I shall never forget the evening I borrowed Josephine Baker’s chinchilla coat.
I had recently arrived in Berlin in 1928 and the days were cold, the wind biting. When the night came, the shadows hid many secrets. Among them, the tall willowy woman sitting in the dark corner of a café sipping on a cognac.
The famed entertainer and Paris headliner had walked out of the show she was appearing in at the Theater des Westens after receiving scathing reviews from Nazi critics. Three weeks into the run of the show, she disappeared. No one knew where she had gone.
I was earning a few marks doing a tap dancing routine at a small café when I saw a thin woman in a luxurious fur coat slither across the darkened foyer and sit where no one could see her. I recognized her immediately. Who hadn’t heard of the sensual colored woman from St. Louis who danced with such carefree eroticism with nothing but a ring of bananas around her waist?
When Josephine first arrived in Berlin in the mid-1920s, she was the toast of the town, a scintillating creature singing and dancing for jaded nightclub audiences.
But then her dream-like impression of the city soured when she heard hoots and catcalls on opening night in 1928. Nazi critics with their snobbish Aryan attitude dismissed Josephine as an inferior creature not worthy to appear on their stage.
I remember another beautiful young colored girl who also suffered such prejudice. Her name was Josette. I wrote about her in my diary in Cleopatra’s Perfume:
“…her [Josette’s] music worked its magic on me, but it was her hands I remember most. Flying about in wild gestures, flawless pale skin, her long fingers with oval-trimmed nails, hands that drove glove makers mad. I felt the sensual vitality of a woman much like myself, a woman who knew the pain of not belonging.”
When I finished my number, Josephine complimented me on my dancing then invited me to sit at her table. She needed someone to confide in, she said. As we talked, I heard a cry of distress in her voice. She didn’t understand this new Nazi order threatening to crush the gaiety, freedom and naturalness so vital to her dance.
Our talk was interrupted when we heard a newspaperman at the bar asking about a colored woman in a fur coat. Frantic, Josephine slipped her floor-length chinchilla coat over my shoulders and begged me to pretend to be her.
Pulling up the collar to hide my face, I raced out of the café wearing her coat, her black wool cloche hat covering my blond hair. By the time the newspaperman caught up with me, Josephine Baker was gone.
The next morning I returned her chinchilla coat to the concièrge of a small hotel I shall not name. I promised her then I would not reveal where she had gone into hiding.
And I shan’t now.
Lady Eve Marlowe