Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, on 3rd June 1906. Her parents were both entertainers, performing throughout the segregated Midwest and often bringing her on stage during their shows. Unfortunately, their careers never took off, forcing her to look for odd jobs to survive. If she could not find work, she would often dance on the streets, collecting money from onlookers.
Eventually, her routine caught the attention of an African American theatre troupe. At the age of 15, she left home and began to perform with the group. In 1922, she finally earned a chorus role in the travelling production of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical Shuffle Along, one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway. During this time, she also married William Howard Baker, taking her husband’s last name and dropping her first name to become Josephine Baker.
William was her second husband, having first married when she was 13. She kept the surname Baker for the rest of her life.
Baker flourished as a dancer in various Vaudeville shows, a famous theatre genre in the 20th century. She eventually moved to New York City and participated in the celebration of black life and art, now known as the Harlem Renaissance. A few years later, her success took her to Paris.
Unlike the United States, France did not racially segregate public places on a large scale. When Josephine and her troupe boarded a train in France, they were surprised but happy to learn they could sit anywhere they liked.
Josephine was also shocked to see the costumes created for her to perform; one consisted only of a bikini bottom covered in flamingo feathers. After one performance, Josephine quickly took to this kind of erotic dancing and became a rising star.
Baker became one of the most sought-after performers due to her distinguished dancing style and unique costumes. Although her audiences were primarily white, Baker’s performances followed African themes and style. In her famed show, Danse Sauvage, she danced across the stage in a now-famed skirt of 16 bananas.
This erotic and “exotic” number fit perfectly with the Parisian culture of the time, and she was soon one of the most popular entertainers in the city.
It was always frustrating to Baker that she could not reach American audiences the way she had the French. Dolls of her banana skirted-self sold by the thousands.
Over time, Josephine became the most successful entertainer in France, transforming from an exotic dancer into a film star and opera singer. She had a hit song with “J’ai deux amours,” and appeared in many films, most notably Zouzou, the first film to star a black woman. Throughout these years, it is thought that she became the wealthiest black woman alive.
Josephine Baker in WW2
In 1928, Josephine departed for a European tour, with the first stop in Vienna. Baker had not been aware of the political unrest building in the region. By that point, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, had popularised racist ideologies spread throughout the region. Before she even arrived in Vienna, posters around the city belittled her performance, calling her a “black devil.”
As she rode in a carriage to her hotel, protesters lined the streets. Josephine said the scene reminded her of the race riots that shook her community when she was a child.
The start of World War II put Josephine’s future performances on hold. By that time, she had married her third husband, a French-Jewish man named Jean Lion and became a French citizen in 1937. The couple later divorced in 1941, but Josephine came to represent much of what Hitler and the Nazis despised.
She was a successful, black woman in an interracial marriage with a Jewish man, who was also openly bisexual and had multiple long-term, semi-public relationships with other women. There was one rumoured relationship with Frida Kahlo and another with the celebrated French novelist Colette.
Reports differ as to whether or not Baker was open about her sexuality during her lifetime. While she moved in artistic circles where she would have had the opportunity to be more openly fluid, she also lived in a period when and performed for audiences where being out on a larger scale could have damaged her career.
When the Germans began to advance on Paris in 1940, Josephine, like millions of other Parisians, fled the city.
Baker moved to a chateau she rented in the south of France, where she took in other refugees fleeing the Nazis. After the fall of Paris, Josephine met Jacques Abtey, the head of French counter-military intelligence. Abtey sought to recruit people who could engage in espionage to help resistance efforts against the Nazi occupation.
Josephine was an ideal candidate for this work, as her celebrity allowed her to move efficiently between countries and offered her enhanced protection. When Abtey approached Josephine to see if she would take the risk and join the resistance, she said:
“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 housed resistance fighters at her chateau and supplied them with visas. She attended parties and diplomatic functions, including parties at the Italian embassy. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy.
She collected information on German troop movements and which boat harbours or airfields were in use.
Josephine was confident that her celebrity and connections would protect her and that no one would suspect her of espionage. She wrote down intelligence on her hands and arms, pinning notes inside her underwear. She did so knowing she would never face a strip-search—and she was right.
The Nazis had gotten wind of the resistance activity happening at Baker’s chateau and visited the estate. Josephine had been hiding several resistance fighters at the time of the visit. She successfully charmed the Nazis when they questioned her, but she took the close encounter as a sign that it was time to leave France. Abtey contacted General Charles de Gaulle, who instructed both Abtey and Baker to travel to London via Lisbon (which was neutral.) Between them, the pair carried over 50 classified documents and secret intelligence. Baker brought her intelligence by writing the information down in invisible ink on her sheet music.
Following D-Day and the liberation of Paris, Josephine returned to the city wearing a military uniform. She quickly saw the terrible conditions many French people endured after the Nazi occupation. She sold pieces of her jewellery and other valuables to raise money to buy food and coal for the citizens of Paris.
Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, General de Gaulle awarded Josephine the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. He also named her a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, the highest order of merit for military and civil action.
The bisexual singer, actress, and dancer became so revered that one only needed to say “Josephine” or “La Baker”, and everyone knew who she was.
She returned to the USA after 30 years, now as an international icon, and she challenged her country to change its ways. Baker confronted the segregation and discrimination that she had not experienced since she was a child in St. Louis, Missouri.
She often refused to perform to segregated audiences, which usually forced club owners to integrate for her shows. Her opposition against segregation and discrimination was honoured by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
They invited her to speak in Atlanta in 1951, but she cancelled her engagement because she was refused a hotel. She was denied at several other restaurants and hotels on that tour of the U.S. as well. The NAACP still valued her work and commitment to civil rights and declared 20th May 1951 as “Josephine Baker Day.”
She wouldn’t perform in her hometown of St. Louis until February 1952, when she gave a speech after the city’s Kiel Auditorium finally allowed desegregated audiences to see her.
“A year ago when I decided to come to North America, I had it put in my contract that I would not appear in any city where my people could not come to see me, and at each time that there has been an approach to my coming to St. Louis I have always refused,” Josephine Baker said on 3rd February 1952. “Oh, I have had several fantastic offers in the first-class theatres and nightclubs, but when the question arrived about my people coming to see me, immediately there was a silence.”
In 1963, she was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Her speech detailed her life as a black woman in the United States and abroad:
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you 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.” Baker said. “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….”
Josephine Baker continued to fight racial injustices into the 1970s. Her personal life was a testament to her political agenda. Throughout her career, she adopted 13 children from various countries. She called her family “the rainbow tribe” and took her children on the road to show that racial and cultural harmony could exist.
Baker remained on stage late into her life. Baker took to the stage once more in 1975 in a sold-out show and was as much the toast of Paris as she ever was. But the next night, on 12th April 1975, after thunderous applause during her performance and a standing ovation, she passed away in her sleep of a cerebral haemorrhage. Some 20,000 people mourned her passing in the streets of Paris.
Today Baker is remembered as one of the first black sex symbols of the 20th century. Whether or not she was out as bisexual, the unapologetic force of her sexuality set a standard of possibility and positivity for those following her, which was not just groundbreaking but earth-shattering for a woman of colour at the time.
In her lifetime, Josephine Baker fought against the racial injustices built into societies worldwide, with a particular focus on her home country. While much of her work brought change, she remains a beacon of what it looks like to use her platform for good.
“People are dying so that you will be able to live in peace,” she said in 1952. “Try to understand and love each other before it is too late.”
That is the story of Josephine Baker.
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