Josephine Baker, in her own words, “was the girl who left St. Louis to come to Europe, to find freedom.” The American dancer was ambitious from the start. She was constantly inspired by her surroundings, from her beginnings in St. Louis, Missouri, to New York and the Harlem Renaissance, to Paris, where she found her home. Josephine Baker was not simply a dancer or a singer; she was a groundbreaker, an earth-shatterer. Her work, in many ways, represented a Black woman in control of her life and of her own narrative. She was transcendent throughout her career, and her work is still relevant today.
Josephine Baker: Beginnings & Breaking Borders
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3rd, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman, and her father was a vaudeville drummer named Eddie Carson. When she was old enough, Josephine was a nanny and a house cleaner for many upper-class families. Her father abandoned them soon after her birth.
Josephine got a job as a waitress at the Old Chauffeur’s Club in St. Louis after dropping out of school at the age of 12. The club was a famous hangout for jazz musicians, and it was also where she met her first husband, Willie Wells, and married him at 13 years old. She divorced Wells, and in 1921, at age 15, married Willie Baker. He helped her career take off, but the couple split in the same year after Josephine had joined a traveling vaudeville troupe called the Dixie Steppers.
Josephine moved to New York to further her career and fought to land appearances in a vaudeville show called “Shuffle Along.” She worked only as an understudy until she was cast in the Broadway musical “The Chocolate Dandies.” Her style was very comedic, always acting purposefully clumsy and crossing her eyes. This behavior garnered the notice of the investor of “La Revue Nègre,” a new show produced in Paris.
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Josephine arrived in Paris in 1925 and fell in love almost immediately. She was amazed by the integrated society of France, and she felt freer to pursue her dreams of entertaining audiences without the oppression of segregation.
European Stardom & Dreams Coming True
On moving to Europe, Josephine quipped,
“one day, I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be Black. It was only a country for white people. Not Black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States… A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore… I felt liberated in Paris.”
After moving to Paris, Josephine’s career skyrocketed. In the 2006 BBC documentary Josephine Baker: the 1st Black Superstar, historians posit that Josephine was so famous in France because “the artists in Paris thought that Josephine was the figure from their paintings come to life,” based on the beginnings of France’s colonization and fascination with Africa and the people they colonized.
However she got to fame, Josephine was in control of her performances. She subverted the fantasized stereotypes of Frenchmen by adding comedy and risqué, disjointed moves to her performances. On the surface, it may have looked like Josephine Baker was aligning herself with preconceived notions of Black women. Still, she was entirely in control of the appearance she presented to audiences through the deliberate way she moved and reacted in front of the audience. She was everything and nothing the French public expected, making her more famous.
By 1927, Josephine Baker was the world’s highest-paid and most photographed woman. She was an icon in French society; she had a column in high-fashion magazines and newspapers. Her look became the most popular of the time. Women wanted to imitate her hair, clothes, and everything about her. She even opened her nightclub, Chez Josephine, to massive acclaim. At the same time, Josephine began being cast in movies, and her stardom lent itself to her success in another facet of entertainment. It was also during this time that her singing career took off.
She was so famous in Europe that she decided to return to her home country to tour and finally prove herself to those who had once claimed she was “too tall, too thin, and too dark.”
Disappointment in Returning to America
Upon her return to New York, Josephine was not received as well as she thought she would be. Now used to the integrated society of Paris, the backward segregation still in 1930s America shocked and confused her. Josephine starred in the Ziegfeld Follies, a New York-based vaudeville show. She performed with four white men in one of her sets, which the press latched onto and thought was “inappropriate.” For the same reason, her movie Princesse Tam-Tam was also outright banned in the United States due to its portrayal of Josephine Baker alongside many white costars.
The American press was ruthless in their criticism of Josephine’s performances. Publications such as Time Magazine even went so far as to call her “a buck-toothed, negro wench.” In her personal encounters, she was also treated viciously, recalling an instance where a white woman spit on her. She did not respond because, in her words, “it was not her fault she had been raised like that.”
Josephine returned to Europe thoroughly disenchanted with the idea of ever again visiting America. When she married her third husband, Jean Lion, in 1937, she renounced her American citizenship. She gained her French passport, legally asserting herself as a woman made by Europe, not the United States.
World War II & Hiding in Plain Sight
In 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris, and Josephine, like many others, fled the city. She was aware that she stood for many things that the Nazis despised. Among other things: she was a wealthy, self-made Black woman involved in interracial and occasionally homosexual relationships. She recognized the danger the Nazis posed to her, but she also recognized this danger for others. Along with housing her family at her property, she also took in other refugees from Nazi-occupied France.
