When people ask How? Why? I moved to Morocco sight unseen, I think to myself, I didn’t. Though I’d never been to Africa, my soul brimmed with vivid images from exotic Arabian tales my grandmother read to me from my dad’s childhood book.
I was lured by sultry desert tents, regal riads, and secret gardens where princes and princesses lounged in plush, cushioned comfort. In my imagination birds sang- by- day and lanterns glowed- by- night in arched Andalusian courtyards of fabulous fountains, mosaic tile, and intricately carved woodwork. I was meant to come here–a place where so many desires of my heart have been fulfilled for which I am forever grateful.
Likewise, for some time I felt drawn to Riad Star, former home of Josephine Baker, Queen of the Jazz Age. I was first attracted by the place and a moment in time–the blending of beautiful Marrakesh design with an era I’ve loved since I was a little girl dressing up in my grandmother’s drop waist dresses and pumps. As an adult obsessed with Post- World War I Paris expats and Harlem Renaissance artists, I teach The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Jazz, and when living in the US had students play dress up, too, for annual ’20s Day events.
Recently I finally stayed at Riad Star and met “Jazz Cleopatra,” the legend for whom the boutique hotel is named.
I now realize that what drew me there was more than one period of history. It was a Renaissance Woman who before and beyond Harlem and the 20s never stopped changing, growing, giving, and overcoming. A woman of tenacity and tenderness.
When Aziz greeted me at the taxi, walked me to the riad, and placed my bag in her very suite, The Josephine Room, I was in awe. There, under a photograph of her close friend, Grace Kelly, my favorite American Hollywood actress since I was a teen…
I devoured Josephine’s biographies found in my room and the library downstairs.
In the afternoon sun on the rooftop
near the cool courtyard,
and under the covers at night,
like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I was transported to another time.
There I discovered a new treasure in Marrakesh..the “Black Pearl”…the “Bronze Venus” who Ernest Hemingway, her fellow expat in Paris, called “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Or Angelina Jolie…
A dancer, singer, movie star, and mom energetically entertained crowds for fifty years and raised her “Rainbow Tribe.”
Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934) and to become a world-famous entertainer. A superstar before Marilyn or Madonna, Josephine was named in 2012 Time magazine in the Top 100 Fashion Icons of All Time.
Likewise she was muse for artists and intellectuals of the 1930s such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, and e.e. cummings. Dance Magazine explained the allure of Josephine –the “geometry” of her oval head and lithe body–during the Cubist and Art Deco movements, both influenced by African art and sculpture.
A World War II spy for the French Resistance, Josephine Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance. At her death she was mourned in Paris by 20,000 people including Princess Grace who gathered for her funeral procession. She was buried with military honors in Monaco, a place she and her family visited often as guests of the royal family.
A civil rights activist, she was the only woman who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther, King. She told the crowd that day:
You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.
Later she said of her personal victory:
Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now.
And for a time, she lived in Marrakesh in a room I just stayed in.
We bought our first riad (Riad Cinnamon) in 2005 after I was introduced to Marrakech by a Moroccan friend. We are passionate about introducing our guests to Moroccan culture, especially first time visitors. As well as the riads we are very involved in a charity which we founded with another English couple. It’s called Henna Cafe and has an active programme of education.
The Pasha Thami el Glaoui formerly owned what is now Riad Star, a guest annex to the palace which is now the Marrakech museum. Mike says he learned Josephine Baker stayed there when talking to a neighbor. The people of Derb Alilich still remember her warmth and she appreciated theirs. In the Josephine Room there’s a window looking onto the street–nonexistent in most riads where windows, doors, and balconies face inward toward private courtyards. It is believed the Pasha of Marrakech paid children to sit outside Josephine’s window and read for her while she was convalescing after a nineteen-month stay at a hospital in Casablanca in 1941-42.
Mike Wood says of the purchase:
The restoration was extensive and took two years with a team of highly skilled local craftsmen. We did not really change much except adding the rolling roof which is very practical and putting in more bathrooms.
Ah, but the details the Woods added are symbolic of a spirit whose beauty, sensitivity and toughness transcended adversity. There are nine rooms at Riad Star, each named for a part of Josephine’s life, such as the Jazz room, Paris room, Chiquita room, and Rainbow room. Though historically themed, each room has modern conveniences, such as refrigerators, WiFi, and flatscreen televisions.
Josephine was born in 1906 in St. Louis to Carrie McDonald, daughter of former slaves, and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson who carried her onstage when she was a toddler but left the family soon after. She cleaned houses and tended children for white families who told her not to kiss the babies. One mistress burned her hands for using too much soap when washing clothes. At age twelve she began a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club which led to being married off unsuccessfully at thirteen. At fifteen she was noticed for her street dancing and recruited for vaudeville. After witnessing the St. Louis race riots and experiencing abusive treatment which led to a time she lived on the streets and ate from trash bins, she moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and performed at the Plantation Club. As the last girl in the chorus line, her role was to make the audience laugh–something she loved doing her entire life. But in 1925 Paris she moved from last to superstardom overnight when she opened in La Revue Nègre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Continuing to amaze crowds with her sensual dances, costumes, and charisma, by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. And then she took on another continent…
In Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase wrote of Josephine’s “Arabian Nights” when “she came to Northern Africa with twenty-eight pieces of luggage and her animals.” Before she adopted twelve children from various countries (she suffered miscarriages and “many surgeries” trying to have her own and a complication that confined her to the Casablanca hospital ), she had a menagerie consisting of Chiquita, her famous leopard she walked on a leash; Ethel, a chimpanzee; Albert, a pig; Kiki, a snake, and a goat, parrot, parakeets, fish three cats and seven dogs. In Morocco her monkeys played in the orange trees.
Baker records accounts of his mother’s time at Riad Star :
Every morning, as soon as the birds started singing, Josephine was up and running around in the buff going to the kitchen to help the servants cook… The house had four bedrooms—one which had her big brass bed from France… She adopted Arab customs. She liked eating with her hands, wearing the loose djelleba, going with her maids to the hammam, the Turkish baths, once a week.
….And wasn’t it queer that Josephine, who had spent her childhood dreaming of kings in golden slippers, should find herself there? In a place where, even more amazingly, racial discrimination did not exist? Thami el Glaousi, pasha of Marrakesh and the most powerful tribal chieftain in French Morocco at that time, was himself black.
From northern Africa Josephine was safe from Nazi racism. Langston Hughes wrote she “was as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall in Africa today fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Nonetheless, while in Africa as she’d done throughout Europe, Josephine continued entertaining troops for Charles de Gaulle and carrying information for the Allied forces from Spain. Among dignitaries who visited her while in the hospital in Casa was Jacques Abtrey, Head of Intelligence against the Germans. Outside as a military parade with American, French, and Moroccan troops marched by, he and Josephine toasted with champagne. He recalls: “We raised our glasses to America, to England, and to our eternal France.”
Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Director of the African and African-American Studies Research Center at the University of California – San Diego and author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image wrote of Josephine making Paris her home and learning not only French but Italian and Russian:
As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did….She never made a Hollywood film. But at the same time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone with the Wind…[She] was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends.
When in the US she refused to perform in venues that did not admit minorities. Says Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.”
Still, in 1951 she was refused admittance to some hotels and restaurants, and when she charged the Stork Club in New York City of racism when the owner would not serve her, she was placed on the FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for over a decade. In 1963 she returned with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to speak at the March on Washington. She told the crowd:
You know I have always taken the rocky path…I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had.
Summing up her journey, Josephine said: “I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity…I believe in prayer. It’s the best way we have to draw strength from heaven.”
When not reading at Riad Star, I chatted over dinner with a lovely group of ladies on holiday from England. All moms, they had decided to treat themselves to a girls’ getaway. For information on package deals including a Girls Getaway and other specialty escapes, go here. I spent breakfast with a little bird by the pool, then took off with Aziz to see two other properties owned by the Woods.
Though all guests are provided a downloadable App and cell phone to navigate the medina, after two years here and still taking wrong turns at times in the medina, I was thrilled Aziz was happy to walk me to and from the taxi as well as show me two other riads.
Riad Cinnamon has five suites, each named for a city in Morocco: Fez, Essaouira, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, and Meknes. Since I’ve been to all but Meknes, four of the rooms transported me to fine Morocco Moments across the country.
After raiding my grandmother’s trunk for dress up clothes, I’d wear them out into her garden to watch butterflies playing in the flowers. At Riad Papillon (Riad Butterly), imagination takes flight in rooms named for blooms, such as Bougainvillea, Jasmine, and Rose known to attract those feathery-winged wonders. The riad is just off Dar El Bacha, one of my favorite shopping streets in the souks, while Star and Cinnamon are just around corners from Merdersa Ben Youseff, a medina must-see. All are also near the Spice Square and Henna Cafe.
I enjoyed the morning and my Midnight in Marrakesh experience. HBO’s 1991 movie, The Jordan Baker Story, winner of five Emmys and a Golden Globe now tops my list of Must-see films. In “My Josephine Baker” her son explains in The New York Times how and why he had to write a biography of her: “When she died, something was taken from me. I suffered a loss and I wanted to know who she was, that woman I had seen in so many ways, sometimes a criminal, sometimes a saint.”
When she passed away in 1975, no doubt there were mixed opinions of her because she was– and her critics are– after all, human. Her legacy lives on in Riad Star in the Red City where others find rest and shelter and at the Henna Cafe that promotes appreciation of diversity, cross-cultural communication, and understanding. Though Josephine left school to work as a child, she later learned French, Russian, and Italian, an inspiration to language learners everywhere.
Thank you to Riad Star for the hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.