The glitter and glamour of theater and the stage did not mask the fact that Josephine Baker’s parents struggled to make ends meet. She was raised in poverty in a low income neighborhood that consisted mostly of boarding houses, whorehouses, and apartments without running water or indoor plumbing. Growing up, Baker often went hungry, and was always poorly dressed in second or third hand hand-me-downs. Playing with other urchins in the railyard and along the tracks, she developed street smarts, that served her well in her future career.
Josephine Baker’s purported father abandoned the family soon after her birth. Soon thereafter, her mother married a nice man, with whom she had three more children. However, Baker’s stepfather had trouble getting or hanging on to a job, and his chronic unemployment forced the family ever deeper into poverty. Her mother took in laundry, and at age eight, Baker pitched in to help make ends meet by working as a live-in domestic and babysitter for white families, who often instructed the black child not to “kiss the baby”. Her employers were sometimes abusive, such as the one who burned Josephine’s hands as punishment for putting too much soap in the laundry.
36. She Had to Quit School And Live On the Streets
Growing up in such conditions, the young girl’s schooling was spotty, and her education was put on the back burner. Eventually, Baker was forced to drop out of school altogether at age 12, having progressed only to fifth grade. For a while, she lived as a street kid in St. Louis’ slums, sleeping in cardboard boxes, scavenging food from trash cans, and earning a bit of money every now and then by dancing on street corners. Things stabilized a bit when she got a job, at age 13, as a full time waitress. While waiting tables, she met and married a man named Willie Wells, but things quickly soured between the duo, and she got a divorce.
Self reliant since an early age, Josephine Baker, unlike most women of her era, was never dependent on a man for financial support. That translated into significant freedom, and one result of that independence was that Baker never hesitated to leave a relationship when things started going south. After divorcing Willie Wells, she married and divorced three more times. Willie Baker in 1921, whose name she kept. Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937, through which marriage she secured French citizenship. French orchestra leader Jo Boullion in 1947, who helped raise her twelve adopted children.
34. She Launched Her Showbiz Career as a Comedienne
In 1919, Baker got started as a professional entertainer, touring with the Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers, and performing a variety of comical skits. When the troupes split, she tried out for a spot as a chorus girl with The Dixie Steppers, in a production called Shuffle Along, but was rejected because she was “too skinny and too dark”. Undaunted, Baker stayed on as a dresser, and learned the chorus girls’ routine on her free time. When a dancer unexpectedly left, Baker was the obvious replacement, and she made the most of her opportunity. She put a comic spin on her performance by deliberately acting clumsy and rolling her eyes onstage, and the audience ate it up. Baker became a mainstay and a box office draw for the rest of the show’s run.
33. She Had a Fraught Relationship With Her Mother
Baker had a tempestuous relationship with her mother. Carrie McDonald had tried her hand as an entertainer, and having experienced its struggles and seediness, and ended up in dire poverty at the end of it all, she decided that nothing good could come of showbiz. So she constantly badgered and berated her daughter for trying to make a career as an entertainer. She also scolded Baker for neglecting her second husband, Willie Baker, whom she had married in 1921 at age 15. Things got worse between mother and daughter when Baker ditched her husband to go on tour, before eventually divorcing him in 1925. The fact the Baker proved her mother wrong when her career took off, only worsened matters.
Baker’s rise coincided with the Harlem Renaissance – an artistic, social, and intellectual explosion centered in Harlem, NY, during the 1920s. Unfortunately, Baker’s early comic career revolved around blackface performances in NY clubs – a demeaning form of entertainment of which her mother disapproved, and which further soured the mother-daughter relationship. Her comic dance routines in those days typically called for her to bumble and stumble through her act, as if she was a ditz who didn’t know what she was doing. Then, during the encore, she would close out by performing the routine correctly, and with added layers of complexity exceeding those of all other dancers. It was such a hit, that Baker was billed as “The Highest Paid Chorus Girl in Vaudeville!”
Josephine Baker did relatively well in New York City, but 1920s America was not exactly a great era for black people seeking to realize their full potential. Growing tired of the glass ceiling of racism that capped her career prospects, Baker decided to bet on herself by leaving America in search of greener pastures abroad. In 1925, aged 19, she headed to Paris, where she opened La Revue Negre. In the City of Light, she became an immediate hit with her erotic dancing, performed semi nude.
In Paris, Josephine Baker remade herself into a glamorous Jazz Age cabaret star, and took the City of Light by storm. Her signature stage act was quite risque, with her performing while clad only in high heels, a skirt made of artificial bananas, and a bra that revealed far more than it hid. She sang and danced with a wild abandon and erotic frenzy that held the audience spellbound. She was often accompanied by her pet cheetah, Chiquita. Wearing a diamond collar, the feline would sometimes escape into the orchestra pit, terrifying the musicians and further enhancing the wildness of the moment.
Josephine Baker’s banana-skirted dance, which became famous in Paris as the Danse Sauvage, won her world renown. It went beyond a signature fashion statement, however, and revolutionized how dancers thought of movement itself. As one scholar put it: “Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms. Most shocking to dance purists, she used her backside, shaking it, as one of her biographers says, as though it were an instrument“.
In taking Paris by storm, Josephine Baker also captured the hearts of the modernist art movement’s leaders, who congregated in the City of Light. Pablo Picasso jumped at the chance to paint her, seeking to capture her alluring beauty, and saying that she had “legs of paradise”. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw“. French director Jean Cocteau also set out to make her a movie star, although her film success was limited to silent films in Europe.
27. She Credited Paris With Making Her a Superstar
Baker remained forever grateful to France for providing her with the platform from which she vaulted to greatness. As she stated in a 1974 interview: “No, I didn’t get my first break on Broadway. I was only in the chorus in ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Chocolate Dandies’. I became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris“. She came to regard France as her new home – one that afforded her opportunities that the color of her skin had denied her in America.
Baker thrived in the integrated Paris of the 1920s. After La Revue Negre ran its course, she starred in La Folie du Jour, in which she continued to wow audiences with jaw dropping performances. Before long, Josephine Baker came to rival Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson as the world’s most photographed woman. By 1927, within two years of her arrival in France, Baker was Europe’s highest paid entertainer, male or female. In the early 1930s, she starred in a pair of movies, and moved her family from St. Louis, to come and live with her in her French estate.
Early in her French career, Josephine Baker met a Sicilian named Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, who introduced himself as a count. In reality, he was no aristocrat, but a former stonemason. Nonetheless, he convinced her to let him manage her, and he succeeded in transforming her stage and public persona. Baker throve with Abatino handling the bookings and business side of things, and eventually, star and manager became lovers. They would have married, were it not for the fact that Baker was still married to her second husband, Willie Baker.
In 1928, while staying in Budapest, Josephine was ogled by a Hungarian calvary captain named Andrew Czolovoydi, who then made advances towards her. That did not sit well with Josephine’s manager and on-and-off lover, “Count” Pepito di Abatino. So he challenged the Hungarian officer to a sword duel. The challenge was accepted, and the duo went at each other with swords in a cemetery, while Josephine watched from atop a tombstone. She stopped the fight, however, when her manager took a shoulder wound. Honor thus satisfied, the two men shook hands and quashed their beef.
In a straitlaced and prudish era, Josephine Baker did little to hide the open secret of her bisexuality. She had several female lovers, dating back to the start of her career in America, where segregation laws prohibited her from checking into hotels, and forced her instead into boarding houses. She ended up composing odes to her “roomnates”, such as in her most famous song, J’ai Deux Amours (I Have Two Loves). Many assumed that song was about the United States and France, her birth and adopted countries. However, when the subtext was parsed, years later, it became clear that the song’s sexuality was not metaphorical, but was about actual sex with males and females.
Josephine Baker had a who’s who list of female lovers who were famous in their day. They included blues singer Clara Smith, jazz singer Ada Smith, actresses Mildred Smallwood and Evelyn Sheppard, and politician Bessie Allison. Most famous of her lovers, perhaps, was Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She met Baker during a trip to Paris in 1939, and the two hit it off. Awkwardly, Frieda Kahlo was travelling with her husband on a European trip, when she had her affair with Baker.
While European audiences embraced and adored Baker, American ones did not. In 1936, she returned to her homeland to star in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, but it turned into a disaster. A black woman with so much sophistication and power was anathema to American audiences, who roundly rejected her, and to the media, which ran scathing reviews of her. Time magazine, for example, dismissed her as a “Negro wench”. The box office numbers were unimpressive, and Baker ended up getting replaced.
After more than a decade of success and adulation in France and Europe, Josephine Baker was dismayed by the way she was treated, and the racism she endured, upon returning to her country of birth. She had changed, but America had not. In 1937, she returned to France broken hearted, and the experience contributed to her decision to abandon her US citizenship and become a French national, instead. Back in Paris, she married French industrialist Jean Lion, and got naturalized as a citizen of France.
Baker loved animals, and when a club owner gave her a pet cheetah named Chiquita to use in her dance show, she was ecstatic. She kept the big cat after the act ended, and travelled around the world with Chiquita the Cheetah by her side, riding in her car, and sleeping in her bed. She also had a pet goat named Toutoute that lived in her nightclub’s dressing room, as well as a pet pig named Albert, upon whom she doted, grooming and gussying him up with expensive perfumes. Albert lived in the nightclub’s kitchen, where he got so fat from feeding on scraps, that at one point he became too big to make it out the door, so the door frame had to be broken down.
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