The Night Josephine Baker Never Got Her Steak
[Commentary: Race Matters]
This one is from the archives.
On Tuesday night, October 16, 1951, Josephine Baker, the legendary African-American entertainer and actress who was widely celebrated in Paris dined at New York’s up-scale Stork Club’s exclusive Cub Room.
She’d come to the nightclub accompanied by three friends following her sold-out performance at the Roxy Theatre. According to the Daily News, “They ordered drinks, which arrived. They ordered steaks, which an hour later had not.”
Racism is America’s great shame, embedded in the nation’s founding Constitution and repeatedly played out in ways specific to time and place.
Josephine Baker’s steak is one episode illuminating a moment that is unlikely to happen in the same way again. Unfortunately, things change but all-too-often remains the same.
John Sherman Billingsley, know to all as “Sherm,” opened the Stork Club in 1929 at 132 West 58th Street and, over a quarter century, ran it as one of the city’s grandest nightspots. Like other speakeasies, Prohibition agents repeatedly closed it down and, after one raid, Sherm moved the club to, first, 51-1/2 East 51st Street. In 1934, after Prohibition ended, Sherm moved it to 3 East 53rd Street where it remained a fixture of café society until it closed in 1965.
The Cub Room – disparaged as the “snub” room by those excluded – was the club’s most exclusive section, its inner sanctum, located just inside the front door and separated off by an allegedly solid gold chain. Only Sherm’s best customers got in and, of course, they included anybody with fame, fortune or a gun in their pocket.
Over the years, the Stork offered fine food that emphasized French cuisine. Its most famous contribution to popular dining was the chicken hamburger that combined boned and ground chicken mixed with salt, pepper, nutmeg, butter, heavy cream and breadcrumbs. It was served with tomato sauce, French-fried sweet potatoes and buttered green peas. It became a late-night delicacy.
Fatefully, that October ’51 night, after drinks, the waiter served Baker's companions but did not deliver her meal, a steak and crab salad. Baker took umbrage when her white dinner companions -- Mr. and Mrs. Roger Rico from Paris; Rico had recently replaced Ezio Pinza in "South Pacific” – received their meals. But Baker and her friend, Bessie Buchanan, did not get served; Buchanan was a prominent Harlem socialite, former chorus-line dancer (she had performed in Shuffle Along and at the Cotton Club) and, in 1954, was first African-American woman elected to the New York Assembly.
Baker was no ordinary entertainer, an accommodating Black celebrity. Growing up in St. Louis, she fled the city following the 1917 race riot and relocated to New York where she performed as a song-and-dance entertainer, even appearing on Broadway in blackface.
She moved to Paris, ultimately staring in a number called "Danse Sauvage" that was set in an African jungle and appeared in the legendary Folies Bergère. In the wake of Germany’s invasion of France, Baker worked for the Resistance and, using her performance tours as a cover, carried coded messages written in invisible ink to underground members throughout Europe. She finally fled France, returning to the U.S. but to a far less welcoming environment.
Legal historian Mary Dudziak notes, “She and her white husband, Jo Bouillon, were refused service by thirty-six New York hotels.” She was a strong advocate for racial justice, supporting the family of Willie McGee, an African American executed for allegedly raping a White woman, by paying for his funeral; she appeared at the trial of the Trenton Six in support of the African-American men accused of murdering a White shop owner; and she also attempted to integrate a Washington, D.C., Whites-only soda fountain at the Hecht department store. In recognition of her effort, the NAACP held a "Josephine Baker Day" on May 20, 1951.
Baker took the steak incident as a racial insult, something that would not happen in Paris. Angered, the two Black women walked out of the Stork in protest. Over the next few days, word of the incident spread, taken up by the NAACP, local papers and the gossip columnist, Ed Sullivan.
Walter Winchell, one of the nation’s leading 20th century “pundits,” a gossip columnist who was immortalized by Burt Lancaster, as J. J. Hunsecker in the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, was at the club that that night. For a half-century, he held court at Table 50.
In the late-‘30s, Winchell became a close associate of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and, in the ‘50's, he was a fervent anticommunist, a staunch supporter of Sen. Joe McCarthy and a social friend of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s assistant.
During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn apparently provided Winchell with supposedly secret documents that the writer, in turn, alluded to in his newspaper columns. Following the hearings, he was subpoenaed to testify before a Senate panel, the Watkins Committee, which censured McCarthy. It marked the nadir of Winchell’s career. Baker’s insult became the talk of the town and Winchell was torn.
He had greeted Baker when shearrived and, when he left, he passed her and Rico making calls on the club’s pay phone. Winchell initially denied his presence at the club but after being caught-out he argued that he knew little of what actually happened. While he casually knew Baker, he was considered a liberal on the race issue, sympathetic to her concern. But he was deeply in debt to Sherm and the Stork for his career and ongoing access to celebrities.
Winchell attempted to square the circle by defending the club and questioning Baker’s racial sensitive. Faced with strong reaction to his stand from both Black and White New Yorkers, he went on the offensive. He contacted Hoover, requesting substantiation of Baker’s relations with the Communist Party.
The FBI provided him with long-forgotten Baker quotes from before the war praising Benito Mussolini Italy's fascist rule and even had the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson publicly defend Winchell. Baker sued Winchell, but the suit was dismissed. Adding insult to injury, Rico was fired from "South Pacific.”
The Stork Club incident became a national litmus test when it was picked up by Confidential, a rightwing Los Angeles gossip tabloid published by Robert Harrison. In its coverage, Baker was described as a "phoney" and "outright liar" who was motivated "for her own cynical ends." According to one review, Harrison suggested Baker "was a Communist.”
Still others picked up the story, including Lyle Stuart, a legendary Gotham independent publisher. He repeatedly covered the episode in his monthly political newsletter Exposé and was commissioned by legendary porn publisher, Samuel Roth, to expand his articles into a book, The Secret Life of Walter Winchell, published in 1953. Winchell used his national media pulpit to attack Stuart and Roth; Stuart sued him for liberal and, in ’55, won a tax-free $40,000 libel award against Winchell; $365,000 in 2015 dollars.
Josephine Baker never got her steak and the incident disappeared long ago into the fog of history.
However, her steak is illuminating now, more then six decades later, for how much has changed – and hasn’t. During World War II, Harry Belafonte, a U.S. Navy laborer, was denied entry into the Copacabana, or the “Copa”, one of the city’s most exclusive nightspots; in the ‘50s, he broke the color line and appeared as a headliner at the club.
Today, celebrities of the stature of Baker or Belafonte would not be refused a meal or barred from an upscale club. But prejudice continues, whether against people-of-color or unpopular religious communities such as Muslims, especially as it plays out in the quotidian of ordinary life whether in big cities or rural communities throughout the country.
It’s this endemic and institutional discrimination that remains America’s greatest social and interpersonal challenge.
David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion: The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).