Baker, a former recording artist and clothing designer, opened the restaurant in 1986 as an homage to his adoptive mother, celebrated jazz chanteuse Josephine Baker. It swiftly became a pre and post-theatre destination for avid theatregoers, visitors and celebrities including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Nureyev, Diana Ross and Liberace.
Baker was a fixture at his festively decorated bistro, warmly greeting guests as though they were family.
The restaurant has announced that they will be closed for business Jan. 15 in honor of “Maman Jean-Claude," but plan to re-open Jan. 16 "as Jean-Claude would wish."
The restaurant also shared the following statement with friends:
"With great sorrow, the Chez Josephine family mourns the passing of Jean-Claude Baker. Throughout his eventful life, Jean-Claude fulfilled with passion and commitment his one true vocation: to bring laughter, joy and love to all who knew him. His larger-than-life personality and unfailing generosity touched everyone around him. His spirit was irrepressible. His love will endure in the lives touched by his special magic. A magic that his Chez Josephine family will do its best to continue in his honor." Baker was very proud of his mother's legacy, calling her "the international black sex symbol of the 20th Century." In a recent interview with Playbill, he spoke candidly about wanting to capture her essence through the restaurant. "It’s also a shrine," he said. "The spirit and vibe is part Josephine and part Left Bank bistro, modeled very much on mother’s first Chez Josephine in Paris in 1926."
He also spoke with Playbill about how he came to turn an old massage parlour on West 42nd Street and turn it into a destination thanks to ambition and some theatrical luck. "I wanted to do something exciting and different," he said. "In 1986, I found an old massage parlor on West 42nd Street, did a total renovation, filled it with my collection of Josephine memorabilia."
At the time, the block was lined with massage parlours and a collection of Off-Broadway theatres, including Playwrights Horizons. "It was a gamble," Baker confessed. "What helped put us on the map only a year after opening was my neighbor Playwrights Horizons winning the Pulitzer Prize for Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy."
He continued, "My first customers who braved the elements, so to speak, were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Nureyev, Diana Ross, Liberace and Peter Allen. Bryan Miller, of the New York Times raved: 'If you have a ticket for Broadway, throw it away and come to Chez Josephine for the boudin noir [blood sausage] and the talented young pianist, Harry Connick Jr.' And the rest is history!"