Vienna, Austria, 1928
The brilliant entertainer Josephine Baker was among the world’s most celebrated figures of the jazz age, headlining groundbreaking revues during the 1927 Folies Bergere (while costumed in little more than a girdle made of bananas) and challenging racial and gender stereotypes at virtually every step of her career. Her artistry also intensified the discussion of morality and entertainment.
This extended excerpt from Ean Wood’s 2000 biography The Josephine Baker Story looks at the debate surrounding this issue that took place in Austria during her 1928 tour. The fascinating story — featuring economics, politics and religion — is a reminder of the complexity of the time in which she lived, and ends with a wonderfully ironic punchline.
The Josephine Baker Story
Josephine and [manager and lover] Pepito had several objects in mind when they planned her tour. One was to get her away from Paris while she was still a huge star and before the public’s small dissatisfaction with the sameness of her performances could grow any greater. Their hope was that her absence would make their hearts grow fonder. In addition, the tour would give her an opportunity to create a new Josephine, to develop an image that was nearer to what she wanted to be: more soigne than eccentric, more glamorous than amusing, and as much a singer as a dancer. As part of developing this new image, Pepito would continue to educate her in acting like a lady while on tour. He would hire tutors to teach her French and Spanish and German, and he would constantly work on polishing her table manners. “Hold your fork this way, cherie. Chew with your mouth closed, cherie. Don’t speak in such a loud tone of voice, cherie.”
No other performers would travel with them; instead local singers, dancers and musicians would be hired wherever they were performing. This inevitably led to somewhat variable standards of performance, and it put a great deal of pressure on Josephine to carry her shows. Quite early in the tour, her weight had dropped from around 135 pounds to 115. Fortunately for her health, though, the tour would not be absolutely continuous. There would be gaps in it, and from time to time they would even manage to make trips back to Paris, although not to perform.
The first city on their itinerary was Vienna, and unknown to Josephine and Pepito, as they made their way there, they were entering a fraught situation. Austria, like most of Europe in the aftermath of the Great War, was in a somewhat unstable state. Cut off from its former territories in the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the terms of the Armistice, it was now a relatively small country struggling to support not only itself but its sizeable capital, Vienna.
This gave rise to discontent and political ferment. The old empire had been overburdened with nobility, who had ruled over their great estates like medieval barons, and now that it had collapsed there was a great move towards socialism, towards creating a better world for the common man. There was also a move towards conservatism, because in times of great change there is a natural movement by many of the public towards old certainties, and in Austria one of these old certainties was Catholicism. The country therefore had many conservatives and many Catholics, and these were two groups to whom Josephine was anathema.
Not that most of the population knew all that much about her, or even about the kinds of shows in which she appeared, for in Austria there was no tradition of music hall. But to herald her arrival, the city had been plastered with posters showing her wearing only pearls and an ostrich feather. Never had such posters been seen in Vienna. The newspapers investigating this phenomenon had published lurid tales of her riotous and debauched life in Paris. She was seen to embody licence and licentiousness. Furthermore, she was black.
Most of the population of Austria was Germanic, and rising out of its political unrest was a growing racist movement, encompassing both socialists and conservatives, that believed that Nordics, such as Saxons and Scandinavians, were the most superior race of man. The conservatives believed this out of a pride in their country’s past, such as their history of producing great music and architecture, while the socialists believed it out of envy and resentment towards the country’s Jewish minority, who owned many of its most profitable and successful businesses and who held many of its highest academic positions. Out of a fusion of these was growing the Nazi movement, who called themselves National Socialists but were in fact deeply conservative.
Josephine, being black, was even further beyond the racial pale than the Jews, and by the time she and Pepito had arrived in Vienna at the beginning of February 1928 the city’s small group of young proto-Nazis had declared loudly that they would see to it that she did not perform. Some of the most ardent had even used the word negersmach, meaning the insult it would be to the white population if she did.
Part of their hatred of black performers grew out of a belief that jazz was the natural enemy of great Viennese music, of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, not to mention the waltzes of the Strausses. This feeling had been focused and inflamed by the recent performance in the city of the first attempt at a jazz opera, Jonny Spielt Auf, written by the young composer Ernst Krenek, who was himself Viennese, although living and working in Berlin, where he had seen and been influenced by not only the Sam Wooding band but also by La Revue Nigre. What was even worse than the decadent negroid music of Jonny Spielt Auf was the fact that Jonny, the black jazz violinist in it, boasted openly of his sexual power over white women. Josephine obviously had an equivalent power over white men, and she would have to be stopped. For a start they would mount a demonstration.
