Josephine Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon are seen with their adopted family
at tea at their home, the Chateau des Milandes in France, in this 1956 photo.
BY MERLIND THEILE
Long before Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Madonna made headlines with their adoptive families, 1920s star Josephine Baker tried to combat racism by adopting 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds from around the world. Today the members of her “rainbow tribe” are still searching for their identity.
He is trying to describe what it was like to grow up here, to trace the vestiges of his childhood, but not much of that remains in this chateau that was once his home.
Today Akio Bouillon, a slight, affable man of Japanese origin, can only serve as a guide through an exhibit that pays tribute to his dead mother. In the former living room, a dozen of her robes are now displayed on headless mannequins, and in the study lies a semi-nude wax figure of Bouillon’s mother, with a string of flowers draped around the neck. The “banana skirt” that made her famous hangs in a glass case; strips of gold material in the shape of bananas are attached to a narrow belt. His mother was the singer and entertainer Josephine Baker.
Bouillon, her oldest adopted son, turned 57 in July. He walks across creaking floorboards and into Baker’s bathroom, with its black tiles and Dior bottles, and then into a series of rooms filled with photos, posters and her jewelry. Somewhere in this labyrinth is the small room where Bouillon slept as a child. Today, the bed is cordoned off from the hallway with a velvet rope, and a sign admonishes visitors not to touch anything.
He stands in front of the bed, smiles faintly and says that it was a nice childhood, for him and his 11 siblings.
Bouillon points to a poster on the wall, made from an old, black-and-white photo. It depicts little Akio, age 6, smiling at the camera, holding a white cat on his arm.
It is the only image visitors see of Baker’s 12 adopted children, and Bouillon is the only one of them who still travels, once a year, to Château des Milandes in France’s southwestern Périgord region. One of his brothers has already died, and the other 10 siblings avoid the chateau, which was purchased by strangers long ago. They don’t want their photos to be exhibited here. They are tired of being put on display.
Vision of a Better Life
Jarry Baker, the third adopted son, hasn’t been to the chateau in two decades. Now 55, he is a short, blonde man of Finnish descent with reddish cheeks. He moved far away, to New York, because it was the place where he could be himself.
Every day at noon, he takes the train from New Jersey to the Port Authority station in Manhattan, and walks a few blocks to “Chez Josephine” on 42nd Street, where he works as a waiter. The restaurant pays tribute to his dead mother, with pictures, photos and posters on its walls. The restaurant is near Broadway, and many of its customers are artists and gays.
Jarry Baker, who is also gay, likes the place. He was the opposite of what his adoptive mother had expected, and that was his undoing.
Misfortune often begins with visions, and Josephine Baker had her own vision. She did something that many celebrities would later emulate: She adopted children from poor countries to give them the opportunity of a better life.
Adoption is supposed to be an opportunity for children like Maddox, a boy that actress Angelina Jolie adopted in Cambodia, and Mercy, a girl from Malawi the singer Madonna recently adopted after the country’s highest court approved the contested adoption — even though Mercy still has a father in her native village. Madonna told the court that she could offer Mercy a better life — a common argument. The stars want to set an example and use their celebrity status to do good. Sometimes it’s about big ideas, promoting understanding among nations or putting an end to racism.
Looking for a Way Out
Perhaps Josephine Baker began adopting children as a way to compensate for her own unhappy childhood. Her life offered her many reasons to yearn for fame and family. Her mother, a black laundress from St. Louis, Missouri, was impregnated by a white man, and she kept his identity a secret. In the United States in 1906, a relationship, let alone marriage, with Josephine’s father would have been unthinkable.
The mother had three more children and raised them on her own. From the age of eight, Josephine had to work, for example in kitchens where she cleaned and washed dishes. At 11, she witnessed race riots directed against African-Americans in which dozens of people were murdered, the sort of thing that was not uncommon in the southern United States at the time. When she was 13, her mother found her a husband so that she would be taken care of.
But Josephine wanted a way out of her life in St. Louis. She had taught herself to dance and sing as a child, and she wanted to be on stage.
She joined a vaudeville troupe at 14, and at 15 she married her second husband, William Baker, the son of a Philadelphia restaurant owner.
She would later keep his name, because she wanted to be known as Josephine Baker. She worked hard, danced on Broadway and was determined to become a star.
The Lust for Pleasure
In 1926, she bent over in her banana skirt, practically nude, in a revue at the Folies-Bergère in Paris. The audience was ecstatic. It was the roaring 20s, and in Europe’s cities, where people celebrated with abandon, Josephine Baker, as a nude, exotic woman, satisfied their lust for pleasure.
Baker was a sex symbol, a role she relished, sleeping with men and women — thousands, as she would later say. But none of this love-making gave her what she wanted most. She married a third time, but she still couldn’t get pregnant. She was infertile.
