Thursday 30 December 2021

Remembering Josephine Baker, by Carol Drinkwater


"France is Josephine." 


This is one of the photos I took of the facade of the Panthéon, snapped while I was queuing to pay my respects to Josephine Baker. Exceptionally, during that first weekend of December, entrance was free to everyone, thus offering citizens the opportunity to say farewell to a woman who had come to France as a teenager escaping racism and segregation, and made this country, where she found acceptance and success, her home.

Whilst I was in Paris a few weeks ago, on a cold winter Saturday afternoon,  I took myself off to the Panthéon. There I queued in the Place de Panthéon along with hundreds of others waiting to enter the Tomb of Heroes. Fortunately for us all, the rain and biting wind stayed away for those few hours we were in line. Everyone was in good spirits. A few days earlier on Tuesday 30th November 2021, Josephine Baker had become the first Black woman to be inducted into France's Tomb of Heroes. President Macron hailed the American-born dancer, singer, night-club artist and courageous French resistance fighter as a 'symbol of unity in a time of division'. 

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her childhood was spent in poverty. Her mother, who was abandoned by Baker's father, Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, soon after their daughter's birth, worked as a washerwoman. To help her mother keep the family fed Josephine from the age of eight went out to clean and babysit. Most of the houses where she was employed were owned by rich white folk who didn't treat her well. 
She was also profoundly marked by the race riots, the lynchings she witnessed when she was eleven. The East St. Louis 'Race War.' At least 39 black citizens were brutally killed, many of them lynched. This and the desperate times and discrimination she encountered during her childhood years, played an important role in her work later with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Josephine quit school at 12, lived on the streets, scavenged for food, eventually running away from St Louis when she was thirteen. At thirteen she married and separated weeks later. Finally, at sixteen, after stints of waitressing, she found herself touring the United States with the Jones Family band and the Dixie Steppers. She had been teaching herself to dance and to turn her hand to a few comedy routines.
In 1921, she married for the second time, one Willie Baker, a railway worker. The marriage did not last but she kept his name for the rest of her life. By now she was in New York performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with the renowned singer-actress Ethel Waters, Josephine was in the floor show at the Plantation Club. It took no time before she became a big hit with the audiences. By 1925, nineteen-year-old Josephine decided to take her chances in Europe, in Paris where Les Années Folles - France's equivalent of the Roaring Twenties - were in full swing. Paris was jumping to the beat of the jazz. Baker sailed to France, landed in Cherbourg and opened on 2 October in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champ-Élysées. For her role in this she was paid 250 dollars a week which was double her Broadway salary. Nineteen years old, she was a sensation. Paris brought her stardom; it also showed her that there was another way to live. There was dignity. She became a protégée and friend of Ada "Bricktop" Smith, another extraordinary black American vaudeville star who was taking the French capital by storm, making it her home.
Paris in the twenties was an exceptional city to be living in. Cole Porter, E.E. Cummings, John Steinbeck, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, to name but a few, all were present. Josephine was not only very much a part of that multi-cultural scene, she was admired, fêted. She wowed spectators when performing at the Folies Bergère wearing a skirt, a tutu, made of 16 bananas. It drew attention, while her Charleston dancing drove the audiences wild. ("I am not naked, I am just not wearing any clothes.") By the time she was twenty-two Baker was one of the highest paid performers in Europe.

                                                       Photo taken in 1920s.

She was the first Black woman to star in a motion picture, Siren of the Tropics, in 1927. A French film directed by Mario Nalpas and  Henri  Étievant. (A little known fact I discovered when I was researching for this post: Luis Bunuel worked as assistant director on this film). It was a motion picture well ahead  of its time and  ran for six months in French cinemas which was considered a great success. Baker was during these years of the twenties the leading star of the Folies Bergères cabarets. Her on-screen presence was hailed as magnetic. She was in every sense a star, and a groundbreaking one at that. 
She toured Europe, studied French, and built herself a remarkable reputation.

                                                                Josephine in her banana skirt.

