Jean-Claude Baker, Owner of Theatre District Restaurant Chez Josephine, Dies at 71
Jean-Claude Baker, cable-television pioneer, biographer, historian and internationally known restaurateur of Theatre District hotspot Chez Josephine, died on January 15, 2015. He was 71.
His death was a suicide.
Chez Josephine is a French restaurant that is well-known amongst the Broadway community and was referred to as a "cocktail of human beings" by Baker.
Mr. Baker achieved international recognition as the owner and ebullient host of Chez Josephine, a restaurant on New York City's Theater Row. It was named for his adoptive mother, Josephine Baker, the American performer who became a superstar in Paris in the 1920's.
Mr. Baker was born in France and left as a young man to go to Liverpool and then West Berlin, where he opened a nightclub in the 1960's that became a sensation, drawing the kind of clientele that Studio 54 did in New York.
He eventually went to Paris, where he met Josephine Baker, who had adopted 12 children that she called her Rainbow Tribe. She designated him the 13th of her "Baker's Dozen," although he was never legally adopted. He became her assistant, her manager, and toured with her as a pop singer.
In 1973 Mr. Baker arrived in New York, where he sang in small nightclubs and eventually started a cable television program called Tele-France USA," on which he celebrated French culture from 1976 to 1983. But he truly made his name when he opened Chez Josephine, which quickly became a favorite of stars, local residents, tycoons and struggling actors - a clientele that Mr. Baker called his "cocktail of human beings." He became a larger-than-life personality, greeting guests in his heavily French-accented English and being attentive to one and all.
Mr. Baker gained additional fame in 1993 after the publication of "Josephine: The Hungry Heart," his critically acclaimed biography of La Baker, written with Chris Chase. The New York Times called the exhaustively researched work "mesmerizing...irrestible...perversely fascinating...a killer achievement" and declared, "Here is Josephine stripped of glamour and defenses...one of the most paradoxical figures in 20th-century entertainment."
Mr. Baker was born on April 18, 1943, in Dijon, eastern France. His parents were Lucien Rouzaud and Constance Luce Tronville. At age 14, he set out for Paris. In the preface to "The Hungry Heart" he wrote, "I planned three things for when I grew up. I would not do my military service. I would have a statue of myself like Napoleon III on a horse. And I would not bear the name of my father."
In Paris, he became a bellhop at the fashionable Hotel Scribe, who by then was almost destitute. Their paths diverged, and they would not be reunited until the late 1960's, by which time Mr. Baker had gone to Liverpool, where he learned English as an attendant at the Hotel Adelphi and became friendly with a local group known as the Beatles.
In West Berlin he opened the Pimm's Club, which became a popular destination for such star travelers as Rudolf Nureyev, Orson Welles, Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger. He designed clothes for a boutique adjacent to the club and, under the name Jean-Claude Rousseau, became a pop singer. In 1968 he presented Josephine Baker at the club, which became the start of a wild series of adventures that he would chronicle in his book.
The tours with her brought Mr. Baker to the United States in 1972. After their partnership dissolved he fell in love with New York City, where he settled permanently, living in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side and a house in East Hampton. After Josephine Baker's death, in 1975, he began to accrue a large collection posters, documents and other memorabilia devoted to African-American entertainers from 1865 to 1929.
When Mr. Baker opened Chez Josephine in 1985, he was a pioneer in what was then a seedy and crime-ridden neighborhood.
"I loved it then" he told The Daily News in 2012." It was alive. I miss that. It had soul, and of course people like me need soul. We live for it. Things have changed, but we are still here. I am a showman. I like to put on a show. It's what we do here every night."
Mr. Baker is survived by his three sisters in France: Marie-Josephe Lottier Marie-Annick Rouzaud and Martine Viellard.
Chez Josephine released the following statement:
With great sorrow, the Chez Josephine family mourns the passing of Jean-Claude Baker.
Throughout his eventful life, Jean-Claude fulfilled with passion and commitment his one true vocation: to bring laughter, joy and love to all who knew him. His larger-than-life personality and unfailing generosity touched everyone around him.
His spirit was irrepressible. His love will endure in the lives touched by his special magic. A magic that his Chez Josephine family will do its best to continue in his honor.
The restaurant is closed today-Thursday, January 15-out of respect to our "Maman Jean-Claude." We will reopen onFriday, January 16, as Jean-Claude would wish.
A Requiem Mass will take place at Holy Cross Church on West 42nd Street in late January. A memorial service will be held in the spring, on a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations to the charity Autism Speaks are requested (www.autismspeaks.org).