When WWII broke out, Josephine Baker was recruited by French military intelligence. She had initially expressed support for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, so when the Axis powers defeated and occupied France, they assumed that Baker was friendly to their cause. As it turned out, she was anything but. Taking advantage of the occupiers’ trust, she risked her life on clandestine work for the Allies. Her celebrity and fame opened doors, and rubbing shoulders with high ranking Axis personnel, she charmed officials she met in social gatherings to collect information.
Baker was well positioned to stick it to the Nazis. As an international entertainer, she had an excuse to travel, and she did, within Nazi-occupied Europe, to neutral Portugal, and to South America. She transported coded messages, written in invisible ink on her music sheets, between the French Resistance and the Allies. They contained information about German troop concentrations, airfields, harbors, and defenses, all of which Baker smuggled beneath the Nazis’ noses. She also hid fugitives in her home, supplying them with forged identification papers and visas obtained through her contacts.
In 1941, under cover of health reasons and doctor’s orders after a bout of pneumonia, Josephine Baker left German-occupied Europe for French North Africa, then under the control of the collaborationist French Vichy regime. In reality, she was there to further assist the Resistance. Basing herself out of Morocco, she travelled back and forth to Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, gathering information and transmitting it to Allied intelligence. Counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search, she pinned notes of intelligence gathered to her underwear.
Over the years, Baker had several miscarriages, and while conducting her clandestine work in North Africa and Spain, she had one that almost claimed her life. She developed an infection so severe, that she needed a complete hysterectomy. Then things got worse, when the infection spread, and she ended up with sepsis and peritonites. After recovering, she began touring to entertain Allied soldiers – who by then had landed in North Africa. Later in the war, she joined the French Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was commissioned as a lieutenant, and kept putting on shows for Allied troops.
14. She Returned to the US, and Became a Civil Rights Activist
After the war, Josephine Baker reinvented herself as a mature entertainer, unafraid of serious subject matter or music. It worked, and she quickly reestablished herself as one of Paris’ biggest draws. In 1951, she was invited back to the United States, to perform in a Miami nightclub. There, Baker launched the latest iteration of her career, as a civil rights activist. Refusing to put up with racial segregation, she launched a public relations campaign that succeeded in desegregating the club’s audience.
Josephine Baker’s success in desegregating her audiences transformed her into an early icon of the civil rights movement, that was just beginning to gather steam in the early 1950s. Following her Miami gig, she launched a national tour that stood in stark contrast to her 1936 Broadway experience. Instead of derision and scorn, this time around she had sold out shows, was greeted by enthusiastic audiences, and received rave reviews. It culminated with a parade in Harlem, attended by over 100,000 people, in honor of her receiving the 1951 NAACP “Woman of the Year” award.
Baker might have succeeded in desegregating her audience in Miami, but that turned out to be a rare win during her 1951 American tour. Despite her celebrity, fame, and status, the strictures of segregation meant that she still had difficulty finding accommodations – and not just in the American south. During her US tour, Baker and her husband were turned down by 36 different hotels. Such experiences only further fueled her determination to join in the struggle for civil rights.
Today, there is nothing unusual about celebrities adopting children of ethnicities other than their own. Things were different, however, back in the 1950s, when Josephine Baker started adopting orphaned children from all over the world. In a bid to combat racism and set an example, she started off by adopting two Japanese orphans, then kept adopting more and more kids, from different countries and ethnicities. As she put it, she wanted to demonstrate that: “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers“.
Josephine Baker, who had no biological children of her own, and whose wartime hysterectomy forever closed that possibility for her, eventually ended up adopting twelve children. They hailed from Algeria, Colombia, Finland, France, Israel, the Ivory Coast, Korea, Morocco, Japan, and Venezuela. Baker dubbed them “The Rainbow Tribe”, and lived with them in her French estate, Chateau des Milandes, which also doubled as a resort with hotels, a farm, rides, and The Rainbow Tribe singing for audiences. She saw her children as living metaphors of what humanity could be like, and an attack against racism.
Hollywood star Grace Kelly was one of Josephine Baker’s best buddies. The friendship reportedly began in 1951, when racist waiters at the Stork Club, a then famous New York City nightclub and restaurant, refused to serve the black singer. Kelly berated the waiters and managers, then angrily stalked out of the prestigious club in a show of solidarity with Baker, vowing to never patronize the establishment again. Years later, Kelly, by then Princess of Monaco, returned, in company with her husband, the Prince of Monaco.
The Stork Club incident ended up getting Josephine Baker kicked out of the US. She berated newspaper and gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and old acquaintance and one who had been in the Stork Club at the time, for not defending her. An infuriated Winchell retaliated by accusing Baker of being a communist sympathizer – a serious charge in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War’s Red Scare and the McCarthyite hysteria. As a result, Baker’s work visa was terminated, and she had to leave the US. She was not allowed back into America for another decade.
Baker’s stand against racism and segregation won her the admiration of the NAACP, leading it to declare Sunday, May 20th, 1951, “Josephine Baker Day”. She was also presented with an NAACP lifetime membership by Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche. However, her assertiveness and outspokenness alarmed many. By 1951, Baker was an accomplished celebrity and a decorated war heroine, oozing self confidence – not exactly what many expected of black women. Some black people even shunned her, fearing that she would harm the cause by demanding too much, too soon. Nonetheless, Baker persisted in supporting civil rights, even from abroad. In 1963, after she was finally allowed back into the US, she spoke at the March on Washington, at Martin Luther King’s side. Wearing her Free French uniform, with her wartime decorations and medals, Baker was the only official female speaker at the event.
Josephine Baker was not a communist, but she had nothing against performing in communist countries. In 1966, Fidel Castro invited her to perform in Havana, as the guest of honor and headliner of the Cuban Revolution’s 7th anniversary celebrations. She put on a spectacular performance at the Teatro Musical de la Habana, that broke attendance records. Two years later, she visited Yugoslavia, where she performed in Belgrade and Skopje – in today’s Serbia and Macedonia, respectively.
Baker, who was married and divorced four times, developed a close friendship with American artist Robert Brady. Late in life, after divorcing her fourth husband Jo Bouillon, she sought companionship and friendship on a more platonic level. Brady felt the same, so in September of 1973, during a trip to Acapulco, Mexico, the duo entered an empty church, and exchanged marriage vows. No clergy were present, and it was not a legally binding marriage. She told few people about it, fearing ridicule from the press, but it was an important bond that Baker and Brady maintained for the rest of her life.
In her later years, Josephine Baker fell on hard times. She lost nearly everything, and she and the children of her ‘Rainbow Tribe’ were on the verge of becoming homeless, when Grace Kelly, by then Princess Grace of Monaco, stepped in to save her friend, by smoothing things over with creditors. Baker lost her chateau in France, but Princess Grace saw to it that she had a roof over her head by arranging a villa for her in Monaco. The Princess, along with her husband, Prince Rainier, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, also financed a revue celebrating 50 years of Baker’s career, that opened to rave reviews in Paris.
Josephine Baker’s highly acclaimed revue in 1975 proved to be her last hurrah. It opened on April 8th, 1975, with a performance at the Bobino music hall in Paris – where most of the biggest names of 20th century French music had performed. The show, titled Josephine a Bobino 1975, celebrated 50 years of her entertainment career, and was a smashing success. Demand for seats was so high, that foldout chairs had to be added to accommodate the throngs, who included Diana Ross, Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and other celebrities. Four days later, she was found lying in a coma in her bed, surrounded by newspapers containing glowing reviews of the revue. She had suffered a brain hemorrhage, and died on April 12th, 1975.
In recognition of her wartime heroic exploits and contributions to France, Josephine Baker had been named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honeur by Charles de Gaulle. Among the medals awarded her by the French military were the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with Rosette. Upon her death, her funeral became the occasion for a huge procession, and Baker became the first – and only – American woman to receive full French military honors at her burial, complete with an honor guard and gun salutes.
Dance historians credited Josephine Baker with being the Beyonce of her day, and with revolutionizing onstage performances. In her day, she was actually bigger than Beyonce, who paid Baker tribute in 2006 by performing her bana dance in the Radio City Music Hall. Baker’s legacy extends beyond her public career, and her private life seems to influence celebrities to this day. In 2003, Angelina Jolie cited Baker and The Rainbow Tribe as the model for the multiracial and multicultural family she was then beginning to create through adoption.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading