Tala Ko

Her banana skirt’s the bee’s knees

Posted on: Wednesday, 9 July 2008

I’m trying an even more different format for a wikiwalk entry today. I’ve been reading the free ebook of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” so yesterday, I decided to begin a wikiwalk into the Jazz Age. I’ve always been fascinated by the Roaring 20’s – the exuberance, the fashion, the music – perhaps more than by the hippies of the 60’s and the bohemian lifestyle.

How I started reading the novel is a short game of connections in itself. I read somewhere that Brad Pitt was going to play the title role in a movie version of Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I looked up the Benjamin Button page, then decided that I wanted to read everything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, having read “The Great Gatsby” already sometime in high school. On the F. Scott Fitzgerald page, I learned that “This Side of Paradise” was his debut novel, so there I went.

On the “This Side of Paradise” page (I only read as far as I’d already gotten in the book; I don’t want to spoil anything for myself), I saw links to Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre. From Zelda’s page, I clicked on to the flapper, and from there to the Eton crop, and from there to Josephine Baker.

Anyway, Fitzgerald based his female characters largely on Ginevra and Zelda, the former being his first love. Ginevra was a debutante and socialite, practically immortalized as Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.”

What Fitzgerald said to her at this Hollywood party made me laugh. She asked him which character in “The Beautiful and the Damned” had been based on her, and he said, “Which bitch do you think you are?” It was the last time she ever saw him.

Zelda, meanwhile, was a writer and an artist in her own right, but it seems that Fitzgerald stifled her creativity – and then had the gall to lift passages from her personal diary and letters and put them in his stories. Together, Zelda and her husband were icons of the Jazz Age (a term Fitzgerald himself coined) and were quite hot on the social scene. But more privately – or rather, less privately, as their marriage progressed – their relationship was pretty rocky.

Zelda\'s self-portrait
A watercolor self-portrait

It seems to me that Zelda married Fitzgerald for his fame and then spent the rest of her life paying for it; she couldn’t find a way out of his shadow. People appreciated her work for what it was only after her death. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Zelda spent the latter part of her life in a sanitorium. She died in a fire.

Josephine Baker, meanwhile, was something else. She was one of many African-Americans who found their place in Paris; racism in America had pretty much blinded American critics to her star quality, while the French were more appreciative of her talent.

Josephine Baker
Josephine in 1950

Aside from being a stage and movie star – Josephine was the first black woman to star in a motion picture – she worked for the Underground during WWII. She smuggled intelligence to the resistance using code in her sheet music. :D For her efforts, she received three medals, two of them awarded by General Charles de Gaulle.

When Josephine did perform in America, she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, helping to force integration in some concert halls. Josephine was also the only woman to speak at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest civil rights rally in Washington. Upon his death, his widow Coretta asked her to take over leadership of the movement (!), but she declined out of worry for her kids. Josephine had a “Rainbow Tribe” of adopted children, a brood much larger and more diverse than Angelina Jolie’s today. :)

I can’t say that I can think of anyone like her today. She’s proof that something came out of the Jazz Age apart from all the booze, drugs, and promiscuity, that you can be a real star while doing your part in a troubled world (she lived through the Great Depression, WWII, and the American civil rights movement). I’m already a fan, and I haven’t yet found out where I can find recordings of her performances.

I like the way the wiki article described her death:

On April 9, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris — Josépine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, backed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace,[4] and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating reached such an extent that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening night audience included Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.

On the morning of April 10 Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She had slipped into a coma. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died at the age of 68 on April 12, 1975.

About women in the Jazz Age in general – another thing I like is that the flappers actually wanted to deemphasize their bodies, despite their partying and promiscuity. They liked the boyish haircuts and figures, even wearing bras designed to flatten their chests. And yet, there’s something so very feminine about their style. I consider it a true fashion achievement, that they could make a statement of liberation without giving up their womanhood.

Arguably, all this liberation of the 20s must have had some negative impacts on the image of women. Josephine Baker was initially famous for dancing nearly nude and was also known for wearing a skirt made of a string of (fake) bananas. (As much as I admire her, I guess I shouldn’t spare her. But banana skirt aside, she seems to have been a class act.) I love the flappers for being young, having fun, and shaking their asses at patriarchy, but I do wonder what difference it would have made if they hadn’t been THAT loose. :p

1 Response to "Her banana skirt’s the bee’s knees"

In re to Josephine Baker; I have seen some of her films on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). The cable station also sells films. You might contact them in re to Josephine Baker DVIDs or Videos.

Good luck. She was a fascinating lady. There are some beautiful art deco posters of her around, by Erte, I believe.

I also read a couple of books on her that were wonderful, although I don’t think the most comprehensive bio/memoir has yet been written. As we move farther away from her lifetime, it will be more difficult to learn about her.

Another fabulous charactor of Paris of 1920s was Bricktop; a jazz singer & cabaret owner.

I also highly recommend the book, Always Wear Joy, by Susan Falles-Hill, a beautiful socialite/tv-scrip writer who is a Mullato and although her mother was more of 1950s Paris, she was a bohemian and you would enjoy this book!

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