In Memoriam: Jean Claude Baker 1943 - 2015

In Memoriam: Jean Claude Baker 1943 - 2015

By Jason Cocovinis on January 21, 2015

It is with a heavy heart that we mourn the loss of our dear friend and iconic restaurateur, Jean Claude Baker.

Jean Claude Baker created the beloved New York nightspot Chez Josephine in memory of Josephine Baker, the beautiful French singer, dancer and actor who cared for him as a lonely boy in Paris.

According to The New York Times, "Mr. Baker led a colorful and many-faceted life populated by boldface names. Living on his own in Paris by the time he was 14, he became a shrewd worker in hotels and restaurants with a gift for charming the clientele; while working at Le Pavillon Dauphine in 1960, he greeted the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, who, emerging from a limousine, reportedly kissed him on the lips."  (Read the full article).

For the past five summers, MTI Chairman and CEO Freddie Gershon and his wife Myrna have welcomed theatre educators from across the country to a week of events complete with professional development, Broadway performances and unforgettable celebrations including an annual dinner with industry luminaries at the legendary Chez Josephine.  Each year without fail, the flamboyant Jean Claude would greet each guest with his incomparable warmth and elegance - providing a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into one of New York's most treasured establishments.  Jean Claude possessed a generosity of spirit that could not be matched, and loved to regale his guests with stories of his "mother" Josephine Baker and Paris's old world charm.

Myrna and Freddie Gershon knew Jean-Claude for close to 40 years had this to say about their friend...

"We witnessed how Jean Claude changed the entire West 42nd Street area and was the first person to have the courage and vision to realize that what had been one of the most dilapidated and dangerous parts of the city was potentially a destination.

It soon became what’s known as 'Theater Row' and was created around the anchor of Chez Josephine, his wonderful bistro which honored his mother and the role of the African-American in musical theatre as she was the most glamorous Black star of her period and remains the standard by which everything else/all others are measured.

His book, THE HUNGRY HEART, is a must-read but none of it really captures Jean-Claude, who nurtured talent and attracted incredibly interesting people including Harry Connick (whose first job was as a cocktail pianist at Chez Josephine) and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who was a luncheon regular and spoke fluent French with Jean-Claude every time she was present and frequently had her son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., with her).

It was also a destination for many theatre legends like Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Bernadette Peters and others who found it was close to the theatre district, embracing, unpretentious, with good food, wholesome and an ambience that was dictated by the dazzling hospitality of Jean-Claude Baker.

Jean-Claude was to the restaurant business what David Merrick was and Cameron Mackintosh is to producing.  He was the main attraction.  He worked each table.  He was the host with the most – always with anecdotes, always with fun and delight, always dressed for a performance and always performing.

His love of life, of people, of having created his own stage/his own set/his own homage to his mother and what she had created became his mission in life.

There was no one like Jean-Claude Baker.  There will never be anyone like Jean-Claude Baker. Our hearts are broken."

Music Theatre International and Freddie and Myrna paid tribute to Jean Claude Baker in The New York Times which you can view here.