She threw herself into her work, discovering a new passion in World War II. She supported the French resistance movement, and was given a uniform and awarded many decorations. By then, Baker was rich and famous, and yet there was still a gaping hole in her life.
The war ended. Baker, now in her 40s, was no longer a sex symbol. She needed a new role. Like Madonna decades later, she felt the need to constantly reinvent herself.
In 1947, Baker married her fourth husband, French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon. She bought a Renaissance castle in Périgord, the Château des Milandes, with more than 30 rooms, surrounded by 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of land.
She was practically royalty by then, but she was still black. When she visited the United States, she could only enter some hotels through a back entrance.
She was determined to fight this racism. And now she owned a chateau. A plan began to take shape in Baker’s mind.
In early 1954, she gave a talk in Copenhagen. She wanted to make a gesture of humanity, she said, explaining that she wanted to “adopt five little boys” — one from each continent.
When Baker traveled to Japan in the spring to pick up her first child, Akio had been in an orphanage for 18 months. He had been abandoned in Yokohama shortly after birth, on a rainy day in September 1952. A woman had walked into a small shop carrying a bundle in her arms and asked if she could leave the baby there for a moment so that she could get an umbrella.
Baker adopted Akio and another baby and took them to Château des Milandes, where more than 100 employees were hired to transform the estate into a center of brotherliness, and a place where celebrities and weekend guests could meet. The main attraction would be Baker’s new family, in its splendid array of skin colors. Baker called the family her “Rainbow Tribe.” It was front-page news.
In that same year, she adopted her third child, a 12-year-old Finnish boy from Helsinki with pale skin and light-blonde hair. His name was Jari, but he would later call himself Jarry after she rejected him.
Child number four was a black baby from Columbia. Child number five: a white baby from France.
Baker’s husband, Jo Bouillon, managed her affairs at Les Milandes and struggled to raise the children. His wife was constantly on tour, bringing home a new child from practically every trip. But she was only interested in adopting boys, fearing that romantic attachments could develop between the children.
Then, in 1956, came the sixth and seventh children: a male baby and the first female infant, both from Algeria.
Enough, Bouillon told his wife. Who is going to raise them all? he asked.
A rotating assortment of nannies looked after the children until Baker fired them. She would occasionally storm around the estate, furiously ordering gardeners to replant shrubs, only to slap them afterwards for having done so. She redecorated the chateau, hosted wild parties and took off again.
Child number eight, a white boy from France, arrived in 1957. Baker told the press that he was from Israel. She had been missing a Jew in her tribe.
In photos taken at the time, the chateau looks more like an orphanage than a real home. The children slept in a room in the attic, in eight small beds lined up in a row. Whenever Baker returned home, even if it happened to be at 3 a.m., she would wake the children and demand affection.
Jari, the Finn, was a quiet boy, but Akio, the eldest, was the quietest of them all, not speaking at all until he was four.
Today, he knows quite a lot about the trauma of adopted children, and about the special care they need, especially if they are from faraway countries. They are doubly homeless from the beginning, not knowing where they belong, and some crumble under the strain. They are more susceptible to addiction and emotional disorders than children who grow up with their biological parents.
Every adopted child needs the full attention of his or her new parents. By this time, Baker had eight children, and there were more to come.
The ninth child, a black baby from the Ivory Coast, came in 1958.
A Dream Childhood?
On the surface, the children seemed to have a dream childhood. They were living in a castle, like children in a fairy tale. They played with knights’ armor tucked into nooks along the spiral steps to the tower, romped in the gardens, built tree houses and frolicked with the dogs. Akio remembers that he and his brothers often caught flying beetles and tied them to strings to keep them from flying away. The children carried them around like balloons.
Every year at Christmas, the presents were piled high to the ceiling in the castle. Monstrous, says Jarry. It was Baker’s way of showing affection for the children. Their duty, in return, was to allow themselves to be shown off to the public.
On the occasional Sunday when she was there, Baker would dress the children in white and have them line up in the courtyard, where tourists and the press were waiting behind a fence to take pictures. Jarry says that he and the other children sometimes felt like pet monkeys.
Child number 10, a small indigenous boy from Venezuela, came in 1959. The global mother needed to complete her collection.
Today there are regulations governing international adoptions. Before a child is given up for adoption, authorities must verify that all options to keep the child from being removed from the country have been exhausted. This is always seen as the better solution.
The situation was different half a century ago. Besides, Baker was a star. She had influential friends, like Princess Grace of Monaco, and she had money. Not all of her children were orphans. In some cases, she simply bought babies from their destitute parents. For example, to adopt blonde Jari, the diminutive Finn, she simply paid his parents in Helsinki a few thousand dollars and the deal was sealed.