Eventually, Josephine came to know of Jacques Abtey, the commander of French military counterintelligence. Abtey knew the power of Josephine’s fame could significantly impact the French resistance, so he recruited her for service. Josephine responded, “France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything… I am ready, captain, to give them my life. You can use me as you wish.”
Josephine gave everything she could to the cause of fighting the Nazis: her plane, cars, house, money, and most importantly, her fame. Josephine charmed Axis soldiers and became acquainted with many enemy bureaucrats. Josephine’s celebrity was a helpful tool in the resistance, as she could travel easily between European countries under the guise of performing for the troops with her “band” (team of spies) in tow.
All the while, she used whatever surface she could to pass on intelligence. She wrote notes on her skin, pinned them inside her underwear, and wrote German troop positions into her sheet music. Her fame kept her safe, but the Nazis still caught wind of what was happening at the Baker château. Inevitably, the Nazis came knocking, and even then, Josephine charmed the soldiers out of any trouble they could cause.
However lucky she may have been to escape capture, Josephine knew she could not risk anything else of the sort happening. Thus, she fled to London, carrying, with the help of Abtey, over 50 classified documents, delivering them to the Allies’ hands. In true fashion of hiding in plain sight, Josephine wrote the intelligence she gathered on her sheet music with invisible ink.
In the safety of Allied territory, Josephine performed for American and British troops, reviving popular songs from the First World War. She used her fame in the war to fight for a cause bigger than herself, and she did so successfully.
When the Allies took back Paris, Josephine returned to her beloved city and began selling pieces of her personal property to raise money for the Parisians without food and coal. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, Rosette de la Résistance, and was named Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, as well as an honorary sub-lieutenant of the French air force. Josephine Baker was honored with such awards by Charles de Gaulle for her bravery in resisting the Nazi regime.
Post-War Upheaval & Success
Josephine Baker made a new name for herself in one of her first performances after the war. She appeared as Mary Queen of Scots in a tableau, acting out the scene of the deposed monarch’s execution, then appearing behind stained glass on the stage to sing Ave Maria. Josephine was pivoting from the aloof, carefree character she had always played to assert herself as the Grande Dame of Parisian entertainment.
In the 1950s, she once again returned to America, touring for audiences of mixed races all over the country. Josephine was finally famous in the land of her birth; her shows were sell-outs. However, this halted in 1951 with an incident at New York’s Stork Club. She was refused service and implicated journalist Walter Winchell as a bystander at the time, not helping Josephine in her plight. In retaliation, Winchell wrote scathing pieces on Josephine, playing on the McCarthyism of the era by calling Josephine a communist sympathizer. This resulted in the cancellation of her United States contracts and the termination of her visa, which then disallowed her from visiting the country for nine years.
Though she was attacked in the press by pro-segregation journalists like Winchell, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commended her bravery in speaking out about her experiences with racism, even naming May 20th Josephine Baker Day in the United States.
The Rainbow Tribe
Upon returning to Paris, Josephine and her husband began adopting children from all over the world. The couple adopted 12 orphans, and Josephine called them “The Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine even allowed tours of her home to the public to see her Rainbow Tribe in action. She wanted to prove to those who doubted her that children of all colors and backgrounds could be brothers and sisters.
Josephine was very famous but was not a savvy businesswoman and always gave more than she had. The strain of 12 children weighed on Josephine’s finances, and she continued to work long hours to provide for them. Her health began to deteriorate, and she suffered many strokes and heart attacks throughout the 1950s and 60s. This led to the loss of her château, Les Milandes.
However high her debts, her celebrity served her in the connections she had made. Princess Grace of Monaco offered Josephine and the Rainbow Tribe a villa, and the children spent many years growing up on the donated property. Meanwhile, Josephine continued to perform, working herself to the bone to provide for her children.
“Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life, I feel free. I know that everything is right now.”
The Life & Times of Josephine Baker
By the beginning of the 1970s, Josephine’s health was deteriorating further, and she decided to perform a farewell show in both countries she had called home. She performed four shows to sell-out crowds at New York’s Carnegie Hall, finally feeling the admiration of the people who only held disdain for the entertainer for so long.
The following April of 1975, Josephine performed her last show on the night of the 8th. After performing the songs that told her life story, Josephine suffered one last stroke and never woke up again.
Josephine Baker died on April 12th, 1975. After being in a coma for four days, she slipped away. She was honored with a full 21-gun salute military funeral in Paris and buried in Monaco. She was a performer of over 50 years, an icon the world over, and as Ernest Hemingway put it, “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw, or ever will.”