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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

March 20, 1994|DICK RORABACK

JOSEPHINE: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase (Random House: $27.50; 532 pp.) What it was was her fanny, one of the Wonders of the Western World. It got her from here to there, and a whole lot more. It belonged, but not exclusively, to Josephine Baker. A great lady? In her own way. A manipulator? Without question. Regal? Surely. A racist? Probably. Benevolent mother of 12 adopted kids of all creeds and colors? Yes, if you temper that benevolent. A heroine of the Resistance? Commissioned and decorated by De Gaulle himself. But mainly it was the fanny; "Inspiring," wrote author Georges Simenon, one of a long, long line of lovers, "that croupe (rump) has a sense of humor."

So does Jean-Claude Baker, a self-appointed son of the entertainer, in his wild, wonderful and sometimes bitchy biography. Does the world need a 13th book on Josephine (including five autobiographies)? Sure, says Jean-Claude; someone's got to set the record straight, and "mother" was a born fabricator. With Josephine, though even the truth reads like legend. From poverty in East St. Louis, scavenging garbage cans for broken dolls, to unprecedented acclaim in Paris, where a doll was named after her , Baker's life was constant contradiction. The woman who walked her cheetah on a solid-gold leash, whose body designers fought to clothe, also pawned her jewels to feed Paris' needy. The woman who was sculpted by Calder, sketched nude by Le Corbusier, feted and bedded by assorted Rothschilds and royalty, never paid her bills until sued, and often not even then. Her secret? It went to her grave in 1975. Those who knew her agree: She could dance a little, sing a little, shake up a storm. But that wasn't it, not really. She just was , and that was more than enough.

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