Discover the fascinating and singular life story of Josephine Baker—actress, singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist, member of the French Resistance during WWII, and a woman dedicated to erasing prejudice and creating a more equitable world—in Josephine Baker’s Last Dance.
In this illuminating biographical novel, Sherry Jones brings to life Josephine's early years in servitude and poverty in America, her rise to fame as a showgirl in her famous banana skirt, her activism against discrimination, and her many loves and losses. From 1920s Paris to 1960s Washington, to her final, triumphant performance, one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century comes to stunning life on the page.
With intimate prose and comprehensive research, Sherry Jones brings this remarkable and compelling public figure into focus for the first time in a joyous celebration of a life lived in technicolor, a powerful woman who continues to inspire today.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Josephine Baker’s Last Dance includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Famous for her sexually charged performances as a scantily clad Paris revue showgirl, Josephine Baker also had a secret career as a pilot and intelligence spy for the French Resistance during World War II, and as a Civil Rights activist who was the only woman invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.
In this revealing biographical novel, Sherry Jones revisits Josephine Baker’s difficult childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, and examines some of her many troubling experiences with discrimination that would propel her lifelong fight for racial justice.
As Josephine’s star rises in Europe, she finds herself mingling with some of the greatest artists of the Jazz age, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Colette, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. Following her extraordinary transformation from “Tumpy” McDonald to Joséphine, “Queen of Paris,” and her momentous decision to become a citizen of France, Baker experiences personal and professional triumphs and disappointments that reveal her fascinating character in all of its complexity.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Josephine Baker’s home life in St. Louis, Missouri. How is Josephine’s determination to succeed as a performer related to her desire to escape her family and its problems?
2. “I’ll turn you in to that truant officer. He’ll send your ass to reform school so fast it will make your head spin” (pg. 62). Describe Carrie McDonald’s behavior toward her daughter, Josephine. Why does McDonald refuse to reveal Josephine’s father’s identity? How do Carrie’s maternal negligence and the family’s economic hardship contribute to Josephine’s victimization?
3. While convalescing from an injury caused by an abusive employer, Josephine experiences a vision of God crowning her in glory. How does this ecstatic vision sustain her throughout her life, and what does it suggest about her sense of purpose?
4. “Too young, too dark, too ugly. She would show him; she would show them all” (pg. 101). How does the racism that Josephine encounters as an entertainer in America compare to her treatment in France?
5. Why does Josephine’s performance in the finale of La Revue Nègre in Paris alter the course of her career? To what extent does Josephine’s participation in a performance that plays to stereotypes of black people as savages suggest she is intent on reclaiming her image? How much of the public scandal surrounding the Savage Dance seems grounded in nudity and how much in racial fetishism?
6. How does Josephine’s relationship with “Count” Pepito Abatino impact her personal and her professional life, both positively and negatively? In your discussion, you may want to consider how Abatino’s cultivation of Baker’s celebrity and her eponymous brands (a line of dolls, hair straightener line, her Chez Joséphine boîte) in Paris in the late 1920s helps to establish her as the city’s “It Girl.”
7. “‘We will transform you,’ Pepito had said in proposing the world tour . . . No more naked nichons; no more banana skirts; no more jungle acts. ‘You will depart from Paris a primitive caterpillar and return a sophisticated butterfly’” (pg. 219). In what ways does her world tour recalibrate Josephine’s focus as a performer and her consciousness as a citizen of the world?
8. Discuss Josephine’s experience with the rise of Nazism in Europe during the years leading up to World War II? What connections does she make between the rise of Hitler and racial and religious hatred with the racial violence she witnessed as young girl in Missouri?
9. Why does the powerful New York City theater owner Lee Shubert refuse to give Josephine star billing in Ziegfield Follies? To what extent does his decision seem justified? What might explain the discrepancy in Josephine Baker’s critical reception in France and in the United States?
