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Online Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society

Summer 2007

St. Louis native Gail Milissa Grant taught art and architectural history at Howard University in Washington before spending more than 20 years as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. She currently lives in Rome, where she is a freelance writer and public speaker.

Josephine Baker

The Honor of Her Company

Gail Milissa Grant’s father, David M. Grant, was a leading black civil rights attorney for more than 50 years in St. Louis, until his death in 1985. When Milissa was two years old, internationally known performer Josephine Baker stayed at her family’s house while in St. Louis for a benefit concert, an event that became family lore.

Josephine Baker. Halftone, 1935. Missouri Historical Society Library. © 2006, Missouri Historical Society.  

“How in the hell am I going to keep Josephine Baker from throwing a tantrum and refusing to perform tomorrow night when she learns that the only hotel she can stay at in St. Louis is a dump?” The first time I heard my father, David M. Grant, begin this story I was maybe eight or nine years old and I was shocked . . . shocked because it was probably the first time I ever heard him swear. That curse word got my full attention because I knew he must have really been in a jam. He continued this particular tale—one of many I would hear over and over (with slight variation) through the years—by saying, “I was waiting for Josephine Baker at the train station in Granite City so I could accompany her on the last leg of her trip to St. Louis. And honest to God, I was talking out loud to myself.”

It was February 1952, and Sidney Williams of the Urban League, Howard Woods of the St. Louis Argus newspaper, and my father, then-president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had organized an event to protest the overcrowded conditions in St. Louis’s black public schools. Woods and my father had traveled to Chicago in December and convinced “La Bakair,” as she was known in Europe, to return to her birthplace and perform as the benefit’s star attraction. It would be her first professional engagement in St. Louis.

The 1952 Citizens Protest Committee on the Overcrowding in Public Schools. David M. Grant, lawyer and civil rights activist, is standing at right. Program photograph, 1952. Courtesy of Gail Milissa Grant.

Daddy was fairly sure that if he could persuade Baker to appear, one of the leading hotels would welcome her. But only the manager of a transient hotel, well known for its “short-term” reservations, had accepted the booking. A disaster was clearly in the making. No star, no show, and no money to pay the auditorium, but plenty of egg on my father’s face.

Of one thing, however, he was certain. Without first-class accommodations, the show would not go on with Josephine Baker. She had had her fill of scrounging around for makeshift housing each time she came to the United States. In 1936, when she arrived in New York from France to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies, the St. Moritz Hotel withdrew her reservation when she arrived with luggage in hand. Several others followed suit. When she was in New York for a series of concerts in 1948, numerous hotels—36 by some accounts—refused to receive her.

On this current trip she had made it clear that she would eat no more of Jim Crow’s droppings and was hell-bent on dismantling segregation in the United States. With the force of a battleship, she launched public attacks on any perceived act of racism. She insisted that her audiences be integrated or she would not perform. She made a citizen’s arrest against a corset salesman who had insulted her in a restaurant in Los Angeles. She interrogated authorities in San Francisco as to why the city did not have any colored bus drivers. She met with the leadership of the National Association of Television Broadcasters to discuss hiring quotas for blacks. She even impugned the reputation of famed broadcaster and gossip columnist Walter Winchell for not intervening with the management of New York’s Stork Club when the nightspot refused to serve her. And most germane to my father’s situation, she categorically canceled her engagement in any city if its finest hotel would not accommodate her. She had already done so in Atlanta as well as in St. Louis when, several months earlier, the Chase Hotel mistakenly assumed she would stay elsewhere when it attempted to book her in its lounge at $12,000 per week.

The Chase’s blatant racism had scandalized St. Louis’s black community. My father and his colleagues knew Baker expected them to compensate this time around by securing her a suite at one of downtown’s upscale hotels. So there sat my father, reduced to talking to himself in the freezing darkness by the side of the railroad tracks. What could he say to her and to the folks who had already purchased tickets for the next night’s concert at the cavernous Kiel Auditorium? Besides attempting to ameliorate conditions for blacks in the public schools, the organizers also intended to highlight the general overcrowding and insufficient teacher-to-student ratios. My father had been optimistic enough to enlist the entertainer before securing an appropriate place for her to stay. He had even gotten Mayor Joseph Darst to proclaim the day of her performance “Josephine Baker Day,” with a parade and reception scheduled before the event.

Movie star James Edwards warmed up the crowd for Josephine Baker at the benefit concert held in February 1952 at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Program photograph, 1952. Courtesy of Gail Milissa Grant.  

As her train approached, my father had no idea what to do or say. But an idea came to him almost as soon as he stepped on board. He easily located Baker and her entourage by trailing the bustle that followed her everywhere. Amid the clamor stood the imposing performer, along with Ginette Renaudin, her French wardrobe mistress; three dainty Siamese cats; and the young and extremely handsome actor James Edwards. Edwards, who was among the first black actors to crush Hollywood’s stereotype of black males as shiftless illiterates by playing dignified characters in films such as Home of the Brave, had been added to the bill, but no one had known that he would be arriving with her. And no one had mentioned anything about the cats. Daddy’s long shot of an idea made all the more sense now, given the extent and complexity of her retinue.

