Dancer, Film-Star, Spy And Activist, Josephine Baker Was Someone That Lived A Full Life
Josephine Baker spent her youth in poverty before learning to dance and finding success on Broadway. In the 1920s she moved to France and soon became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and '60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. After beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973, Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honours.
Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman who had given up her dreams of becoming a music-hall dancer. Her father, Eddie Carson, was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after her birth. Carrie remarried soon thereafter and would have several more children in the coming years.
To help support her growing family, at age eight Josephine cleaned houses and babysat for wealthy white families, often being poorly treated. She briefly returned to school two years later before running away from home at age 13 and finding work as a waitress at a club. While working there, she married a man named Willie Wells, from whom she divorced only weeks later.
Dancing in Paris
It was also around this time that Josephine first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances, and by 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, Josephine married a man named Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Along as a member of the chorus, and the comic touch that she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to parlay these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favourite.
In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker travelled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt.
Zou Zou, a 1934 film starring Josephine made her the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture and the first American-born woman to receive the French military honour, the Croix de Guerre, after serving as a spy for the government during the Second World War. However, it was the following year, at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era, that Baker’s career would reach a major turning point. In a performance called La Folie du Jour, Baker danced wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe. Christian Dior, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, CoCo Chanel were among painters, sculptors, designers, and authors who often made her their muse. Ernest Hemingway, once said Josephine was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”, while Pablo Picasso described her as, “tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles”, referring to her as the “Nefertiti of now”.
Capitalizing on this success, Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years
later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. The money she earned from her performances soon allowed her to purchase an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the southwest of France. She named the estate Les Milandes and soon paid to move her family there from St. Louis.
Racism and the French Resistance
In 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was enjoying in France, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. However, she was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction and quickly returned to France, crestfallen at her mistreatment. Upon her return, Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her as one of its own.
In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, the French military intelligence agency, as an "honourable correspondent". Baker worked with Jacques Abtey, the head of French counterintelligence in Paris. She socialised with the Germans at embassies, ministries, night clubs, charming them while secretly gathering information. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian and Vichy bureaucrats, reporting to Abtey what she heard. She attended parties and gathered information at the Italian embassy without raising suspicion.
When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the Dordogne département in the south of France. She housed people who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carried information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbours, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. Notes were written in invisible ink on Baker's sheet music. As written in Jazz Age Cleopatra, "She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, but at the same time trying to remember interesting items to transmit."
Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa. The stated reason was Baker's health (since she was recovering from another case of pneumonia) but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain. She pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search). She met the Pasha of Marrakech, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several). After the miscarriage, she developed an infection so severe it required a hysterectomy. The infection spread and she developed peritonitis and then sepsis. After her recovery (which she continued to fall in and out of), she started touring to entertain British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. The Free French had no organized entertainment network for their troops, so Baker and her entourage managed for the most part on their own. They allowed no civilians and charged no admission.
After the war, Baker was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Following the war, Baker spent most of her time at Les Milandes with her family.
In 1947, she married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and beginning in 1950 began to adopt babies from around the world. She adopted 12 children in all, creating what she referred to as her “rainbow tribe” and her “experiment in brotherhood.” She often invited people to the estate to see these children, to demonstrate that people of different races could in fact live together harmoniously.
Return to the U.S., Civil Rights Advocate
During the 1950s, Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend her support to the Civil Rights Movement. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States, although she was offered $10,000 by a Miami club; the club eventually met her demands. Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate live entertainment shows in Las Vegas, Nevada. After this incident, she began receiving threatening phone calls from people claiming to be from the Ku Klux Klan but said publicly that she was not afraid of them.
In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in Manhattan, where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (although she returned on 3 January 1956 with Prince Rainier of Monaco). The two women became close friends after the incident.
When Baker was near bankruptcy, Kelly—by then the princess consort—offered her a villa and financial assistance. (During his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Baker's sons. He indicated that he had read his mother's FBI file and, using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.
Baker also worked with the NAACP. Her reputation as a crusader grew to such an extent that the NAACP had Sunday 20 May 1951 declared "Josephine Baker Day". She was presented with life membership with the NAACP by Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche. The honour she was paid spurred her to further her crusading efforts with the "Save Willie McGee" rally. McGee was a black man in Mississippi convicted of raping a white woman in 1945 on the basis of dubious evidence, and sentenced to death. Baker attended rallies for McGee and wrote letters to Fielding Wright, the governor of Mississippi, asking him to spare McGee's life.
Despite her efforts, McGee was executed in 1951. As the decorated war hero who was bolstered by the racial equality she experienced in Europe, Baker became increasingly regarded as controversial; some black people even began to shun her, fearing that her outspokenness and racy reputation from her earlier years would hurt the cause.
In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Baker was the only official female speaker. While wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur, she introduced the "Negro Women for Civil Rights". Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates were among those she acknowledged, and both gave brief speeches. Not everyone involved wanted Baker present at the March; some thought her time overseas had made her a woman of France, one who was disconnected from the Civil Rights issues going on in America. In her speech, one of the things Baker said:
I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, 'cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world ...
After King's assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in the Netherlands to ask if she would take her husband's place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were "too young to lose their mother"
After decades of rejection by her countrymen and a lifetime spent dealing with racism, in 1973, Baker performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and was greeted with a standing ovation. She was so moved by her reception that she wept openly before her audience. The show was a huge success and marked Baker’s comeback to the stage.
On 8 April 1975 Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace (a close friend), and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.
Four days later Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on 12 April 1975.
Baker received a full Catholic funeral at L'Église de la Madeleine, attracting more than 20,000 mourners. The only American-born woman to receive full French military honours at her funeral. After a family service at Saint-Charles Church in Monte Carlo, Baker was interred at Monaco's Cimetière de Monaco.
In May 2021 an online petition was set up by writer Laurent Kupferman asking that Joséphine Baker be honoured by being reburied at the Panthéon in Paris or being granted Panthéon honours, which would make her only the sixth woman at the mausoleum alongside Simone Veil, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Marie Curie, Germaine Tillion, and Sophie Berthelot. In August 2021 the French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced that Baker's remains would be reburied at the Panthéon in November 2021, following the petition and continued requests from Baker's family since 2013. Her son Claude Bouillon-Baker, however, told Agence France-Presse that her body would remain in Monaco and only a plaque would be installed at the Panthéon. It was later announced that a symbolic casket containing soil from various locations where Baker had lived, including St. Louis, Paris, the South of France and Monaco, would be carried by the French Air and Space Force in a parade in Paris before a ceremony at the Panthéon where the casket was interred. The ceremony took place on Tuesday 30 November 2021, and Baker thus became the first black woman to be honoured in the secular temple to the "great men" of the French Republic.