A year out of college and struggling to make ends meet as a writer for a tiny theater magazine, I attended a memorial brunch for a Broadway press agent who had died of AIDS.
The brunch was held at Chez Josephine, a French bistro on West 42nd Street that doubled as a shrine to legendary singer Josephine Baker. The owner, Jean-Claude Baker, was one of Josephine’s dozen (or so) adopted children. Jean-Claude stood at the door greeting the mourners. He wore red silk pajamas.
“Welcome, my children, to the memory of our dear friend Monsieur Bob Larkin,” he said in an accent thicker than Bechamel sauce. Meeting me for the first time, he smiled and said, “And where, my darling, have you been all my life?” (I was younger and prettier then.)
Chez Josephine, with its deep blue and gold silk wall coverings, wine-dark velvet curtains, and chandeliers on dimmers, looked like a bordello. It had, in fact, been a massage parlor before Jean-Claude took it over. “There was a sign in the window that said ‘Complete satisfaction,’” Jean-Claude recalled. “That’s my motto, too.”
A few days later, after attending a play at a theater next door, I stopped in. Dinner was beyond my means, but I thought I could manage a glass of the house red. Jean-Claude was there, this time in yellow silk pajamas.
“You have returned, my child!” he said. “Come, sit with me. What are you drinking?”
“Just a glass of red wine,” I said.
“Bring us a bottle of Chateau Gloria,” he told a waiter. “And a menu for my friend.”
I had an excellent bistro steak, and Chateau Gloria was the first really good wine I had ever tasted. Jean-Claude told me about himself. He’d been a bellhop in Paris as a teenager, owned a disco in Berlin in the late ’60s and managed Josephine’s career at the end of her life. He opened Chez Josephine in 1986, when prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers worked his stretch of West 42nd Street. “I am a pioneer!” he said.
As I got up to leave, I asked—nervously because I knew it would be large—for the check.
“Don’t be a fool!” Jean-Claude said. “You are my guest. You are young. You are a writer. You will always be my guest.”
Whenever I was in the neighborhood, I ate at Chez Josephine. I always offered to pay something, but Jean-Claude wouldn’t hear of it. The staff got so used to my not paying that even when Jean-Claude wasn’t there, I didn’t get a check.
A few years later, I landed a job as a reporter at the New York Daily News. The pay was good, and I had an expense account. I took a couple of friends to Chez Josephine to celebrate. When I asked for the check, Jean-Claude said, “Please! You are all my guests!”
“But Jean-Claude,” I protested, “I have an expense account.”
“In that case, darling, here you are,” he said, scribbling something on the check. I paid for two bottles of Veuve Clicquot that night that I hadn’t ordered.
Jean-Claude was my friend for nearly 25 years. The last time I had dinner with him he was strangely withdrawn.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired.”
Three days later he was found dead in his Mercedes-Benz at his house in East Hampton, N.Y. He’d taken some sleeping pills, shut the garage door, and turned on the ignition. He was wearing black silk pajamas. That night I bought a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and drank it all.
Contributing editor Michael Riedel’s book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway won the 2015 Marfield Prize, the National Award for Arts Writing.