Category Archives: Artist Heroes

Josephine Baker: Bronze Venus

By Rick Hutchins

Pulp Fiction abounds with larger-than-life heroes who seemingly achieve more than any mere mortal could hope to accomplish in one lifetime. Mainstream society rejects such notions as mere Romanticism and advises us to set our sights lower — however, such people do exist.

This is the story of one such person.

The woman who would become known as the Bronze Venus was born into a life of poverty in the Negro slums of St. Louis in 1906, the daughter of Vaudeville performers. She did not intend to follow in her parents’ footsteps. However, abandoned by her father and abused as the domestic servant of a wealthy family, she found herself homeless and starving on the city streets; so, when dancing for pennies on the corner led to an invitation to perform in a local chorus line, she was not slow to accept.

Her natural talents quickly became apparent. Before she was out of her teens, she had moved to New York and had become the highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville. By her early 20s, she was charming audiences in at the Folies Bergère in Paris with her uninhibited eroticism and comedic antics.

Josephine Baker quickly became one of the most famous women in the world. Her success allowed her to be financially independent, quite rare for a woman of that era and unheard of for a Black woman. As an artist, she was an innovator. In addition to pushing the boundaries of eroticism and nudity, even by the standards of the Roaring 20s, she was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture and is credited with introducing the Jazz Age to Europe.

After more than a decade of increasing success as an exotic performer (complete with pet cheetah), mitigated only somewhat by experiences with racism in the United States, Baker had become a French citizen and did not hesitate to answer the call when World War II broke out. She was recruited by French Military Intelligence and, later, the French Resistance to obtain and conduct information vital to the war effort.

Her celebrity status allowed her to rub shoulders with movers and shakers at embassies throughout Europe and her charm allowed her to gather data about enemy airfields, harbors, and troop movements, which she would then convey written in invisible ink on her sheet music and in notes pinned in her underwear. She was, in short, a spy. In addition, her home in the south of France became an unofficial headquarters for the Free French movement, where operatives could obtain visas.

Throughout the war, Baker also performed freely for the troops and worked as a nurse for the Red Cross. Many Allied soldiers remembered her generosity and healing ministrations throughout the remainder of their lives.

For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war ended, Baker’s celebrity status was heightened by her wartime heroism, and she was not afraid to use her newfound clout. Returning to the United States after many years, she refused to perform for segregated audiences– most venues, most notably in Miami and Las Vegas, gave in to her demands, resulting in a sold-out national tour. She was named the NAACP Woman of the Year in 1951 and May 20th was declared Josephine Baker Day. A parade was held in her honor.

All was not wine and roses, however. She was turned away by dozens of hotels for being Black and received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. A confrontation at the New York Stork Club (in which she was befriended by Grace Kelly, a hero in her own right), resulted in the revocation of her visa for several years.

Nevertheless, Baker continued to work with the Civil Rights Movement, and was an ally of the NAACP and Martin Luther King. She spoke at the historic March on Washington in 1963 (the only woman to do so) and was heartened by the sight of so many Blacks and Whites standing shoulder to shoulder. “Salt and pepper,” she said. “Just what it should be.” When Doctor King was killed, she was offered the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement by his widow, but she declined. By then, she had a family to think about.

Her family at that time consisted of her husband, Jo Bouillon, a French conductor, and a dozen adopted children who she called her Rainbow Tribe (as well as a menagerie of exotic pets). The children were of a variety of backgrounds– European, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern– and were a testament to Baker’s belief that “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Josephine Baker died in 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage, following a retrospective performance in Paris that was attended by celebrities, royalty, and dignitaries from all over the world. She received full French military honors and a public funeral attended by tens of thousands.

Today there are parks and streets that bear her name, she is the subject of multiple books, movies and plays, and there are museums and memorials from Missouri to Monte Carlo that pay tribute to this underprivileged Black woman from the streets of St. Louis who championed sexual freedom, provided a role model for independent women, fought the Axis, stared down the Klan, and set an example of human fellowship that is still needed today.

Mere Romanticism indeed. Such people do exist.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Myrna Loy: Hero On and Off Screen

By Rick Hutchins

Many actors are known for the heroic exploits of their fictional alter egos, but far fewer deserve to be called heroes in their own right. Myrna Loy is best remembered for her role as Nora Charles, the wry better half of William Powell’s Nick Charles, whom she portrayed in six Thin Man films from 1934 to 1947. In these films, Loy never failed to help bring the murderer to justice and prevent further loss of life. In real life, her acts of heroism were more subtle, yet more profound and lasting.