10. “‘She is more French than the French,’ Danny said” (pg. 264). What does Baker’s renunciation of her American citizenship in favor of becoming a French citizen suggest about her loyalty? Discuss Josephine’s willingness to help members of the French Resistance defeat the Nazis. How does Josephine’s celebrity serve as a useful cover for her intelligence reconnaissance on behalf of the Deuxième Bureau?
11. “If I can’t have babies, I don’t want to live” (pg. 312). What does Josephine Baker’s unrequited longing to bear a child of her own reveal? How do her losses of a series of unborn babies through abortion, miscarriages, and an emergency hysterectomy affect her? How does her Rainbow Tribe of twelve adopted children fulfill her dream of motherhood?
12. Discuss the arc of Josephine Baker’s sexuality over the course of the novel. In what ways is Baker a sexual victim, and how does she use her sexuality as a means to achieve an end? How does Josephine’s attraction to women and men contribute to the chameleonic quality of her sexual aura?
13. “She had two loves but only one had loved her back” (pg. 323). How does Josephine Baker’s signature song, “J’ai Deux Amours,” in which she acknowledges her dual loves for “my country and Paris,” reveal the tensions she experienced as an American citizen who felt most at home in her adopted country of France?
14. Discuss the significance of Josephine Baker’s 1951 show at the Copa City club in Miami, the first mixed-race nightclub performance in the American South. How does Baker’s insistence on an integrated audience serve as a catalyst for a wider inclusion of black Americans in other cultural events?
15. “She beat relentlessly against prejudice like waves breaking against a stone wall . . . and now she stands before her people to bear witness” (pg. 362). How does Josephine Baker’s speech at the March on Washington represent the culmination of her life’s work? How might her circuitous path as an entertainer be more completely appreciated in light of her lifetime commitment to racial justice?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Josephine Baker’s emergence as a black ingénue in Paris came about at the height of the flapper movement, a time in history when young women were repudiating conservative Victorian culture by listening to jazz, smoking, and embracing their newfound liberation through short skirts, cropped hair, and cosmetics. For your book group’s next gathering, ask members to consider wearing jewelry, clothes, or other accessories inspired by the Roaring Twenties of Josephine Baker. How does the style of the Jazz Age differ from contemporary fashion? How important is the fashion of a milieu to its social history?
2. Josephine Baker’s comedic gifts were a key element of her appeal to audiences. Her goofiness and joie de vivre is especially evident in period footage of her revues and performances. During your next gathering as a group, view some of the many contemporaneous clips of Baker on www.youtube.com. If your group is interested in viewing a feature-length film starring Baker, you may want to consult https://www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/, the official website of Josephine Baker, which not only includes a comprehensive list of her work but also includes a list of appealing quotes by Baker.
3. Josephine Baker is a remarkable study in contrasts—an American-born woman of color who finds herself especially beloved by white audiences in Europe; an illegitimate child of poverty who achieves international fame and personal wealth; an entertainer equally at home in a racy banana skirt and the uniform of the French Air Force; a woman unable to bear children of her own who eventually becomes a mother to twelve adopted children. With your group, examine some of the extraordinary qualities that define Josephine Baker and make her a compelling historical figure.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Josephine Baker was indeed strong, powerful and hard to ignore. She was a woman driven by her terrible upbringing and dreadful young life. I learned a great deal about Joséphine Baker and owe this to the voluminous research obviously done by the author to bring this historically factionalized novel to us. I agree with another reviewer, who said the author continually skipped periods in time and then told about them in a paragraph or two. These gaps left me feeling disconnected. I would search the Internet, while reading, for clarification. Thank you Netgalley and Gallery Books for the opportunity to read and review this ARC.
Author extraordinaire, Jones’s novel Josephine Baker’s Last Dance although classified as fiction, Jones wrote the book with the accomplished knowledge and precision of Josephine Baker’s life. I took notes once I was lured into the novel and held captive for the sole purpose of going back to Josephine Baker’s life and fact-checking events, dates, and all things Josephine Baker. Jones’s Josephine Baker’s Last Dance was a replica of Josephine Baker’s life. It was palpable that Jones had completed extensive research on Baker and was unquestionably prepared to write Josephine Baker’s Last Dance. Having also been to Paris myself, I checked the streets, clubs, etc.. Yes, some events of Josephine Baker’s life were not included in the book, but purposely so. However, the essential facts in Baker’s life are there. While reading Josephine Baker’s Last Dance, it was as if I were getting reacquainted with an old friend. I was enthralled, going back through history and recalling Baker’s determination and struggle to fight back against anyone who got in her way because of the color of her skin. As part of the French resistance, Baker was resilient in her efforts to gather information from the German’s under the guise of being a notorious entertainer; it was Josephine that opened the doors that allowed her to move from country to country. Life is not quite as hateful and vulgar as it was when Josephine Baker was born, but just as she fought against racism, we continue to fight and stand against racism, sexism, etc., today. Lest there be anyone that questions the content of Sherry Jones’s novel let me be the one to tell you this was very much Josephine Baker’s life. To not have heard of Josephine Baker is appalling. Have we also stopped teaching History in schools today? Baker is an iconic historical figure. And she flew into Washington DC from France which was her adopted homeland, in 1963 when she was 57 years old to be part of Martin Luther King’s march of 250,000 people. Josephine Baker was the only woman to speak and did so before MLK spoke. Jones’s unique ability to pull off time-jumping, whether forward or backward was altogether ingenious. Often when an author time-jumps, you risk losing your readers. Time-jumping is difficult and is an art that must be mastered. I’ve heard many professors advise their students to avoid time-jumping, so they don’t risk losing their readers. However, I was immediately impressed by Jones’s ability to go back and forth in time. Anyone that writes or is an English major knows how difficult this is to pull off and yet Jones time-jumped as an experienced writer. At no time while reading Josephine Baker’s Last Dance did I find myself lost, confused or flipping back and forth. Josephine Baker’s life was sad and formidable; I strongly recommend all genres read Sherry Jones’s novel if for no other reasons than to not lose hope in where our country is today and to meet or reacquaint yourself with Josephine Baker. We all need hope and something to believe in, and perhaps you will find your confidence and belief through Josephine Baker’s story. Sherry Jones is a brilliant author, and the timing of her book couldn’t be better. Regardless of your political party, we can all glean steadfastness, longing, hope, belief, love, forgiveness, etc., from Sherry Jones’s five-star novel. Thank you, Simon & Schuster, NetGalley and Sherry Jones for the opportunity to read and review this 5 Star novel. D.B. Moone
Why read a fictional biography? Sometimes, there is no choice: biographies may be out of date, or nonexistent. When they are available, they may be too linear to capture more than the facts, just the facts, ma'am. There are biographies of Josephine Baker, the "Black Pearl," if the reader wants to know who, what where, and when. I doubt there ever will be one that captures the wild energy, the passionate spirit, and the artistry that came together in this spectacular woman the way Sherry Jones has done. She has shown us the how and why, and filled in the spaces - the beauty and the ugliness, both - that underlay the public spectacle of the glittering international star. The Josephine Baker who sailed to Paris in 1925 had already powered through enough personal suffering and systemic racism to flatten most people. But, with unlimited talent and drive, she escaped initial rejections in the United States ("too skinny and too dark") by landing a job that took her to the integrated world of Paris. There, her breakthrough abandon and energy in "La Danse de Sauvage," clad only in a skirt made of faux bananas, brought artistic acclaim and access to all she ever wished for: the extravagant lifestyle, a starring role at the Folies Bergere, a film career. She searched endlessly for love while hobnobbing with Colette, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and the rest of the expatriates. Her dreams of Europe changed as Brownshirts and Nazis came to her shows and made their vicious intentions clear. A return to New York showed her that not even her fame could break through the racism, and she returned to Europe, disillusioned. She continued to sing and dance and act the role as an international sensation, but used her position to work as a spy and pilot for the Resistance, facing mortal danger in the name of freedom. After the war, she shifted her focus to challenge racial discrimination wherever her career took her, despite personal heartaches and ill health. Back in America, she forced nighclubs to integrate if they wanted her to sing, she called attention to African-Americans on Death Row who were victims of racist justice, and she participated in very public and challenging actions with the NAACP. The happiest day of her life, she said, was when she participated with Joan Baez and others, introducing Rev. Martin Luther King before he gave his speech, "I have a dream." Later, she created a Rainbow Tribe by adopting twelve children, demonstrating how beautiful a multi-ethnic world could be. All of the episodes in this gritty and granular novel are set as her memories during her last performance, celebrating fifty years of stardom in Paris. The reader will come away breathless with admiration for the power and energy of Josephine Baker's life, and how she used her fame to better the world. Watching videos on YouTube is a pale introduction to this groundbreaking woman. The reader's imagination will be well-served by this stunning novel. Five stars, because only five are available.