In 1960, she got child number 11: a white infant from France.
It had all become too much for Baker’s husband. After years of her escapades and their arguments, Bouillon left the chateau, and in 1963 he moved to Buenos Aires. Without him and his business acumen, the estate was doomed to financial ruin. The children lost their father figure, the only person who had given them some structure in Baker’s chaotic world.
In 1964, child number 12, the last child, was acquired: a little girl from Morocco.
Vacations with Castro
Baker traveled the world with the children. They met the pope and vacationed with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The situation at the chateau spun out of control. All the employees, private tutors, monkeys and other animals she had acquired were eating up Baker’s fortune. She managed to fend off bankruptcy for a few more years, stubbornly living her dream, an aging regent who tolerated no back talk and treated the children like subjects.
She wrote reports about them, described their characters in detail and drafted plans for their future. Akio was to become a diplomat, Jari a hotelier. Another child was supposed to be a doctor. But none of them were to be artists. She even banned music instruction. After they had received their education and training, the children were to return to the countries where they had come from and make themselves useful there, as Baker’s envoys and as the loyal executors of her ideas.
None of the children stuck to the plan.
They rebelled when they reached puberty. Baker had acquired 10 sons, with only seven years separating the youngest and the oldest, and they turned into a horde of hyperactive teenagers — going out at night, falling in love, staying away for days at a time, rattling around the neighborhood on their mopeds, getting drunk, taking drugs, stealing and wearing hippy clothes that their mother didn’t like. But her slaps no longer intimidated them. They were as wild and unruly as a pack of young wolves, and Baker had little experience as a mother.
She lost the chateau in 1969, and when she refused to leave she was carried out against her will. She sat on the steps in the rain for two days, covered with only a plaid wool blanket. The photo quickly appeared in newspapers around the world.
The children went to boarding schools or, like Akio and Jari, moved to Buenos Aires to live with their adoptive father, whose surname most of them have kept. Akio had a falling out with his mother a few months before Baker’s sudden death in 1975. His Christmas present had arrived too late, causing an argument that the two would never resolve. Akio was the only child not to attend the funeral in Monaco, which was hosted by Princess Grace.
Akio now lives in an apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, works in a bank, smokes large numbers of cigarillos and likes to watch animated films. He relates information about streets and squares as we walk through the city. He often walks around aimlessly, without any destination in mind, he says.
And he is often alone. He was in a relationship with an alcoholic for 15 years, until she finally left him, and he has been single since then. He knows nothing about his Japanese mother. Baker wanted to make sure that the children would never search for their biological families, and in some cases she even withheld information.
A Japanese journalist who recently investigated Akio’s story found the woman who had worked in the small shop in Yokohama where he was left as a baby in 1952. He gave Bouillon the information and suggested that the woman might know something about his biological mother. All he had to do was contact her, perhaps by writing her a letter. Bouillon has been carrying around the address for a year now. He says he doesn’t know how to begin the letter.
Did Baker do the right thing? “She was a great artist, and she was our mother,” says Akio Bouillon. “Mothers make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.”
Bouillon says that his mother proved that people of different skin colors could live together as equals. “I love my brothers and sisters,” says Bouillon. They all keep in touch by telephone. He says he feels closest to Jarry, because they were together when their adoptive father died in 1984.
The last time all 12 children were together in one place was in 1976, shortly after the death of their famous mother. Even in the last year of her life, Baker, to earn money, performed on a Paris stage, wearing a sequined dress and a towering feather headdress.
The children never wanted to be celebrities. They live ordinary lives — working as gardeners, greengrocers or insurance agents. Child number eight died of cancer 10 years ago. Child number 11 became schizophrenic and now lives in an institution. Some of the siblings married and had children, while others remained single.
None of them adopted children.
“We are completely normal people,” says Akio Bouillon. He and his siblings want to feel like a family, not a project.
Sometimes Bouillon flips through magazines and sees the photos of today’s rainbow tribes, of Madonna with her children from Malawi, of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, traveling around the world with their six small children and their nannies, in the glare of the media spotlight. But he doesn’t feel taken aback by the images. In fact, they make him feel proud.
“It’s great,” he says. “These stars are following in my mother’s footsteps.” Of course, he adds, the paparazzi are a problem, as is their constant quest for pictures of the children. But when Jolie adopts a baby from the Third World, says Bouillon, there is also a higher principle at work. “When these children grow up, they’ll understand.”
Bouillon feels that his adoptive mother made a great and enduring contribution, and that our impression of Josephine Baker should not be clouded by her weaknesses. She was, as he says, a child of her time, a time when even stricter morals applied. That helps to explain why she and Jari didn’t get along, he says.
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.
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.
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