Born in 1905 in Montana, Myrna Loy came to southern California with her mother following the death of her father when she was 13. Here she studied dance, posed for photographers and sculptors, and was soon performing in local stage productions. A job as a dancer in Grauman’s Egyptian Theater led to her first roles as exotic femme fatales in several silent films throughout the 1920s. But it was in 1934, at the age of 29, that she landed the role of Nora Charles, making her one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and earning her the nickname “The Queen of Hollywood.”

Loy put her fame and wealth to good use. A strong opponent of racism, she lobbied against discrimination in Hollywood. “Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant?” she asked studio executives when she was at MGM. “How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?” This was in 1934, during the Great Depression and three decades before the Civil Rights Era. Later, she worked as co-chair of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, she went to work raising money for the Red Cross and War Relief. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she went to work full time for the war effort, going on fund-raising tours (in full uniform) and working at a Naval Auxiliary Canteen run by Bundles for Bluejackets. As the war continued, she moved to New York and toured military hospitals throughout the east, visiting wounded and crippled soldiers and organizing shows to raise their spirits. Her outspoken statements against the Nazis earned her a spot on Hitler’s blacklist.

After the war, she faced the threat of another blacklist because of her progressive views — this time because of the rising tide of McCarthyism and the Communist Witch Hunt. As a response to the forming of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Loy helped create the Committee For The First Amendment. Also in the post-war years, she went to work for the American Association For The United Nations and as a delegate for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization).

In her roles as strong, intelligent and sexually liberated women in films such as The Thin Man, Topaze and The Barbarian, Myrna Loy epitomized the “New Woman” feminism that began in the 1920s. Her progressive views on racial and gender equality foreshadowed the dramatic social changes of the following generation. Her dedication and patriotism in the face of war, as well as her courage and moral fiber in the face of ominous developments on the home front, brought comfort and hope to many. In both fact and fiction, Myrna Loy was a heroic force to be reckoned with.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

The Million Dollar Quartet: Four Rock Heroes, Sixty Years Later

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Over the past several years, the musical Million Dollar Quartet has been playing in major cities around the United States.  It’s a fabulous show, featuring singer/actor/musicians portraying four 1950s rock’n roll heroes from Sun Records in Memphis Tennessee.  The four are Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.

The play’s performances are sensational.  But the leading man is not one of the musicians, rather the actor playing the role of Sam Phillips, founder and owner of Sun Records.  We have mentioned Sam Phillips before.  His Sun Records studio on 706 Union Avenue is now a lovingly preserved national landmark in Memphis.  Artists such as Bono and Ringo Starr still go there, either to record or just to see and touch the microphone used by the great singers of the golden “rockabilly” age of The Fifties.

The facts of the Million Dollar Quartet are fascinating in themselves.   The play takes some liberty with actual events, making the story even more compelling than it was in actuality.  But our need to make our heroes even more heroic than they really were easily accounts for those embellishments.  In the theatre version, Sam Phillips is dealing with Johnny Cash leaving to sign with another record company, Carl Perkins is trying to find another hit after his early defining single smash, Blue Suede Shoes, and Jerry Lee Lewis is emerging as perhaps the most musically talented of all them all.  Phillips is the glue that holds them together. That part does fit the historical record.  For that Phillips is a genuine hero to rockers of all ages.

As best we can figure out, and supposedly authoritative versions conflict, here’s what happened.  It was a Tuesday afternoon, December 4, 1956.  Elvis was at his peak.  That year he had had five number one singles and two top albums, his first movie, Love Me Tender, was a monstrous success, and his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show drew 83% of the television audience.  In contrast, after Blue Suede Shoes Perkins career hadn’t gone anywhere.  He just didn’t have the charisma that blessed Elvis.  Jerry Lee Lewis was only a studio piano player brought in to round out Perkins’ combo.

Johnny Cash had recorded I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues with Phillips at Sun.  But he was about to leave for another label.  In this context, Elvis and his current girlfriend dropped by the studio.  It was likely a relief to him to return to a familiar, nurturing place where he could just be himself.  As the famous “quartet” and others in the studio chatted, Elvis sat at a piano and started playing and singing.  The others joined in.  Someone in the studio had the good sense to turn on the tape recorder.

What is so interesting are the songs they all knew and could work on together.  At first, they are almost entirely gospel songs, reflecting their common Southern heritage.   Later, they started doing more traditional rock’n roll.  Elvis takes the lead on most numbers, and the others harmonize.  They are clearly just having fun.  Many historians of the era feel that by the end of 1956, Elvis’ best days were behind him.  He was being homogenized into a bland, antiseptic round of recordings and films.

The Million Dollar Quartet was one of the last instances where Elvis was recorded in a setting where he was simply relaxing with his friends and his music, not trying to impress anyone.  Still, the recordings, which were rediscovered many years later, impress us all.

Below is a clip of the Million Dollar Quartet singing Farther Along on that historic day in December of 1956.