“Miss Baker, I would be honored if you and your company would stay at my home. My wife is out of town and our children are with my in-laws. It’s a big house, and I’m alone there. It’s quiet, and you can prepare for the concert in peace.”

Without hesitation, she accepted his gracious offer, and he quickly discarded the speech he had begun composing in his head to calm the Kiel Auditorium crowd. Whether Baker surmised why our house unexpectedly had become available remains unknown. She never questioned it, and my father never explained.

The event program featured some of the six different costumes Josephine Baker wore during the show. Program photograph, 1952. Courtesy of Gail Milissa Grant.

The train continued on to St. Louis. With a smile as broad as the arches that spanned the station’s massive yards, Baker alighted into the majesty of Union Station and regally strode down the platform with the cats, her clothing maven managing a portion of her legendary $250,000 worth of costumes, and the attractive actor accompanying her. She had returned to her birthplace, a city that she said represented “fear and humiliation” for her as a child, and St. Louis greeted her with half-hearted applause.

First of all, the leading daily newspapers put announcements of Baker’s arrival amid stories on burglaries and deaths. The mixed or muted reviews of her appearance were similarly placed, with scant or no mention of the accompanying mayoral festivities. Yet a more pernicious plot was afoot that helped to undermine her St. Louis debut and virtually ended Baker’s career in the United States for the next 20 years. And Walter Winchell’s name was written all over it. Once an ardent admirer, he had become incensed by her very public denunciation of him for the so-called Stork Club incident. He dipped his pen in vitriol and ignited a backlash against “Miss Jose-Phoney Baker,” as he henceforth labeled the star. He insisted that, among other things, she was pro-Communist, pro-Mussolini, anti-Semitic, and anti–colored people.

The Stork Club incident had taken place during Baker’s trip to the United States in early 1951. She had opened in Miami in January to rave reviews by Winchell, among others. Besides marveling at her legs (“as lovely as Sugar Ray Robinson’s”), her talent, and her “big time zing,” Winchell announced that Baker would perform only at locales where blacks were admitted. This prerequisite drew applause from blacks everywhere, and they showered her with congratulatory telegrams. For the first time ever, an establishment on Miami Beach opened its doors to black Americans, all because of Josephine Baker. From Miami to New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, audiences and critics alike went wild. Harlem rolled out the red carpet, with 100,000 well-wishers turning out on a wet Sunday afternoon in May to celebrate Josephine Baker Day.

Then on October 16 of that year, after finishing a performance at the Roxy in New York, Baker crossed the threshold of the Stork Club and her rose-colored bubble burst. Depending on whom one believes, Winchell either stood by as she was denied service because of her race, knew nothing of the affront, or left the club before it happened. By all accounts, however, he was at the Stork Club that night, seated at his personal table, number 50. For more than hour, she and her party received nothing to eat, being told that the restaurant had run out of whatever they ordered—steak, fish, chicken. Fuming, she left her seat, marched to the nearest telephone, and called Walter White, then NAACP president, to complain about the incident and Winchell’s nonchalance. During the next weeks, she denounced the journalist to anyone who would listen, while he proclaimed his innocence.

Seldom in his career had Winchell gone after someone with such vengeance. His scheming worked. By the end of 1951, theaters and hotels throughout the country began canceling her bookings. A proposed book project with Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld on Baker’s life was shelved, and people in Harlem often fled when she sat down next to them in a restaurant.

This Christian Dior gown was one of the costumes Josephine Baker wore in St. Louis in 1952. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  

St. Louis folk were not fully aware of the growing repercussions of Winchell’s vendetta. My father and his colleagues unknowingly overplayed their hand the next year by reserving the largest hall in Kiel Auditorium, which seated 10,000. According to newspaper accounts, only 6,000–8,000 attended the benefit—most likely the result of so little effective publicity. Ever the professional, Josephine Baker ignored the empty seats and dazzled the audience. She sang in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English and danced provocatively for nearly two hours. Her costumes ran the spectrum from a Christian Dior fur-trimmed, bejeweled velvet gown to the jellaba garb of a Tunisian vendor. At one point, she laughingly gave her age as 45, “not counting the summers.” Then during her speech, she insisted that the audience stand up while she lambasted racism in America and extolled the virtues of French liberalism for nearly an hour, which may have further antagonized the mainstream press. She never mentioned overcrowding in the St. Louis public schools.

David M. Grant and Josephine Baker on the night of the benefit at Kiel Auditorium. Photograph, 1952. Courtesy of Gail Milissa Grant.

According to some of those who saw the show, she was a big hit. They didn’t even seem to notice that the house wasn’t full because, in their words, “she filled it up.” St. Louis had never seen anyone like her, and they loved her because she was one of their own. My father was just happy that the show had, indeed, gone on.

Daddy never had much to say about his houseguests when he told this story, having sequestered himself in our attic for the duration. But he always mentioned the cats . . . how they daintily lined up, one behind the other to perform their toilette, and how Baker fussed over and baby-talked to them.  

The day after the show, Josephine Baker packed up her razzmatazz and left St. Louis as proudly as she had arrived. She went to Las Vegas for an engagement, undertook an extensive Latin American tour, and then returned to Europe. She would not visit her native country for close to 25 years. And she never performed in St. Louis again.