At a writer’s workshop last spring, Florence Ladd decided to go it alone for her second novel, The Spirit of Josephine: A Family Reunion in Paris, which she has been working on for the past decade. After getting the suggested edits from Bancroft Press, she decided to return her advance and instead publish the book later this month with her own Côte-d’Or Press. Her husband, Bill, a sculptor and architect, designed the book.
Even before the final books have been printed, the 81-year-old author of Sarah’s Psalm (Scribner) and former director of the Bunting Institute at Harvard has been getting positive feedback. Tyler Stovall, author of Paris Noir, calls the story of a black chanteuse and dancer looking back over her life and forward with the arrival of her young niece who wants to pursue a similar career “a wonderful homage to the life of Josephine Baker and a moving exploration of African-American life.” Rob Orchard, executive director for the arts at Emerson College comments, “all the theater maneuverings rang true and the Paris atmosphere just added to the allure. But most of all it’s a wonderful story about family, friends, inspiration, reconciliation, and the spirit. I didn’t want it to end.”
Ladd, who splits her time between Cambridge, Mass., and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain in Burgundy, France, had originally planned to publish a sequel to her debut novel, which received a 1997 best fiction award from the American Library Association’s Black Caucus and was optioned for film, first. But when her editor, Leigh Haber, left Scribner and Ladd was orphaned, she put the sequel aside and began working on The Spirit of Josephine in earnest. For Ladd, the book is personal, not just because of her interest in France. “I don’t want people to forget who Josephine Baker was,” she tells PW in an interview at her West Cambridge home. “Josephine has been a figure for me, a kind of example, if not a model, of African-American women who have transcended some stereotypes and found themselves in a more worldly context.”
“In my early years growing up in Washington D.C.,” she adds, “and reading the African-American newspapers, the Afro-American in fact, there were stories about a glamorous woman, Josephine Baker. At 12, I announced to my family that I was going to France.” She did for the first time as a student at Howard. She also lived in Turkey. Years later, in the 1980s, Ladd bought a house in France. Her son and his family live in Paris, and the book is dedicated to four women, including his mother-in-law, Jamie Bowers, who trained in the U.S. as a classical ballerina, but performed in France. “The mythology of liberté, égalité, fraternité and France’s treatment of people of color made it a destination in earlier times,” says Ladd, whose hope is that her book will get readers to turn to biographies of Josephine Baker and understand how things have changed for people of color both here and in France. The book, which also includes flashbacks of black life in the United States, has what Ladd calls “a political context.”
Ladd, who had a heavy tour schedule for Sarah’s Psalm, has begun renewing connections with local libraries and bookstores to set up appearances this winter and spring. She’s also busy with the sequel, which she reworked after Harvard professor Skip Gates’s interaction with Cambridge police. She took her husband’s advice and moved the story to the U.S., and subsequently renamed Jason Henderson’s Senior Year. It now tells the story of an African-American student at Yale, who gets roughed up by the police.
Malaika Adero, v-p, senior editor at Atria Books, snapped it up and will publish it next year. “She not only well develops Jason Henderson and this upper middle-class black family, she also takes you into the mind of the cop,” says Adero. As to whether she would consider publishing The Spirit of Josephine, she says, “right now my focus is on making Jason Henderson’s Senior Year a good book and relaunching Florence Ladd, reminding readers who she is.”
As for Ladd, who tends to work on several projects at once, she is in the midst of writing a collection of poems about her maternal great grandmother Rose, who was born a slave in 1836 in Portsmouth Island, N.C.