The U.S. Embassy in Paris continues its month-long celebration of Black History Month with a commemoration of the incredible life of Benny Luke Jr., as well as a tribute to the inestimable cultural contributions of African American expatriates in France.
Born in Los Angeles in 1939, Benny Luke enlisted in the U.S. Navy until his honorable discharge 1963 , when he moved to Paris. He used to say he after his first “gout” of the city he never wanted to leave. Benny first worked at the famous Lido Cabaret on Paris’ Champs Elysées, and later, while working at the Folies Bergère in Paris, met Josephine Baker and was asked to dance with her in 1974 at the Red Cross Gala in Monte Carlo. Benny had a host of friends including close friendships African-American cultural luminaries in Paris such as the writer James Baldwin and the artist Beauford Delaney.
Also while working at the Lido, Benny was cast as “Jacob the Houseboy” in the film trilogy “La Cage aux Folles”, later remade in the U.S. as “The Bird Cage”, starring Robin Williams. In addition to his many acting roles and dance performances, Benny was a bartender for the famed Haynes Restaurant, the first African-American-owned restaurant in Paris, which opened in 1949. There, he met Sharon Morgan and together they opened Bojangles Restaurant in 2000, which because “the” meeting place for African Americans living and traveling in Paris.
Paris embraced Benny and he lived here for most of the past 50 years, except for a few brief returns to New York and Los Angeles in the 1980’s where he opened the La Cage aux Folles clubs. Benny passed away in Paris in 2013 and is buried along fellow cultural greats in Père Lachaise cemetery.
In celebration of his life, and in honor of Black History Month, the U.S. Embassy hosted a gala affair for Benny’s friends and loved ones and members of the greater cultural community of Paris. After several touching testimonials from Benny’s friends, family, and U.S. Congresswoman Corrine Brown – who met Benny at the late R&B singer Isaac Hayes’ 50th birthday party – the party broke out into music, song, and dance, with a four-piece live band playing blues, jazz, and soul classics.