The chanteuse Josephine Baker was the toast of Paris during the Roaring '20s and 1930s. She was exotic. She was sultry. She was chic. She was the highest-paid pre-World War II entertainer in Europe.
She was, above all else, sui generis.
Her life is about to become a Broadway musical, aptly named "Josephine," that will open in late fall or early 2014. It will be produced and developed by Baltimore native Ken Waissman.
Baker was, as the French say, the personification of le jazz hot, which she is credited with introducing to Paris when she opened Oct. 2, 1925, in La Revue Negre, a cabaret show she had taken abroad.
Baker made her entrance on stage wearing very little.
"She made her entry [at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees] entirely nude except for pink flamingo feathers between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant," recalled writer Janet Flanner in her 1972 book "Paris Was Yesterday."
"Midstage he paused, and with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around the waist, he swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood, like this magnificent discarded burden, in an instant of complete silence," she wrote.
"She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater," she wrote. "Whatever happened next was unimportant."
Not only a celebrated performer, Baker also had an incredible off-stage life that included an affair with Swedish Crown Prince Gustav IV. During World War II, she served as a member of the French Resistance, which earned her the Croix de Guerre and Rosette de la Resistance from Gen. Charles de Gaulle, for delivering the Italian codes to the Allies.
The musical will cover the performer's life between 1939 and 1946, and will feature an original score with music by Steve Dorff and lyrics by John Bettis.
It will star Deborah Cox, who is currently touring in the musical "Jekyll and Hyde," in the title role.
Waissman lived on Penhurst Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, where he converted his parents' basement into a theater that was home to the Penhurst Players and began producing plays when he was 10.
After graduating from Forest Park High School in 1958 and the University of Maryland four years later, he earned a master's degree from New York University's Tisch School.
Quoting Florenz Ziegfeld, he says that "Josephine" has it all — "romance, adventure and sex."
He has been joined in the effort by a Baltimore couple, Harry Lee and Joannie Friedman, who are associate producers.
"Harry and I first met when I was in high school at a summer camp in Ellicott City, and later when I was at Maryland, I joined a fraternity and Harry was my big brother," Waissman, who lives in Manhattan, said in a telephone interview the other day.
"Harry and Joannie have offered great support and have been a great cheerleading team. They've come to readings and workshops," he said. "Everyone finds them charming, and Deborah Cox loves them. Financially, they've been very beneficial, and they're very good at drawing in other investors."
Waissman himself is something of a Broadway legend. He and his then-wife, Maxine Fox, became the youngest producers on Broadway when they opened "Grease" in 1972.
Baker was born in 1906 in East St. Louis — her mother was African-American and her father was Jewish. She began her singing career at age 8 in Harlem nightclubs such as the Cotton Club and was a chorine — chorus girl — in the African-American revue "Shuffle Along," written by Baltimorean Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
During the 1920s and 1930s, she starred annually in Folies Bergere or Casino de Paris revues. She became known for her song "J'ai Deux Amours" or "I Have Two Loves" — "my country and Paris."
Baker, who became a French citizen, returned to New York in 1936 when she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, and again in 1951 and in 1973 when she performed in "An Evening with Josephine Baker."
Waissman was there one night.
"The thing that intrigued me was when she opened at the Palace. It was mesmerizing. She was 67 at the time," he said. "At the start of the second act, she zoomed out of the wings dressed in leather and screeched to a halt at the footlights. It was just incredible. There was so much of an aura and magic about her."
Baker died in 1975.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun