Josephine Baker’s Piano
Anthony Burgess owned a rather notable – and unplayable – piano. We shine a spotlight on its owner, entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker.
Josephine Baker was well known as a cabaret performer and stage artist throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Born in St Louis in 1906, she went on to make her name on the Paris stage, dancing the Charleston and the Black Bottom.
Baker was one of the first African-American superstars, who became world-famous when she appeared in silent films, such as Siren of the Tropics and Zouzou. In later years she formed a close friendship with Princess Grace of Monaco. She has been portrayed on screen by Diana Ross and cited as an influence by the singer Beyoncé. Her music makes an appearance in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris.
In Anthony Burgess, she had a true fan. He was delighted to acquire Baker’s Gaveau upright piano and he installed it in his study in Monaco. He claimed that his love of the piano was analogous to the affection he had developed towards the instrument of his trade: the typewriter. But unlike the portable and easily replaced typewriter, Josephine Baker’s piano was a magical object, even though it was no longer playable by the time Burgess owned it.
‘[The piano] will, with dignity, consent to being an unplayable monument,’ Burgess writes, ‘a piece of industrial archaeology, like the Gaveau upright that is one yard away from my typewriter — unplayable and beyond repair, but once the property of the great Parisian cabaret star Josephine Baker’.
Burgess grew up in the era of the silent cinema, and Baker was one of the global celebrities of his youth. She originally made her name as a singer and dancer in cabaret, and later (in the 1940s and 1950s) Burgess also wrote music in the cabaret style. While he was still at school, Baker’s predominantly white audience flocked see her performances in the south of France, and she was widely known in her time as the ‘Bronze Venus’ and the ‘Creole Princess’.
The story of Josephine Baker has its ups and downs. In 1951, after being refused service at the Stork Club in Manhattan, she accused the club’s owners of racial discrimination and demanded an apology. Another diner on the night in question was the young Grace Kelly, who formed a lifelong friendship with Baker.
This was the beginning of a hard time for the performer, who would eventually become bankrupt and suffer several non-fatal heart attacks. After Baker was evicted from her home, Princess Grace came to her aid, installing Baker and her twelve adopted children in Monaco and eventually helping her return to the Paris stage. A few days after her comeback performance in 1975, Josephine Baker succumbed to a stroke in bed, surrounded by clippings from ecstatic reviews. She died in hospital with her friend Princess Grace at her side.
Baker’s Gaveau piano disappeared from sight after Burgess’s death in 1993, and its current location is not known. However, the piano is visible in the background of Burgess’s segment of the 1979 BBC broadcast, Shakespeare in Perspective, filmed in his Monaco apartment. It can be seen in the above picture, a still from the BBC programme which has recently been discovered in the Burgess Foundation’s photographic archive.