Picks and Pans Review: The Hungry Heart

updated 03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 01:00AM

by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase

Long before Madonna strapped on a bullet bra, there was Josephine Baker, all of 20 years old, scandalizing Paris in the 1920s wearing nothing but a belt ringed with bananas. Beautiful, impetuous, brazenly sexual and ambitious, Baker sang and danced her way through five decades of international stardom (you have a way to go, Madonna), and her death in 1975 at age 68 inspired several biographers to claw at the curtain of her legend in search of the genuine Josephine.

The latest truthseeker, Jean-Claude Baker, had the advantage of serving as his subject's close confidant and manager in the last seven years of her life. (The author even took her name, though they are not related.) Admittedly obsessed, he set out to humanize Baker by deflating some of the self-created mystique surrounding her remarkable life.

The result is a dense, choppy portrait of a difficult woman who, despite her success, remained sad and unreachable. Prodigiously researched, The Hungry Heart offers plenty of illuminating details, particularly about Baker's early struggles in race-torn St. Louis and her self-destructive 1951 run-in with columnist Walter Winchell. But the author's eagerness to set the whole record straight proves detrimental in this biography: Too many briefly sketched husbands, lovers, impresarios and rivals pop in and out to make a truly engaging narrative.

Maybe a memoir limited to his years with Baker—when she went broke, cared for 12 adopted children and continued to dazzle audiences in her 60s—would have been more satisfying. Still, Baker buffs will revel in this honest, emotional grab bag about one of the 20th century's most enigmatic female pop stars. (Random, $27.50)

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