Today, it is the birthday of this lady. In her early teens she was homeless and scratching a living on the streets of St Louis. She became a world famous entertainer, helped the French Resistance during World War II and was offered unofficial leadership of the American Civil Rights movement after Martin Luther King died. Her name is Josephine Baker.
Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman, her father a vaudeville drummer who abandoned the family not long after she was born. From the age of eight, she worked as a domestic for wealthy white families and was very badly treated by them. She dropped out of school at thirteen and found herself living on the street in the slums of St Louis, searching garbage cans for food and making what money she could as a street corner dancer.
At fifteen, Josephine was recruited into the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show and wound up performing in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and social explosion of African American culture during the 1920s. There, she performed a sort of comedy role in the chorus line. The dancer at the end of the line, who gets all the dances a bit wrong until the final number when she proves that she is better than all of them. She was a huge hit and became quite wealthy as a result. Unfortunately, racial segregation meant she couldn’t spend her money freely in the places that other, white, performers might and, in 1925, she left for Paris.
Josephine also arrived in France at an opportune time. Just as the Paris art scene fell in love with all things African. She was appearing in a show called ‘La Revue Nègre’ where she appeared on stage almost naked and wowed audiences with her erotic dancing. She travelled Europe with the show and then returned to Paris to perform at the Folies Bergère. Although she was born in America, she enjoyed playing up to her audience’s image of her as a wild African woman. She danced wearing only a skirt made from a string of bananas and got herself a pet cheetah. The cheetah wore a diamond collar and together, they stalked the streets of Paris. It may even have performed with her. Perhaps it occasionally escaped from the stage and frightened the orchestra. Josephine was an inspiration to Picasso, to Christian Dior. Ernest Hemmingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. It wasn’t long before she was the most highly paid American entertainer in France.
In 1934, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the title role ‘Zou-Zou’, a laundress turned stage performer. In the mid 1930s, she also became a successful singer. In 1936, she returned to the United States, but her tour did not go well. American audiences were not ready to accept a sophisticated black performer and she returned to Europe heartbroken. She married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, became legally French and gave up her American citizenship.
At the beginning of World War II, Josephine was recruited by French military intelligence. As she travelled reasonably freely and often attended embassy parties, she was able to pick up all sorts of information without raising suspicion. As an entertainer, she travelled all around Europe and North Africa and carried with her important military intelligence. It was written in invisible ink on her music. It was written on notes that she pinned to the inside of her underwear. She did all this despite suffering from a bout of pneumonia and later, a miscarriage which resulted in a hysterectomy. And she was performing all the way. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and made a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur for her bravery.
Josephine returned to perform at the Folies Berègre and in 1951, she was invited to tour North America. In many ways, she was a huge success this time. She performed in Harlem in front of 100,000 and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People awarded her the title of ‘Woman of the Year’. But she found racial segregation was still rife. In many places she was refused hotel accommodation because she was black. Josephine began to write articles on the subject of segregation and when she toured the South, she gave a talk at the Fisk University about the equality of races in France. She refused to perform in venues where the audiences were split between black and white and afterwards received threatening phone calls from the Klu Klux Klan. Her tour went well until she was involved in an incident at the Stork Club in Manhattan in which she felt she was being discriminated against. Whether she was or not, there was an enormous fuss involving a court case. She was accused of Communist sympathies, which was pretty serious in 1950s America, and forced to give up her tour and leave.
In 1963, she was back in the US and speaking alongside Rev. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. She was the only female speaker. After King was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked her if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But Josephine eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to loose their mother.”
Josephine’s children were not her biological children. She adopted two daughters and ten sons from countries all over the world. She called them her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. She intended them to be an example of how people from all nations and religions could live harmoniously. They all lived in a castle with her at Château des Milandes in south western France. Looking into this, it probably wasn’t a resounding success. She kept them all too much in the public eye.
In the mid 1960s, she got into debt, lost her château and by the 1970s, began to believe everyone had forgotten her. But her family encouraged her to continue her career and by the mid 1970s she was performing at Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium. On April 8th 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her fifty years of show business in the city. It was so successful that they had to put out extra chairs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was there. So were Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, she was found in her bed in a coma, having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She was surrounded by newspapers with glowing revues of her performance. Josephine Baker is the only American-born woman to have been buried with full French military honours.