January 17, 2015
In Memoriam: Jean-Claude Baker
Years ago, I took my aunt, then in her 80s, for lunch at Chez Josephine, the Theatre District bistro named for the legendary performer Josephine Baker. At some point during our meal, Jean-Claude Baker, the restaurant’s owner and Josephine’s adopted son, stopped by our table. He kissed my aunt’s hand and then chatted with us for a few minutes. My aunt was charmed. “I didn’t know you knew the owner,” she whispered across the table after he left. “I don’t,” I whispered back. “He’s like that with everyone.”
Jean-Claude died Thursday, an apparent suicide at the age of 71. The news of his death hit me surprisingly hard. I don’t pretend to have been close to him and yet he always made me—and countless others, including my aunt—feel as though we were.
An elfin man who favored lavishly colored tunics and caftans and flamboyant gestures, he was one of a kind. And he was a true theater lover, who went to shows, befriended people at all levels in the business and gave generously to theatrical causes. I don’t know if marquee lights will dim for him but they should.
I ate at Chez Josephine a zillion times over the years, often when I was going alone to one of its neighbor theaters at the far west end of 42nd Street. Sometimes, I’d sit at the bar or, when the weather was warm enough, at one of the café tables set up outside the restaurant. Usually, I ordered an endive salad and the boudin noir, which doesn’t seem to be served anywhere else in the city. Always, Jean-Claude came over to chat.
We talked about what I was going to see, what he thought I should see. Once he told me how he’d hired the young Harry Connick, Jr. to play piano for his customers. Another time, he told me how he’d persuaded Billy Joel to spend the first New Year’s Eve after his divorce from Christie Brinkley at the restaurant.
I told him that I’d read and enjoyed “Josephine Baker: the Hungry Heart,” the book he’d written about his adopted mother. I said the chapters about her early years on the black vaudeville circuit were my favorite part of the book. He said it was his favorite too and that he wanted to write another book about that world.
I wish he’d written that book. I wish even more that he’d known how much he meant to so many people, even relative strangers like me, and that the comfort of that knowledge would have kept him here for a while longer.