Josephine Baker has always been on my list as one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century and as a French citizen, she's the perfect post for Bastille Day. Josephine Baker lived enough for several people during her exceptional life, but for the purposes of this blog I have edited her dramatic story to the most pertinent points for this blog. For a more in-depth read about her fabulous life click here or buy the biography written by her son Jean Claude, "Josephine Baker: A Hungry Heart."
She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis Missouri into extreme poverty in 1906 . She had a harrowing childhood, dropping out of school at twelve to busk in the streets. By fifteen she was on her second marriage, to Willie Baker and her career as a dancer was beginning to take off. Four years later, she was performing in New York City. It was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and Josephine performed in the hugely successful shows “ Shuffle Along” and “Chocolate Dandies. Her role was that of the “pony”- the last girl in the chorus line, who pretended not to be able to dance, to comic effect. At the end of the show the “pony” would perform the dances perfectly and even better than the other chorus dancers in a Cindarella-like moment.
A superstar is born After her success in New York she made her way to Paris in 1925 where her barely-there costumes and erotic dancing made her an overnight sensation. She performed first at the famous Champs Elysées Theater before finding a permanent home at the Folies Bergéres. While she was not the first black female performer in Paris, (that honor goes to “Bricktop”) she was certainly the most famous. Every celebrated artist of the day from Picasso to Hemingway was absolutely smitten. And of course, so were the architects.
According to Claire Beck Loos, Adolf Loos’ last wife, it was Josephine Baker who taught Loos to dance the Charleston while they were both in Paris in the mid-twenties. She also claims it was Josephine Baker who asked Loos to design a home for her, although there is no documentation to support this. While the house was never built, its unique design continues to fascinate. It featured a black and white marble striped exterior with an interior pool as the focus. Windows were cut into the walls of the pool to allow an audience to watch Ms. Baker swim/perform. The model and designs for the home are now housed in Vienna’s Albertina Museum. But Loos was not the only architect who was enthralled by Josephine Baker. Le Corbusier saw Ms. Baker perform in a nightclub in Sao Paolo, Brazil and was immediately smitten, writing in his diary, ”Josephine Baker sang “Baby” with such an intense and dramatic sensibility, that I was moved to tears.”
Needless to say, he also offered to design a villa for her. During their return to Europe on board the Lutetia, many claim that the two had an affair. Although there are several photos of the two of them (with others) there is no documentation from Ms. Baker that she reciprocated Le Corbusier’s feelings. He also claimed she told him he was a sensational dancer….True or False?
When she finally did buy a home for herself in France, it was certainly not modernist. It was an enormous fourteenth century stone chateau in the Dordogne. No doubt both Loos and Le Corbusier would have been horrified.
The Spy Years
In 1937 she married husband number three, French sugar broker Jean Lion and became a French citizen. Once she became a French citizen, she renounced her US citizenship. She became disenchanted with the US when she returned for the Zeigfield Follies. Having lived in France for a number of years by this point, she was shocked by the racism she faced upon her return.
When the war began in 1939, she was approached by the French military intelligence to gather information from the German and Italian military and pass on critical information to the British. As an entertainer she was often invited to parties and events with military officials, and her entertainment schedule allowed her to travel throughout Europe without arousing suspicion. When the Germans invaded Paris she and her husband (who was Jewish) fled to their chateau in the south of France, where they continued to work for the resistance as well as house refugees. After the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Rose de la Resistance!
Twilight Years Despite her immense fame and war-time heroism, the racism and discrimination she faced in the US continued to hamper her career there. She was labeled difficult when she refused to perform in segregated theaters. A public spat with famed journalist Walter Winchell, (who she accused of being racist) was the nail in the coffin when he accused her of being a communist and her working visa was revoked, meaning she could not perform in the US. She continued to perform throughout Europe through the late sixties but she faced severe financial difficulties. Princess Grace of Monaco, helped her out financially as well as providing her a villa. Her last performance was in 1975 in Paris at the Bobino Theater, in a show that celebrated her 50 years in show business. She died four days after this performance. Her funeral mass took place at l’Église de la Madeleine and she received full military honors.
Fun facts About Josephine Baker
She carried information to the allied forces written in invisible ink on her musical scores.
She and Grace Kelly were lifelong friends, after a young Grace witnessed the racist treatment of Ms. Baker at the Stork Club when they refused Ms. Baker entry. Grace Kelly walked out of the club with her entourage in support of Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker adopted 12 children from different countries.
She was married 4 times
She is rumored to have had an affair with Frida Kahlo.
Thanks to Walter Winchell branding her as a communist, she was barred entry to the US for 10 years.
In 1966 Fidel Castro invited her to perform in Havana.
Celebrate the incredible life of Ms. Josephine Baker with a Barbotage cocktail.
"About Josephine Baker: Biography". Official site of Josephine Baker. 2008. Retrieved 7th of July 2021.
Josephine Baker: French Entertainer. Official Site of Encyclopedia Britannica, original article
May 4,1999. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
"Siren of the Resistance: the Artistry and Espionage of Josephine Baker". Official Site of the World War II Museum, February 1, 2020. Retrieved )7 July 2021