The Catholic authorities felt much the same. One church, St. Pauls’, announced that it would start ringing its bells the moment her train arrived, warning good churchgoers to stay off the streets so that they didn’t inadvertently catch sight of this “demon of immorality” and be contaminated. Several other churches announced that they would do likewise.
Another grievance held against her by a substantial section of the public was financial. Austria being poverty stricken, there was anger at the large amounts of money that people would be paying to see her, which it was felt would be better paid to an Austrian and then not leave the country. There was anger at the well-publicized price of some of her costumes, which cost up to 25,000F apiece.
Josephine later said she sympathized with those who campaigned against her on these grounds; she had known poverty, and understood how high-priced and seemingly frivolous things like clothes and theatre tickets seemed to mock the poor. What she found horrible was to be faced with people who regarded her as the devil incarnate or a demon of immorality without ever having seen her.
Nonetheless, there were still vast numbers of people in the city who were not only happy but agog to see her, and when her train pulled into the station she was greeted by cheering crowds – as well as a police escort, because the city was naturally nervous of public unrest.
In a horse-drawn carriage, she and Pepito were driven from the station along the grand beautiful Ringstrasse to their hotel, the Grand Hotel. The streets were snow covered and the church bells rang, and Josephine was delighted. She loved the excitement and the drama. But as it soon began to dawn on her how strong the feelings of some Viennese against her were, she began to feel a little unnerved. There was an uncomfortable similarity between some of the mobs she encountered and those she had seen in her childhood during the East St. Louis race riot. Outside the Grand Hotel, members of the anti-Josephine movement were making their protest. As she and Pepito made her way towards the front door, a pamphlet was thrust into her hand. It bore the headline: “Can She Be Punished As She Deserves?”
In their suite, reporters came to interview her and she received them smilingly and professionally, allowing herself to be photographed surrounded by her luggage – 15 trunks, 196 pairs of shoes, 137 stage costumes, assorted furs, innumerable dresses, and 64 kilos of face powder. She also had two dogs with her: a Brabancon, whom she had named Fifi, and a Pekinese, Bebe.
Josephine might have had misgivings, but Pepito was delighted with the commotion, seeing it as excellent publicity. Soon, however, he received a setback. Conservative groups had lobbied the Vienna City Council to such good effect that, two days after their arrival, it withdrew permission for Josephine to appear in the Ronacher Theater, into which he had booked her. It did this on a small technicality, some formal concession that the theatre manager had failed to obtain.
Fortunately, the fact that it had blocked them in this way, and not by ruling on Josephine and her possible demoralizing effect on the susceptible, left the way open for her and Pepito to find another theatre, and by good fortune they quickly found one: the Johann Strauss. It wasn’t as big as the Ronacher, and it wouldn’t be available for four weeks, but at least it was a theatre.
The ensuing four weeks, however, gave the conservatives time to mobilize their forces. This time they lobbied the Austrian Parliament itself. A deputation from the Nationalist party brought a petition to the minister of the interior, Herr Hartleb, requesting that her “pornographic exhibition” be banned. They claimed that the party was receiving thousands of letters every day protesting against Josephine’s “brazen-faced heathen dances”, and warned him that her appearance onstage would elicit riots and possibly bloodshed.
The controversy was now becoming so heated that the parliament decided that there was only one thing to do: they had to debate the question of whether Josephine actually did represent a threat to public morals.
While waiting for this debate to be held, Josephine set out to explore this new city and its surroundings. She and Pepito even went to the alpine resort of Semmering for a few days, some fifty miles south-east of Vienna, and there she learned to ski.
In spite of Austria’s poverty, and the grimness of some of the more politically-minded citizens, Vienna itself was still a cheerful and civilized city. Josephine enjoyed the raffish, bohemian world of the coffee houses, and it was in one of those that she had the good fortune to run into the man who would champion her.
A member of parliament, his name was Count Adalbert Sternberg, although he was better known socially by his nickname, Monschi. A warm, genial, hard-drinking man who made friends easily, he was oddly enough a real-life Bohemian. He was a member of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the kingdom of Bohemia, in what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family was so ancient that it was recorded in Czech history as far back as 1100 AD. His visiting card proudly boasted that he was descended from Charlemagne, and it was believed that one of his even more distant ancestors was Gaspard – that Gaspard who, with Melchior and Balthasar, brought gifts to the newborn Jesus. For this reason, the family coat of arms was the star of Bethlehem.
Naturally the Sternberg family – including Monschi – were Catholics, but his religion was so deep rooted and so much a part of him that he was able to wear it as lightly as he did his life. He saw no reason for the uproar against Josephine and decided that he would enjoy defending her.
