Review: Josephine Baker’s Last Dance
This book was provided to me by Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review.
The glitz and the glamour, the bright lights and the adoration—Freda Josephine McDonald wanted it all. By transforming herself into the incomparable Josephine Baker, she got it all and so much more.
Sherry Jones didn’t take on an easy subject with her historical fiction take on Baker but it’s obvious she did her research. I was thrilled that this retelling of Baker’s story included the hard early days, the glittering Paris debut, the hard WWII years, and then her triumphant return to her beloved France—and a lot more in between.
A dancer, a singer, an actress, a lover, a fighter, a businesswoman, a spy, and an activist, Jones had a lot of ground to cover. Although written in third person, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance lets the reader in close to Josephine, slipping into her busy world, and keeps the blunt language befitting of Baker between quotes which I found particularly appealing.
There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments in this book and plenty of ugly words that could offend but to not include them would have been lying about an African-American’s life in the south during that period in history.
My main qualm with this book is that Josephine Baker was bisexual and I maybe saw one very brief possible reference to her being attracted to a woman. Although more is known of her many male lovers and marriages, I was kind of bummed out that one of the most famous bisexual women in history didn’t get that part of her life included in an otherwise fantastic book.
[UPDATE] I’ve been in contact with author Sherry Jones about the omission of Baker’s potential same-sex relationships.
Of all the biographies I read–a dozen, at least–only one claims she was bisexual. The author of that book, her oldest “adopted” son,. Jean-Claude Baker, obviously wrote with a chip on his shoulder, as he is condescending and contemptuous toward her throughout the book. No one has ever confirmed that Josephine had sex with women, and in fact she punished her sons for exhibiting homosexual tendencies. (Jean-Claude, who committed suicide in 2017, was gay, as well).
My book, however, does allow for the possibility. In it, she sleeps with the singer Clara Smith. She and her friend Bricktop, the nightclub owner, have a conversation alluding to a night together. She has erotic moments with Frau Landshoff in Berlin, and there is mention of an affair with Frida Kahlo. None of these relationships was central to her life, and in fact she only partnered with men. Since she never openly lived with or had a sexual or romantic relationship with a woman–at a time and in places where women were doing so–I opted not to spotlight her bisexuality, if it really existed. I focused on the book’s central themes of race and racism and of Ms. Baker’s own eventual empowerment as she moved from needy narcissist to courageous spy and activist.
RATING: 4/5 stars
Jillianne Hamilton is the author of Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, its two action/comedy sequels, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII. She is also a graphic designer, a history enthusiast, and a dog mom. Learn more.