In 1936, she returned to the States to star in the Broadway show, Ziegfeld Follies, hoping to replicate her European success, but she had not counted on the level of discrimination that would greet her. Time magazine mocked her, calling her a "buck-toothed Negro" whose talent could be matched by anyone. Broken-hearted, less than a year later, she returned to France resolving to make it her permanent home. Upon her return she married for the third time, a French industrialist, Jean Lion (born Levy). This offered her the opportunity to take citizenship, which she did. 
It was also around this time, before the outbreak of WWII, that Baker bought a renaissance castle overlooking the Dordogne River in south-west France, Château des Milandes. This home became a place of great significance. She organised for her family tp be brought over from St Louis and gave them a home there. She and her husband lived there until he - being of Jewish origin - was obliged to flee the Nazis. 

When France declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, Josephine immediately stepped up to participate in the war effort .She joined the counter-intelligence service, using her charms and reputation to gather information. She worked in cafes, clubs, bars and embassies. She also helped raise funds for the French army, as well as paying for her family to return to safety back in the United States. 
When France capitulated in the early summer of 1940, Baker turned her talents to gathering information for the Résistance. She passed on coded information through her musical scores. She moved to Morocco to entertain the Free French and Allied troops. After the war, having returned from North Africa and the Middle East as a second lieutenant in the French air force, she was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Résistance. France's highest civilian and military distinctions.

After the war, Baker married for the fourth time,  the bandleader Jo Bouillon. She spent most of her time at Château des Milandes. In 1947 she began to adopt children - a hysterectomy earlier in life meant that she couldn't bear children of her own. The "Rainbow Tribe" is the collective name she gave to her offspring. Twelve adopted infants from all over the world. She saw her family as an experiment in brotherhood and frequently invited people to the estate to see how happily they all lived together.

In the 50s, Baker returned to the States to take on another cause, one to which she was as deeply committed as she had been to the freeing of France: the Civil Rights Movement.  She has been famously quoted as saying that she could walk into palaces, embassies, the residences of some of the rich and famous, but back home in St Louis she couldn't walk into a bar and order a cup of coffee. She fought against segregation and refused to perform in any club or venue where segregation was in force. She marched with Martin Luther King, spoke out against the poverty and indignities suffered by the African-Americans. She was eventually accepted by America as an artist and a voice in her own right. 20th May was named Josephine Baker Day.

In 1975 back in Paris, fifty years after her first performance in the country that had welcomed her and given her dignity, she performed at the Theatre Bobino. It was to have been the opening of a series of concerts. Amongst many luminaries in the audience that night was Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Sophie Lauren as well as Baker's very dear and loyal friend, Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco, who had given Josephine a sea-view residence in Roquebrune close to Monaco after Baker lost her chateau in March 1969, because she could not meet the bills and running costs. Tragically, there were only three performances at Bobino because Baker suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in her sleep. She was taken in a coma to the Pitié-Sapêtrière Hospital in Paris where she died two days later.

Crowds lined the streets of Paris on the day of her funeral. She was given a twenty-one gun salute. The first American woman to receive full French military honours. She was later buried in a cemetery in Monaco, which is where her body remains today. 

Her family requested that her body was not exhumed and moved to the Panthéon. In the coffin that was laid in the Tomb of Heroes on 30th November this year is earth from the soils of St Louis, Paris, Château des Milandes and, her final home, Monaco. 

I walked the echoing stone floors of the former church of Sainte Geneviève and descended to the vast, impressively vast, crypt, at the Panthéon. I walked alongside, brushed spiritual shoulders with, such giants as Dumas, Malraux, Jean Moulin, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo. Voltaire, Rousseau.
But where were the women? 
Only six women have been laid to rest in this sanctified place in their own merit.

Sophie Berthelot in 1907. Her husband was a famous chemist and the family were insistent that the couple be buried together. Polish-French physicist and Nobel laureate, Marie Curie, became in 1995 the first woman in her own right to be buried here. (Her husband Pierre, is also honoured with a place for his pioneering work on radioactivity.) Résistance fighters Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were both inducted in 2015, Simone Veil in 2018 - Veil was also chosen by Macron - and lastly in 2021, Josephine.

Here lies Josephine:

                                                          Josephine Baker's place at the Pantheon.

