La Martinique was a nightclub built for a bygone era, a remnant from the days of big bands, floor shows, and ballroom dancing. Opened in 1941, it originally featured a full orchestra with live shows from performers such as Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Zero Mostel. It closed in 1950 but was re-opened in 1952 by the legendary jazz great, Josephine Baker. Baker fell in love with France so she became a French citizen and took up residence there in 1925. However, her plan to operate La Martinique was short-lived due to an incident at the Stork Club. The Stork Club was a prestigious symbol of café society and the wealthy elite. While there one night, Baker was treated poorly due to the prevailing racism of the time. She ordered dinner but it never came. Walter Winchell was a regular at the Stork Club, and Baker felt he should have come to her defense and said so publicly. Winchell was one of the most powerful men in the country with large radio and newspaper audiences. He was also a strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy and used the same accusatory tactics that McCarthy used on people he didn’t like. Unfortunately, Baker’s comments angered Winchell, and he accused her of being a communist. The resulting publicity led to the termination of Baker’s work visa, and she returned to France.[1] While back in France, Hennessy cognac hired Ms. Baker to be a spokesperson for the brand. France was far ahead of the United States in the area of racial relations. Hennessy wanted her to be the face of their prestigious cognac because she was a hero and a national treasure in France. In the United States, she was just another black person.

In the 1950s, the black press in America routinely covered news of black folks in Paris with weekly columns. In addition to Baker, many other black celebrities spent time in Paris, including writers such as James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, a popular nightclub owner called Carrot Top, and jazz musicians such as Sydney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, just to name a few. Black folks flocked to Paris because they had an unprecedented level of access to jobs and education. And while there was discrimination in France, it was not as intense or institutionalized as it was in the States.

After Baker returned to France, La Martinique was re-positioned as a restaurant and operated as such for many years by Mrs. Becker. When she retired, she sold it to her son, Bill Becker. When The Best of Friends (TBOF) knocked on the door in 1971, Bill answered, and there was immediate interest. Becker had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and probably would have lost the club had we not approached him. TBOF brought in enough revenue at the bar to bring La Martinique back to profitability.

[1] Black Star News, October 7, 2015, “The Night Josephine Baker Never Got Her Steak” by David Rosen