I love Sherry Jones and the variety to be found in her books, so I was very excited to read her newest offering, Josephine Baker's Last Dance. From the very beginning I was held entranced by this incredible story and the life behind it. The first few chapters demonstrated the wildness of youth and a strength unknown to many. Josephine's life was truly fascinating, and it was as if I was along for the ride so vivid were the sights and sounds I was reading about. It was a fabulous journey alongside an extraordinary woman. When I was less than 150 pages into the book, I just had to sit back for a minute and think about what a remarkable life Josephine was living and not yet 21 years old. It rendered me speechless and made it hard to step away from the story for any length of time. And yet amidst the bright lights and loud life, Jones did a terrific job of showing that life when outside the limelight and the feelings held deep within our Josephine. There was a yearning there that was often overshadowed by the laughter and passion. Those emotions were there for the reader to feel and made this book one that will certainly stick with me for quite some time even after the end. When I read about Josephine's life in Paris in the late 30's and early 40's as the Nazi invasion and war loomed on the horizon, there was an eerie and ominous feel to the story. Here was a woman with a fire burning inside and a brave spirit willing to help in any way that she could. I was truly in awe of her of her courage and the work that she did to aid the allies. When Josephine returned to America and began her work for racial equality I cheered along with every triumph. She had already seen and done so much in her life, and yet here she was determined to do even more. Jones did an absolutely amazing job with writing this book. Josephine was truly a force to be reckoned with and I was completely enamoured with her by the end of the book. Josephine Baker's Last Dance comes highly recommended by me.
I was not familiar with Josephine Baker before I read this very revealing biographical novel about her. Josephine was a Black girl born in St. Louis, MO in 1906 to a poor family and was forced to go to work at age 6 to help support her family. Josephine had very little interest in school and loved to perform at the local theater where she danced, sang and was somewhat of a comic with her facial expressions. Josephine had to deal with racism, segregation and sexual abuse on her way from poverty to stardom in Europe, mostly in Paris, France as an actress, singer and dancer. She was a Civil Rights activist and a member of the French resistance during World War II as well. This is a very well researched and well written novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Boy! Josephine Baker was a unique and tough lady. She suffered an abusive mother and there were many nights she was not sure exactly where she would be laying her head. With her rough start in this world, she still became a famous singer/dancer, a civil rights activist and a spy. Parts of this story are difficult to read, especially at the beginning of her life. Josephine was raised in St. Louis by an abusive mother who threw her out of their home at the age of 13. This lead her to spend the night with an older man…her boss! As a matter of fact, Josephine was extremely promiscuous. There were many sexual partners throughout her life, some because it would help her career and some….just because. This is a well researched read. However, I felt disconnected from Josephine. There are many parts in this tale I felt needed expounding on and there are places that are rushed. I expected more out of the spy era. Also, the conversations do not seem exactly right. Not sure what is missing. But, this is a good read about an amazing lady! I love a book which teaches me a thing or two! This one definitely achieved that! I received this novel from Gallery Books for a honest review.