Outside on the facade of the towering edifice is written: Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.
'To the great men, the nation (fatherland) is grateful.' It always fascinates and rather amuses me that the word la patrie is feminine. There is certainly a move here in France to honour the women of the nation and Macron has contributed one third of those females now laid to rest in honour at the Panthéon. Personally, I would like to see the stone outside recarved to read: Aux grands femmes et hommes ...

                       You will have to look carefully to see the gold-lettered writing above the entrance pillars.

Are there any women whose names you would put forward to join Josephine Baker and the handful of other exceptional women now at rest in the Panthéon? I would be fascinated to hear them.

Friday 24 December 2021

 Italian Christmas by Miranda Miller



   This is a photo of a Christmas market in Piazza Navona, Rome’s beautiful baroque square. Like most of you, I haven’t been able to go abroad for over two years and I’m feeling pangs of nostalgia for Italian Christmases I have known.


   In the Piazza Navona children queue to meet La Befana, friendly witch who rides around on a broom delivering sweets to children on her good list, and coal to naughty children. Her name derives from the word "epifania", for it is on January 5, Epiphany Eve, that she flies around. Parents leave her a glass of wine and some food and before she flies off from each house she   sweeps away the problems of the last year. This is an older tradition than Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas. 



   According to the Christian (and of course sexist) version of her story, when the three Magi followed the star, bearing their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh for the new-born Jesus Christ, many people joined them. But one old woman said she was too busy with her housework. Later, she changed her mind and ran after them with a bag   of presents for the baby but she was too late and so she is still searching for him. There are many versions of this story.

   This might in fact be a Pagan tradition, going back to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Janus and Strenia  when Romans used to give each other presents at the beginning of the year. In Italian a Christmas gift used to be called strenna



   Another Christmas tradition you still see in Rome is zampognari   -   men playing wheezy bagpipes, dressed as shepherds in short trousers with leather leggings, a sheepskin vest, woolly cloak and peaked cap. Most people think they are there in imitation of the shepherds who worshipped the baby Christ but this, too, might be an earlier tradition:  bagpipes are a very ancient instrument and it’s possible that even in Roman times shepherds started coming down from the Abruzzi, the mountainous area just outside Rome, in winter, to earn some extra money playing music.


   Tonight, Christmas Eve, is the Vigilia di Natale and like all Italian holidays it’s an excuse for wonderful food. You are not supposed to eat meat on the eve of a feast day. Here is a seductive picture of some of the delicious fish dishes that might be served, including baccalà (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) andvongole (clams). Fried artichokes, pickled vegetables, and fried fiori di zucchini, (courgette flowers), are often served.

    Most Italian families  set up a ceppo or presepio. This comes from the Latin word for a crib. It’s a small pyramid-shaped wooden frame displaying a model of the Nativity scene.  In Naples, on the Via San Gregorio Armeno, you can buy hand carved figurines  for this charming tradition of folk art. This is a traditional presepio:


   This idea of bringing the nativity scene to life is supposed to have been invented by St Francis of Assisi. In 1223  he recreated the scene of Jesus' birth in the town of Greccio, using real people and animals, 


   He wrote, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by."


   Later, Churches and homes across Europe began to stage their own versions with model figures instead of live participants. In 18th-century Naples famous sculptors and painters were commissioned by aristocratic patrons to create figures and backdrops for magnificent presepie. These tableaux incorporated fascinating scenes of everyday life in Naples – street-sellers, beggars and shopkeepers joined the shepherds, the three Magi and the holy family against an elaborate backdrop of taverns and ruined temples. The V&A have a wonderful   collection of these  presepio figures dating back to the 18th century.


   You also see less traditional versions, such as this one, from Naples, with celebrities including Superman, mafiosi and politicians including (I think) BelusconiAs well as the usual scene of the Nativity you can see a tavern with sausages and hams hanging up and a market laden with fruit and vegetables.


 For those who are not devout Catholics, all this can feel like too much religion. Goethe certainly thought so, he described Christmas Day celebrations in St Peter’s Square on January 6 1787 in his Italian Journey: “The spectacle is unique in every way, splendid and quite dignified.” But, he added, “I am such a long-time Protestant Diogenist that I find the magnificence more repellent than attractive. Like my pious predecessor I would wish to say to these ecclesiastical world conquerors: ‘Do not hide the sun of higher art and pure humanity from me.’”

   For me, as an agnostic  Italophile foreigner, these traditions are  very attractive and I look forward to being able to enjoy an Italian Christmas again some day.


Friday 17 December 2021

RUSHING ABOUT: The matter of Medieval flooring by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Some time ago on a history forum, there was a discussion on medieval floor coverings.  Rushes (reeds) being strewn on the floor is a frequent mention in descriptions of works of historical fiction.  One poster opined that this was unlikely and that if reeds were strewn on the floor at all, they would have been in the form of matting. The issue is taken up by author Sarah Woodbury who is in the camp of the rushes actually being matting because it would be difficult for medieval ladies in trailing gowns to walk on such a covering.  You can see the argument for yourself here:

    However, my view is that one size doesn't fit all, and that while the floors of the super rich were tiled as the Middle Ages progressed, and that rush matting was indeed used,  the general strewing of rushes upon every day floor was common practice and of long tradition, with plenty of evidence. The Anglo Norman word 'Junchiere - 1170 - is a word meaning 'strewn with rushes' (Anglo Norman Dictionary)   A century earlier in the reign of William the Conqueror, one of his followers was granted land in Aylesbury for among other things arranging for straw for his bed and chamber floor in winter, and grass or rushes for the same in summer. 

King John slept at the house of Robert de Leveland in Westminster in 1207 and the Barons of the Exchequer were ordered to provide straw for the chamber.  In the reign of Edward II, a payment was made for the journey of John de Carleford from York to Newcastle for a supple of rushes to strew in the King's chamber.  There were people employed to do the job of keeping chambers supplied with fresh floor rushes and the job title was 'rush strewer.'  In the reign of Edward IV, the groom of the chamber was to bring daily rushes and litter to stuff the palettes in the royal chamber. In 1419, it was ordered that all the boats bearing rushes for floor strewing, coming into London were to make up their bundles for sale on the boats themselves and not on the wharfside. 

 In the reign of Henry VIII, rushes were to be brought and strewn in the chamber between the hours of 6 and 7 in the morning.  In 1587, Thomas Newton in his 'Herball to the Bible' was to say that "Sedge and rushes, with the which many in the country do use in Sommer time to strew their parlors and churches, as well for cooleness, as for pleasant smell.' 

There is a 1542 reference to the Queen's chamber at Greenwich being 'well-strewed' with rushes.  In 1598, there is a reference to Queen Elizabeth I, passing through a chamber 'strewed with hay' on her way to the chapel.  Henry III of France was told by an envoy that the English had a particular custom of strewing their best rooms with rushes. Indeed, it was a sign of respect for a guest if one did spread fresh green rushes and there was a saying that people would strew fresh rushes for a stranger when they would not give one to a friend! 

n 1550, there is a report of a murder at Faversham, The perpetrators murdered the victim and then tidied up the rushes to make it look as if nothing had happened.  They dumped the body in a field, but when the body was examined, pieces of floor rush were found in his shoes, proving that he had been murdered in his own home. 

Even Shakespeare gets in on the act.  In The Taming of the Shrew there is a line 'Is the supper ready, the house trimm'd/rushes strew'd, cobwebs swept.'

There are plenty of illustrations of tiled floors and of rush matting in later period and Tudor illustrations, but it seems clear from the plentiful evidence above, that, as with all aspects of history, it doesn't have to be a single track. If rush matting was so popular, it would have left a name in the records. 'Strewing' means scattering after all and the word appears time and again in connection with rushes, which suggests that they were not woven, but judiciously scattered on the floor, and when the room-dweller was high-status, they were frequently changed.  My source book for these snippets (acknowledged below) goes on to say that rush strewing was still being carried out in some parts within living memory of the book's publication.

Main Source - Rush-bearing by Alfred Burton 1891 - a fascinating read that goes into much depth on the matter of rush-strewing, carrying rushes to church, rush carts and Morris dancers.

