Adopting the World: Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe

By Merlind Theile

Part 5: The Banished Son

Jarry Baker is sitting in Chez Josephine in New York, talking about his dead mother, a subject that makes him visibly uncomfortable. Although it is still morning and the air-conditioned room is cold, Baker's cheeks are flushed and his hands are trembling.

"She was too possessive," he says. "We weren't allowed to develop the way we wanted to." He knew he was gay by the time he was seven or eight. When Jari was 15, Baker caught him in the bathtub with another boy. She called together the family, reprimanded him in front of everyone else and sent him to live with his father in Buenos Aires. She was afraid that he could infect his brothers.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Global Mother

Josephine Baker -- the bisexual revue star, darling of gays and drag queens, civil rights activist -- banished her son because he loved men.

When asked whether he has forgiven her, Jarry Baker waves his hand dismissively and says: "Yes, who cares. She didn't want us to grow. Maybe she was afraid that we would out-grow her." At times he seems almost thankful for having been rejected by his mother. "It was like being liberated."

Caught in Baker's Shadow

In New York, restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker gave him a job and a place to stay. Most of all, Jarry was now living somewhere where he could openly kiss his lover on the street. He doesn't mind working in the restaurant, says Baker. In fact, he says, he is pleased that the owner is preserving Josephine's memory.

Jean-Claude Baker, 66, was one of Josephine's companions -- a gay man, like many of her friends. They performed together in the last years of her life. She called him her 13th child; he took on her name. But the two had a falling-out before her death.

He still lives in her world today. He has named his restaurant after her and decorated it with images of her. He has also written the most detailed biography of Baker to date. Like many who were very close to her, he seems caught in her shadow.

Child of a Rainbow Tribe

On a hot Sunday in July in New York, the city's annual Gay Pride Parade slowly makes its way south along Fifth Avenue. At the front of the parade are lesbians on their Harleys, followed by gay police officers, firefighters and doctors, and above it all flies the rainbow flag, the symbol of the gay and lesbian movement.

Jarry Baker, the child of a rainbow tribe, stands on the sidewalk with a flag in his hand. He likes watching the parade -- not every year, as he did at the start, but once in a while. He watches the floats, listens to the music and waves to the hooting, beaming parade-goers as they pass by.

He doesn't know how much longer he will stay in New York. He says he would like to move to Australia or New Zealand and set up a farm. Then he says that he'd like to return to Argentina. And then, later, he says that he feels very comfortable in Finland, where he has family.

A Finnish journalist tracked down Jarry Baker's mother and his siblings and flew with him to Helsinki. It was 14 years ago. Jarry says that they got along marvelously, and that he felt close to them. He has visited them twice since then. Three visits in 14 years.

The last of the floats pass by. "Those people look so happy," says Jarry Baker, as he stands on the sidewalk, looking down the street at the parade, waving his rainbow flag.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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