The debate was opened by Dr. Jerzabezh, a Viennese physician of some 25 years’ standing and a prominent member of the Clerical party. Passionately, he laid into Josephine, claiming that she would corrupt the citizens of Vienna by appearing in public “dressed only in a postage stamp”. He was considerably upset by the poster that had appeared on the streets, showing her wearing nothing but feathers and pearls, “like a Congo savage”. He did go out of his way, however, to stress that it was her nudity to which he objected, not the color of her skin.
Speakers who followed him were less generous. They made unfavorable comments not only about Josephine’s color but also about her figure, and described her acting as “perverse”, an emotive terms in a city where Dr. Freud was still actively in practice.
Then Monschi got up to speak. He described Josephine as a force of nature, saying that, through her dancing, she highlighted the anemic quality from which modern civilization was suffering, through having lost touch with its primitive roots. “Whites don’t know how to dance,” he explained. “Only blacks conserve in dancing its human and sacred quality.”
Enlarging on the religious theme of his argument, he went on: “The highest ideal of human art is always the female nude, and that part of the unclothed human female which strikes fear into the heart of Deputy Jerzabezh is always represented without dread in real art. Besides, he who combats nudism blasphemes God, who created man naked.” He told his colleagues that they would do well to visit St. Peter’s in Rom and have a look at the pictures in the dome, saying: “The most daring nudes are there in the house of the Pope. Therefore, what is the meaning of this campaign of poorly-educated priests against Josephine?”
In his allusions to nudity, Monschi was appealing in part to the nudist movement which, from the Twenties onwards, attracted many followers in Germany and, to a lesser extent, in Austria. German nudists took their nudity with a high-minded seriousness that was a world away from Josephine’s cheerful exhuberance, but Monschi’s mentioning this respectable and growing movement helped his argument, and the house voted in his favor. Josephine would be permitted to appear at the Johann Strauss Theatre.
Unfortunately, in spite of the force of Monschi’s religious arguments, opposition to her from the Catholic clergy remained strong. It so happened that St. Paul’s Church – the church that had instigated the ringing of the bells – was situated right next door to the Johann Strauss Theatre, and its priests announced that if she opened there they would hold three days of services, “in atonement for outrages on morality committed by Josephine Baker and other performers”.
They were as good as their word. On the morning of 1 March, the day her act was to open, Father Fey, a Jesuit priest, offered up a special mass for her endangered soul in front of a packed church. His sermon, depicting her as the embodiment of decadence, was so vivid and compelling that after the service many of the congregation rushed hot-foot next door to buy tickets.
The show, a revue, was to be called Schwarts Auf Weiss. In it, among the recruited local talent, was the Viennese comic Albin Berg, and in spite of continued grumblings from anti-Josephine organizations it was received enthusiastically by press and public.
Apart from her farewell concert in Paris, this show was the first in which Josephine sang onstage. With Pepito, she had worked out a disarming first appearance for herself. Instead of opening with one of her dazzling shockers, she entered wearing a beautiful but demure long cream dress and sang (in English) ‘Pretty Little Baby’, a simple cheerful love song written in America a couple of years before, and that she had recorded in January 1927.
She wanted to show people that she was genial and unthreatening, and her voice during that first song was a little uncertain due to her fear of how she would be received. She wanted the audience to relate to her as a person, not as a demon of immorality, not as a curiosity, nor yet as a symbol of anything – not of decadence, luxury nor even (in spite of Monsci’s successful arguments) as a standard bearer of nudism.
The show played for three weeks to packed houses, and in addition she went on to appear every night at a temporary Chez Josephine, a fashionable night club called the Wolf Pavilion.
On one night – this being Vienna – a group of psychoanalysts came to see her there. Analysts were one of the social groups who generally approved of Josephine. After all, one of the tenets of their science was that society had created neuroses by inhibiting intellectual behavior, and who was a healthier example of a lack of inhibitions than she was? This group had come directly from a meeting at which a paper had been presented by one of the number, Sandor Ferenczi. After performing a dance, Josephine came among the audience to chat. She homed in on Ferenczi and sat herself firmly on his lap. He was bald, and she ran her hand over her own shiny helmet of hair then across his baldness. “There,” she said. “Now it will grow.” The psychoanalysts were charmed.
As an interesting post script to Josephine’s short season in Vienna, and an indication of how much she appealed to many Viennese, ten years later, when Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria and the young National Socialists who had protested against her had gained political control, Hitler himself came to Vienna. He commandeered the elegant Weinzinger Hotel for his entourage and the hotel owner’s suite for himself. Getting into bed that night he was not pleased to find a photograph of her looking down at him from the wall.
The Josephine Baker Story
“Pretty Little Baby”
“Chasing a Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker”