Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Tribute to Jean-Claude Baker of Chez Josephine

I religiously read obituaries in The New York Times, not, as the saying goes, to find out if I’m still alive. Friday night I was startled to read about the passing of Jean-Claude Baker, apparently by his own hand. He was found Thursday in his car at his East Hampton, NY, home.

I doubt most of you knew Jean-Claude. I can’t say I had more than a passing awareness of him, either, until about a year ago. I didn’t know him as a friend. Rather, he was the co-owner and maitre d of Chez Josephine, a French bistro on West 42nd Street off 9th Avenue in Manhattan, a few doors down from Playwrights Horizon, a theatre group Gilda and I and our friends Jane and Ken have been members of for more than 10 years, enjoying four to six plays a year, several of which have gone on to win Pulitzer prizes.  

We used to attend weekend matinees then visit a museum before dining at restaurants all over the city. A few years ago we switched to evening productions with dinner at nearby restaurants, including Chez Josephine. In truth we dined there at first because of its proximity to the theatre. We kept going back because the food, the service, the piano-bar ambiance, the decor and the convenience made each meal memorable and delectable. If you’re anything like me, you grew up hating liver. But the pan-seared calf’s liver at Chez Josephine is to die for. And its shrimp cocktail is among the plumpest I’ve enjoyed.

Jean-Claude often would be standing directly inside the front door, cheerfully dressed in a high collared tunic. About a year ago when Ken and Jane had to miss our night at the theatre, Linda and Jacob took their places. Intrigued by all the pictures of Josephine Baker, the American chanteuse Parisians adored, decorating the walls, Linda asked Jean-Claude about them.

He enthusiastically joined our table recounting a quick summary of his life while bringing over a copy of a book he had written about Josephine, the woman who had taken him in as a struggling teenager in Paris and for all intents and purposes adopted him, one of about a dozen waifs she mothered in the City of Lights.

The last time we ate in Chez Josephine was in early December. Jean-Claude was not in his usual spot greeting patrons. I asked if he was in but was told he was taking some time off at his East Hampton home. Reports of his death said he had been depressed for several years. How sad that a man who had given so much joy to friends and strangers would succumb to demons inside his mind (