clubs in New York.
“I didn't like it because all those old ladies who had inherited $$5 million or $$500 million while I was singing were [wagging their tongues] and sending me bottles of Dom Perignon. I felt like a hustler," he says.
He then created and hosted TeleFrance USA, a cable television show about France, for which he won a Cable ACE Award.
But Baker has made his greatest impact on New York in his restaurant, an homage to his adopted mother - a labor of love, all encompassing.
“You would think after 18 years it would be easier. It is not easier," he says. “When you have a restaurant, it's like a child who will never grow up. The restaurant is my life because it is the theater - I can receive people, and it is my place. But I have no life. I go to the restaurant and I come [home], and it's a little bit sad."
Even in a city where characters with interesting backgrounds are common, Jean-Claude Baker stands out, seemingly with a knack for meeting and befriending some of the 20th century's cultural icons.
As a young man working at a hotel in Paris, “[Josephine] introduced me to person called Picasso, and I didn't know these people. Picasso - what kind of name is that?" he says.
Baker says while he was running a discotheque in Berlin in the 1960s, “My very good friend [dancer] Rudolf Nureyev would come to see me in my club in Berlin from the old days."
And as a young exchange student in Liverpool in 1960, he remembers going to see a certain up-and-coming band in a place called the Cavern Club.
"I would go there and talk with [The Beatles], and Brian Epstein was absolutely madly in love with the music of those guys,” he says. “He thought it was the revelation. I absolutely felt nothing about that music."
But most of the tales of Baker's life stem from the woman he met in Paris as a young boy. Josephine Baker was considered one of the great entertainers of her time, but as a black woman, the racism and segregation she encountered in this country drove her to Paris, where she gained international fame.
Baker met Jean-Claude when he was 14, alone and working in Paris after leaving his small village.
“Josephine came in my life as a very important person,” he says. “She was my second mother. I had been abandoned, I had no father, and my birth mother was very reserved. [I was] ashamed of being abandoned and Josephine was screaming, ÎMen are all the same! Don't be worried - you have no father, but you have two mothers!’ I thought, ÎShe's mad,’ but it was magic."
This was at a time when Baker began adopting children, a family she often referred to as "the Rainbow Tribe." She never officially adopted Jean-Claude, but for much of the 60s and 70s, they traveled and performed together.
“When I was with her I could always sense the great sadness in her, something broken inside, the scars that she could barely cover, maybe to blind you out on stage when she sang, when she mesmerized you, but inside I could feel the broken heart, which is a little bit my heart too,” he says.
Jean-Claude joined Josephine Baker for her successful return to the United States in 1973. A fan recently sent Baker a bootleg tape of his mother's comeback concert in Los Angeles.
“Can you imagine that? A black girl who could not go in theater in the front door, and here she is back,” he says. “The famous star, with that body — the first black sex symbol of the last century. Paris 1925, Los Angeles 1975 - they still remember."
Josephine Baker died in Paris in 1975. Years later, Jean-Claude began work on a biography of his adopted mother. "Josephine: The Hungry Heart" came out in 2001.
"I felt very privileged to get little pieces of the puzzle,” he says. “Sometimes she said to me, half upset, ÎYou always want to know about me. You are the only one who will discover the whole truth.’ I wanted to find the 19 years that Josephine Baker left behind when she arrived in Paris. I call them the springtime of her life, or any life. And it is, yes, tragic.”
Josephine Baker is never really far away from Jean-Claude, in his apartment or in his real home, his restaurant. A night at Chez Josephine combines reminders of the past with opinions on Broadway today.
And just as the most important show to an entertainer is the next one, so too for Jean-Claude Baker, where last night's success apparently has no bearing on tonight.
”I don’t think that I’ve been a success,” he says. “I'm not trying to be modest. I work so hard for everything, and I've always had great insecurity like every artist; ÎAre they going to love me tonight?’ I don't have the time to analyze my life, which is a mistake. And now that I'm 61 years of age, it’s maybe time for me to sit down and analyze it and find peace with myself and maybe some proudness in what I've done. Thanks to all the people who were my friends — all those people became the family I never had.”
- Budd Mishkin