It’s always so much fun to introduce a new author on ye old blog and even more so when that author is a friend. Today I’m so proud to have guest posting a wonderful new author and friend Elizabeth Kerri Mahon. Elizabeth is the author of Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. Don’t you just love that title?
Well, it’s the book based on her wildly popular blog with the Scandalous women. If haven’t given Scandalous women a look. Go and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
I met Elizabeth many years ago when I first joined RWA/NYC the New York chapter of Romance Writers of America. She was immediately welcoming to this wanna be writer. Since I met Elizabeth she went on to becoming president of the chapter a few times over and is now a past-president and champion for the chapter and the industry. Well, during all this time Elizabeth has always been the go to person for any history question. Seriously, any question. We’d be out having a drink ,talking about something completely obscure and she’d come up with a fact that would boggle my poor mind that could not remember my morning’s breakfast. So you see, Scandalous Women was meant to be.
When Elizabeth agreed to guest post I said she could write about one of her favorite women. Happily she choose one of hers and mine, Josephine Baker!
So now without me further rambling on here’s Elizabeth with…
The Night Josephine Baker went to the Stork Club
In 1951, The Stork Club was one of the most exclusive night spots in town, and the Cub Room was reserved for the crème de la crème of society. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen there, and that included Josephine Baker. But the Stork Club had a dirty little secret, the owner of the club, Sherman Billingsley, had an unstated policy against admitting blacks. On October 16, 1951 at precisely 11:15 p.m., Josephine Baker arrived at the Stork Club on East 53rd Street after her sold-out performance at the Roxy Theater. Among her entourage were Roger Rico, the French star of South Pacific and his wife, and Bessie Buchanan, a black performer who was now a local politician. She certainly had something to celebrate that night. After a disastrous appearance on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies in the ’30’s, and a brief concert tour in 1948, Josephine was finally as a big of a star in the U.S. as she was in Europe.
From the minute they walked in the door, something was amiss. Rico was a regular at the club, and had a reservation for the evening, but his arrival with Josephine Baker raised eyebrows. The group ordered a round of drinks and Josephine ordered a crab salad, a steak dinner and a bottle of French wine. When their food did not arrive after more than an hour, and the waiters were unresponsive, Josephine got the distinct impression that she was not wanted there. “The looks that the headwaiter gave and his assistants were giving me made me suspect that something was going to happen,” Baker later recalled. “But in fact the exact opposite occurred. Noting happened at all…by which I mean my friends received their orders but mind did not appear.” The owner Sherman Billingsley, who usually fawned over Roger Rico when he came in, was nowhere to be found. After an hour, Josephine was told that they were out of crab salad and steak.
Urged on by Bessie Buchanan, Baker left the table and called two people, Walter White, the head of the NAACP and William Rowe, the black deputy commissioner of police. On her way to the telephone, she passed influential gossip columnist Walter Winchell who was dining with a friend. Baker now considered Winchell a witness to her ill-treatment and wanted his support, but when she returned to her table, he was gone. Winchell admitted that he was at the club but he claimed that he was not aware of there being any problem, and that he left for a late screening of a movie called Desert Fox. Rico, incensed by their treatment, angrily asked for the check, and the party left.
NAACP quickly organized a picket line in front of the club. Josephine and her advisors also debated what they could do to publicize the affair. Billingsley claimed that the incident was exaggerated. Service at the Stork Club was known for being notoriously slow, particularly after the theatres let out. He pointed out that the party had ordered several rounds of drinks and had been served. If Josephine’s charges could be proved, he would be found in danger of violating not only the State Civil Rights Act but also the State Alcoholic Beverage Control Law. Public opinions was divided. While some saw Josephine as a heroine, others thought she was deliberately creating racial incidents to get attention.
For Josephine it was a matter of racial pride, the sultry songstress turned Joan of Arc. From the beginning of her tour, she had fought against discrimination, demanding that she would perform for integrated audiences only at every venue. She also asked for and got integrated stage crews. Because of her convictions, she turned down lucrative engagements where club owners refused to comply with her demands. Josephine had also advocated integrated hiring of bus drivers in Oakland, CA and the integration of housing in Cicero, IL For her work, The NAACP had honored her with a Josephine Baker Day in Harlem on May 20, 1951. 100,000 people turned out to honor her. Her activism was particularly dangerous because she was no longer an American citizen; she was in the U.S. under a temporary performance visa.
While Josephine’s cause had bite, her mistake was to accuse Walter Winchell of not coming to her aid. The columnist was incensed at being dragged into a dispute that wasn’t his own. The morning after the incident, Winchell had found himself big news, receiving countless telephone calls about his refusal to assist Josephine Baker. Jewish, Winchell had himself experienced his fare share of discrimination, and he prided himself on his own civil rights record. Furthermore, he felt that he was being unfairly pressured by Josephine and the NAACP into denouncing the Stork Club’s unspoken racist policy. Sherman Billingsley was a personal friend and the Stork Club was Winchell’s club house. Almost every night Winchell could be found at his permanent table No. 50. Since he couldn’t or wouldn’t turn his back on an old friend, Winchell began to fight back, attacking Josephine in his column. Instead of the conflict being between Baker and Billingsley, it now became Baker vs. Winchell. Winchell accused Josephine of being pro-Communist, and pro-fascist as well as anti-Semitic, despite the fact that her third husband had been Jewish. He deliberately used her own decision to perform only for integrated audiences to claim that she refused to patronize black only businesses. He also wrote to J. Edgar Hoover to ask him to look into Baker’s political activities. Josephine threatened a lawsuit against Winchell for $400,000 claiming libel but she never followed up and the case was eventually dismissed.
Winchell’s attacks spelled the beginning of the end of his influence. His attacks became so over the top that he became the villain in the public’s eyes. Josephine didn’t come out smelling like a rose either. She had already gained a reputation of being politically dangerous as well as a diva and now the rest of her concert tour in the U.S. was cancelled. She went back to France, where she continued her civil rights work, adopting her “Rainbow Tribe” of twelve orphans. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. Wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d’honneur; she was the only woman to speak at the rally. Although the Stork Club was cleared of the charge of discrimination by a New York police commission, the club’s name was tarnished by the incident. It would limp on for another few years before it finally closed its doors in 1965. The building was torn down in 1966, and a small park named after William S. Paley stands in its place.
Thanks so much Elizabeth! That was just wonderful and such an important part of history. What a treat. I just love Josephine.
Folks Scandalous Women is full of so many more wonderful stories of fascinating women in history. You can purchase it here.
And you can find Elizabeth at her blog here.
Please leave a comment or question for Elizabeth and your name will be entered to win a copy of Scandalous Women! Winner will be announced on Thursday.