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Jean-Claude Baker, a Restaurateur, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com

Jean-Claude Baker, a Restaurateur, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com


Jean-Claude Baker, a Restaurateur, Dies at 71


Jean-Claude Baker, right, and Josephine Baker in 1973.

Jean-Claude Baker, the flamboyant restaurateur who created the popular Manhattan nightspot Chez Josephine in memory of Josephine Baker, the exotically beautiful dancer and mesmerizing chanteuse who had cared for him as a lonely child in Paris and whose biography he published to acclaim in 1993, was found dead on Thursday at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 71.

The cause was suicide, said Patrick Pacheco, a theater reporter and friend. Mr. Baker’s body was discovered in his car, Mr. Pacheco said.

Mr. Baker led a colorful and many-faceted life populated by boldface names. Living on his own in Paris by the time he was 14, he became a shrewd worker in hotels and restaurants with a gift for charming the clientele; while working at Le Pavillon Dauphine in 1960, he greeted the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, who, emerging from a limousine, reportedly kissed him on the lips.

A few years later Mr. Baker moved to West Berlin, where he had a career as a singer — he recorded under the name Jean-Claude Rousseau — and opened a nightclub called the Pimm’s Club. Sometimes called the Studio 54 of that era, it drew a mix of gay and straight customers and a glittering international crowd, including Mick Jagger, Mahalia Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Jessye Norman and Orson Welles.

Chez Josephine, a high-end brasserie and piano bar featuring luxuriant velvet curtains, red banquettes and Josephine Baker memorabilia, opened in 1986 on 42nd Street, between Ninth and 10th Avenues. It was an anchor in the transformation of a grim strip of real estate into an Off Broadway theater district.

From the start Chez Josephine was an eccentric pre- and post-theater spot — many Broadway theaters are within walking distance — and with its ripe décor redolent of Paris from an earlier age and Mr. Baker’s effervescent hospitality, it gathered its own coterie of the famous.

One regular was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Mr. Baker told a reporter that to protect her privacy, he once allowed her to use the men’s room while he stood guard. If she had used the women’s room, he said, other women would have flocked in after her.

Mr. Baker was born Jean-Claude Julien Leon Tronville in Dijon, France, on April 18, 1943. He met Josephine Baker in 1958 at the Hotel Scribe in Paris, where she was living at the time and where he was a teenage bellhop living on his own.

His parents, Constance Luce Tronville and Julien Rouzaud, were not married when he was born, though they married later, when Jean-Claude was 7 and then known by his father’s last name. Soon afterward, his father moved to Paris to work in a restaurant, and at 14, Jean-Claude went to search for him, leaving behind his mother and three younger sisters.

“What happened was, I found my father living in a hotel for prostitutes, where they rented rooms by the hour; he had gambled away all his money,” Mr. Baker wrote in the introduction to the biography “Josephine: The Hungry Heart,” written with Chris Chase. “Three days later, he disappeared, and didn’t come back.”

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“Josephine listened to all this,” he wrote of their first encounter, “and then she said, ‘Don’t be worried, my little one; you have no father, but from today on, you will have two mothers.’ ”

They were not especially close at first, he wrote; their intimacy began when she went to Berlin in 1968, and he arranged for her to perform at the Pimm’s Club.

Her career was wobbly by then, but for much of the time before her death in 1975, Mr. Baker supported her, serving as manager, companion and amanuensis. He took her last name as his own in the early 1970s.

Mr. Baker is survived by his sisters, Marie-Josèphe Lottier, Marie-Annick Rouzaud and Martine Viellard.

Josephine Baker was notoriously difficult — self-involved and brilliant, capable of extraordinary kindness and extraordinary cruelty — and the colliding strains of her character, coupled with Mr. Baker’s complex relationship with her, drove him to write her biography, he said.

Their relationship also inspired him to amass an extensive collection of posters, paintings, documents and other memorabilia pertaining to early-20th-century African-American performers.

“Working with Chris Chase, Jean-Claude Baker has combined cultural and theatrical history with an intense Oedipal drama,” Margo Jefferson wrote in The New York Times about “The Hungry Heart.” “He met Baker when he was 14, and was unofficially adopted by her. Through the years she treated him like a son and like a serf.

“He read everything about her he could find, he writes, ‘because I loved her, hated her, and wanted desperately to understand her.’ Those emotions drove his book, and they drove him to do vast amounts of valuable research. The result is mesmerizing: a battle of wills with Josephine as the mastermind, concocting fables about her life, and Jean-Claude as the detective, breaking them down into facts.”



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