On 30th November 2021 France honoured the US-born 20th Century singer and activist Josephine Baker with a place in the Pantheon, the memorial to France’s national heroes, the first black woman to receive such an honour. So, who was Josephine Baker, and why is she such a hero to the French?
Josephine McDonald, the daughter of Carrie McDonald, was born in St Louis on 3rd June 1906. Her official biography states that her father was a vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson, but it’s believed that she was actually the daughter of a member of a wealthy German family whom her mother was working for at the time. Carrie and Eddie often took Josephine onto the stage with them during their act but, unfortunately, their stage careers weren’t a success and the couple eventually split up.
Josephine grew up in a poor part of St Louis where she helped with the family finances by doing laundry, waiting on tables and babysitting; when she couldn’t find work she would dance in the streets collecting money from passers-by. By the age of 13, Josephine had left home and was touring with a vaudeville troupe, the Jones Family Band and Dixie Steppers, before joining the first African-American musical, Shuffle Along. In the show she was placed on the end of the chorus-line but drew attention to herself by exaggerating the dance routines in a comical way and soon became popular with audiences, the start of an illustrious career.
Josephine married four times over the years. Her first marriage was to Willie Wells when she was just 13 years old; the marriage was very short-lived. She married for a second time in 1921, to Willie Baker. This marriage didn’t last long either, but she kept Willie’s surname for the rest of her life as it was her name when she first became famous.
In 1925 Josephine travelled to Paris where she took part in a new show, La Revue Negre’ (The Negro Review). Her ‘Danse sauvage’ where she worn nothing but a feather skirt was seen as wild, sensual and charismatic, and she became an overnight sensation, becoming a symbol of the jazz age. She then moved on to perform at the Folies Bergère with her iconic costume – a skirt of artificial bananas and very little else. Although her audience was predominantly white Josephine’s performances followed African themes and styles. She became a French citizen in 1937 after her third marriage, to French industrialist Jean Lion. Her pet cheetah, Chiquita, often appeared on stage with her – it wasn’t uncommon for the animal to leap into the orchestra pit and terrify the musicians!
Josephine became the most successful American entertainer working in France – a level of success she could never have achieved in racially divided America. She was earning more than any other entertainer in Europe and was introduced to the elite of the time – Ernest Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein amongst others.
In 1927 Giuseppe Abantino became Josephine’s manager and lover. In the same year she took etiquette and singing lessons and embarked on a world tour. By the time Josephine returned to Paris she had re-invented herself and set the foundations for an enduring career. Yet despite her popularity in Europe Josephine received mixed reviews in America, often with racial undertones. TIME magazine said “Josephine Baker is a St. Louis washer-woman’s daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris… In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has had a headstart… But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped almost anywhere outside of Paris.” An unhappy Josephine returned to France.
When France declared war on Germany in September 1939 Josephine was recruited by French Military Intelligence – the Deuxieme Bureau – to collect information about troop movements etc. from German officials she met at parties in ministries and embassies. Josephine’s undercover work was successful because of her fame which allowed her to mix with everyone from Italian bureaucrats to Japanese officials. When Germany finally invaded France Josephine left Paris for her home, Chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne, where she helped the Free French arrange visas to escape the country; Josephine also used her work as an entertainer to travel around Europe visiting neutral countries such as Spain and Portugal. She smuggled intelligence about airfields, harbours and German troop concentrations to the Spanish resistance written in invisible ink in her sheet music, from there it was sent on to England. She also carried notes pinned to her underwear, hoping that her celebrity status meant she wouldn’t be searched. As well as her work with the Resistance Josephine was a member of the Free French Forces and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she also served in the Red Cros, and performed for troops in North Africa and the Middle East. After the war Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur by de Gaulle. She was also awarded the Rosette of the Resistance.
Josephine had divorced Lion in 1940, she married for the fourth and last time in 1947, to conductor Jo Bouillon. This was a period in which she re-invented herself as a more serious singer, returning to the Folies Bergères in 1949. In 1951 she returned to perform in the US, initially a very successful run in which she refused to perform to segregated audiences and was named NAACP’s ‘Woman of the Year’. But her stance against discrimination and segregation ruffled too many feathers. Josephine was accused of being a communist, her work visa was cancelled, and she returned to France from where she continued to champion the American Civil Rights Movement.
Josephine returned to perform in the US where she continued to refuse to play to segregated audiences; her work for the Civil Rights Movement led to her being invited to speak at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Dressed in her Free French uniform and wearing her medals Josephine described how a segregated America was so different from France – “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.”
After Martin Luther King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Josephine and asked if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine saw this as a great honour but eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to lose their mother”.
In an effort to show that all people can live together in harmony if they are not brought up with ideas of discrimination Josephine adopted 12 babies from countries all around the world; she called them her ‘rainbow tribe’, part of what she described as her ‘experiment in brotherhood’. She continued to fight racial injustices for the rest of her life.
On 8th April 1975 Baker starred in a revue marking 50 years in show business, the audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later Josephine was found in a coma in her bed, surrounded by newspapers with their rave reviews – she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She died later that day, aged 68.
Like so many people, the war years were only a small part of Josephine’s life, yet her actions during that time showed a courage which and dedication to her adopted country which means that she has always been a popular figure. That popularity, and the gratitude of the people of France, has now been recognised by an honour given to only a few.
You can see a short BBC video about Josephine here