Friday 10 December 2021

The Finger in the Fly Trap - Barbara Kingsolver's 'Unsheltered'. By Judith Allnatt

Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, ‘Unsheltered’ explores the acrimonious debate between evolutionists and creationists in the 1870s, alongside a contemporary ‘state of the nation’ narrative  revolving around a downwardly mobile family living in a collapsing house. The historical story, which I found fascinating, features the renowned female biologist, Mary Treat, whose dedication to scientific observation extended to holding her own finger in a Venus flytrap for hours to test the strength of its insect-dissolving juices.

Mary Treat corresponded with Charles Darwin, providing him with observations of American plants from the Pine Barrens, an area of virgin woodland near her home in Vineland, New Jersey. Although she had little formal education she studied, observed and experimented, becoming an expert in her field. No doubt, given the usual lot of women at the time this was only made possible by the absence of her husband, from whom she was separated, and by the happy chance of being a woman of independent means.

In ‘Unsheltered’, Kingsolver invents a neighbour for Mary: Thatcher Greenwood, who on his first visit discovers Mary surrounded by glass jars full of flowers. Closer inspection reveals that each contains a cobweb built in the shape of a tower . . . and the tarantula that built it. Mary has used the flowers as a disguise to avoid alarming the ladies who visit her, who would disapprove of her interest.  

Thatcher also has to resort to subterfuge in his work as a biology teacher at the local school, trying to circumvent the strictures of his headmaster, Cutler, who abhors the new theory of evolution and is prejudiced against both scientific method and rational argument. 
The ‘utopian’ town of Vineland was the brainchild of the historical figure, Charles Landis. He is presented as an authoritarian figure who uses his wealth and power to further his own ends. This seems a fair assessment of his character given his history. His arrogant sense of entitlement was such that criticism in a local newspaper led him to shoot the editor in the head, a case that came to be referred to as the murder on Main Street and for which Landis was excused on the trumped up grounds of ‘temporary insanity’. Cutler has the support of this city father and attempts to frustrate and humiliate Thatcher at every turn. 

Kingsolver brings the fictional characters Greenwood and Cutler together head- to-head in a public debate on evolution versus creationism, which is chaired by Landis. Through this climactic scene she explores some of the responses to evolution of the time: ranging from reluctance to consider it, to a ‘flat earth’ fervour to discredit it. 

In the face of Cutler’s bluster and the audience’s scepticism, Thatcher illustrates his argument for genetic modification by using examples of natural selection in a wolf pack and of the whitening of the coat of the Arctic hare, over time.

The debate is entertaining, with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Cutler brings the Bible to his aid but is unable to explain how, if Noah took only one pair of each kind of animal onto the ark and then burnt some of them on the Lord’s alter, the species could have reproduced. He then claims that the development of varied species on different landmasses despite all creatures having been brought to Mount Ararat,  occurred through God parting the seas to allow creatures to cross to other continents. Thatcher points out that for a prairie hen, walking at four miles an hour, even the leg of the journey from Europe to America would take two years – quite a time for the ocean to be parted.

Thatcher cites Occam’s Razor which contends that a simple explanation (ergo evolution in this case) is more likely to be correct.He moves the debate to  Mary Anning’s fossil record, showing that beasts such as the plesiosaur have existed and no longer do so. Cutler is willing to discount the evidence of his own eyes, dismissing the fossils as a hoax. He believes that God creates only perfection so He cannot have made a creature for it to be extinguished. ‘God doesn’t make mistakes!’ he roars. 

As well as claiming that Man is above the animal world and not part of it, Cutler muddles society and science, drawing extensively on the notion of order, creating his own version of the medieval ‘chain of being’ which he perceives as threatened by the notion of racial equality, or even women wearing trousers, which he rates as ‘turning against God’s domestic harmony'. The strongest driver for sticking to the status quo of belief in a Divine order is revealed to be vested interest in the existing societal power structure.

In choosing the title ‘Unsheltered’, Kingsolver refers not only to the imminent collapse of the decaying house in the modern story but to the choice to forego comforting beliefs and instead consider experiment, evidence, rationality, enlightenment. The crumbling house becomes a metaphor for, among other things,  old beliefs being stripped away. Kingsolver has her character, Mary Treat, identify a silver lining of clearer vision saying : ‘Without shelter, we stand in daylight’. In 'Unsheltered' Barbara Kingsolver has   transformed her historical research into a compelling and thought provoking novel.