On a bright September afternoon, a man who identified himself as Philip Baker, the only natural child of the famous entertainer Josephine Baker, sat in an outdoor cafe on Columbia Road and wove an intriguing saga about how he had been overlooked, forgotten.
It sounded like a good story. And this man repeated the tale around town, constantly invoking the name of the legend he claimed was his mother and dropping the names of two or three generations of international celebrities. But now it appears the story wasn't true and that Philip Baker is an exceptionally good con artist.
A story about the man claiming to be Philip Baker that appeared in The Washington Post on Oct. 8 provoked two waves of reaction. The first, from local people involved in entertainment, said Baker had made promises he didn't keep. The second wave, after the article appeared in several American newspapers and the International Herald Tribune, came from intimates and serious scholars of Josephine Baker who angrily denied the man's story.
"This is an absolute lie," said Gene Lerner, an entertainment agent based in Rome, who knew Baker for nearly 20 years and purchased the rights to her life story from her family in 1975. "My partner, Hank Kauffman, and I have spent thousands of dollars on careful research. Josephine Baker wasn't in the Ziegfeld Follies long enough to have a child. Besides, everything she did was in the public eye . . . The most damning thing about Philip Baker's deception is his insult to the truth of Josephine. Why, if she had borne a child, instead of hiding him as Philip Baker charges, she would have taken full page ads in every major newspaper and through every available medium, joyfully trumpeting his birth in the nine languages she spoke."
Lerner says he has been in contact with Jo Bouillon, widower of Josephine Baker, who lives in Buenos Aires and is the legal father of their 12 adopted children; and Margarette Wallace, the entertainer's only surviving sister. They deny that a Philip Baker was ever part of Josephine Baker's life.
Lynn Haney, the author of a biography of Baker, "Naked at the Feast," which is scheduled to be published next fall, disputed several of Philip Baker's claims. In the interview in Washington he claimed to have been born during or shortly after his mother's appearance in New York with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936. "When the show opened in late January or February, 1936, she was a flop. And she returned home to Paris by the fall for a show that opened in October, 1936. If she was pregnant, it was a well-concealed one because she didn't wear much in those days," said Haney, who interviewed more than 400 people who knew Josephine Baker.
Philip Baker, who arrived in Washington sometime in September, took what one participant called a "grassroots" approach to building his reputation locally. He held several interviews for radio and newspapers, put up a notice in the local unemployment office for recruits for his song-and-dance show, held auditions and rehearsals, reserved both Howard University's Cramton Auditorium and Constitution Hall for shows but never made deposits, and had tickets and posters printed for the show at Constitution Hall which was scheduled for Thanksgiving evening but never took place.
When two newspapers raised the question of his authenticity, and a radio show on WPFW-FM interviewed several people who accused him of being an imposter, Baker left town. For four weeks none of the people who had worked with Baker during those two months has been able to reach him. John Malachi, a veteran local musician, who had rehearsed with Baker and was paid, said he was informed Nov. 16 by Linda Thurgood, Baker's manager, that the Constitution Hall date was canceled.
After Baker failed to show for his publicized evening at Constitution Hall, George Brooks, the hall's manager, said: "We had our first and only contact with Baker on Oct. 10. But he didn't sign a contract or leave a deposit, so we never considered it a firm show. We kept the date open because nobody else asked for it." Brooks didn't receive any cancellation notices from Baker and wasn't aware of independent sales of tickets through individuals and boutiques. "I'm sorry that someone breezed into town, promoted a show, sold some tickets and then lift town," said Brooks.
Baker left behind many people worried about their own credibility and the time and money they invested in his projects. The head of a small communications firm filed a claim in the District's Small Claims Court against Baker. "He promised me from $5,000 to $8,000 for designing posters, setting up interviews, doing a market survey," she said. "When I asked him for a written contract, a lot of things began to go wrong. When my lawyer called and asked for the contract, he said he didn't want one. So I started checking."
Amy Horowitz, the president of Roadwork, a non-profit women's arts organization, had three conversations with Baker about a fund-raiser. Nothing materialized. "I had no negative feelings about his story [being Jo Baker's son]. But I just wondered where the reviews were, where were the public relations kits."
On two occasions, Baker promised to appear at benefits for the gay community but he didn't show for a concert of the Third World Conference of Gay Men or the Gay Peoples Alliance at George Washington University.
Ralph Dynes, the manager of Howard's Cramton Auditorium, had worked with Josephine Baker during her American tours as a property man. "My impression of him was as a con man, a guy who can't give you a lot of information you can substantiate. I noted when I said the last American tour was the one I missed, he said it was the only one he was on," said Dynes. "I had never heard of a natural son or love child. I am not saying it isn't possible but I'm just saying I had never heard it before."
In the book "Josephine," an autobiography completed by her husband, Bouillon, after her death in 1975, Josephine Baker writes of wanting to have children as she recounts her years and love affairs before the mid-1930s. After she describes a breakup in 1936 with Pepito Abatino, her lover and manager, she doesn't elaborate on this period. And Jo Bouillon adds, "Josephine left no further written account of this period of her life. Nor would she talk about it."
Haney says that Josephine Baker was capable of conceiving a child up until 1942. One miscarriage is recorded in her autobiography. "In Casablanca in 1942, she had a stillborn child at the Conte Clinic," Haney said. "And Henri Conte, the doctor, performed a hysterectomy. And I have interviewed him and the private nurse."
In his conversations, Philip Baker mentions several personalities in Los Angeles, New York and Paris as his close friends. But Earl Blackwell of the Celebrity Register, at whose Los Angeles house Josephine Baker stayed several times, says, "I have never heard of him. And she never mentioned a natural child to me." Shelton Roskin, an agent for Barba Streisand, with whom Baker claims a long and close friendship, says, "She has never heard of him." Bricktop, the cabaret hostess and friend of Josephine Baker, told Lynn Haney, "Nobody knows nothing about this boy. He tells the biggest lie in the world when he says he appeared at my club. I never seen or heard of him in my life."
Jean-Claude Baker, a man who was brought into the Josephine Baker entertainment family but was never adopted, calls himself a sons and is considering a damage suit against Philip Baker. "This story is absolutely, absolutely not true. Everyone is furious," says Jean-Claude Baker.