My friendly neighborhood library has a copy of the great Josephine Baker movie Princess Tam Tam. The plot is Pygmalion. A young shepherdess from Tunisia becomes the object of fascination by a famous French novelist who has traveled there to write in seclusion. To make his wife jealous the Frenchman plucks her eyebrows, manicures her hands, dresses her in elegant clothing, teaches her piano and ballroom dancing, and brings her to Paris where she triumphs. It is a musical comedy in the Busby Berkeley style.
What is the fascination of Josephine Baker? To feel it as the French did you must first feel the magnet of society, the pull of elegance and propriety; you must feel it dominate your whole life and know you will never escape. Josephine was this. When she dressed in couture, she was the most elegant and gorgeous woman in the room. Then she could turn this elegance on its head. In her dancing shoes, or more often bare feet, she was exciting and primitive, simultaneously elegant and crude, an object of deep fascination, especially for those who knew they could never do this themselves.
For Americans elegance is an aspiration, not a requirement; the contrast of the elegant and natural plays differently for us. We come close only in Calamity Jane, I suppose, but the crudeness there is merely laughed at, not envied and fantasized about as it is with Josephine. When she speaks French, they would hear an exotic foreigner of unknown origin. We hear a black woman from St. Louis.
She was perhaps the most fascinating woman of her era and one of the main inspirations for art deco. She was painted by many famous painters. In fact, I recently saw a painting of her hanging in the Phillips Collection in Washington, though it was not identified that way. Women tried to increase their tans, to look black. It is a world we cannot imagine.