“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.”
As far as the French were concerned, there were only two Josephines—the other was married to Napoleon. What cultural historian Ann Douglas called “the Josephine Baker craze” was launched in Paris when Baker performed la danse sauvage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées—exuberantly dancing the Charleston clad only in bracelets, a beaded necklace, and a skirt made of feathers. (The banana skirt came later.) “Parisians were buying Josephine Baker dolls, Josephine Baker pomade (to get her slicked-back look), Josephine Baker perfume, and copies of her costumes,” wrote Douglas.
Hemingway called Baker “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” and Picasso made drawings of her alluring beauty. Shirley Bassey, the Welsh singer of “Goldfinger” fame, described Baker as her primary influence, “la grande diva magnifique … I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.” Nearly 30 years after her death, in 1975, Baker was named by Angelina Jolie as an inspiration for the multi-racial family she created through adoption, and Beyoncé performed Baker’s notorious banana-skirt dance at Radio City Music Hall in 2006. Rihanna paid homage with her cloche and cropped hairstyle.
Born in 1906, Baker had grown up poor in St. Louis, scrubbing floors and sweeping steps as a child, and was married at 13 and then again at 15. She found her métier on the Black-vaudeville circuit as a chorus girl with comedic chops. Jazz pianist Eubie Blake recalled how she would purposely upstage the other chorines, “doin’ all sorts of gyrations with her legs … getting out of step and catching up,” playfully crossing her eyes. She knew, even then, how to grab a crowd’s attention. Her popularity brought her to Harlem nightclubs, and in 1925, when she was just 19, Baker was invited to tour France with La Revue Nègre, a troupe of Black dancers and musicians. In Paris, her naughty, joyous act at the Folies Bergère quickly became a sensation.
The Négritude cultural and literary movement was beginning to stir when Baker went to Paris. Drawing its inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance, the movement embraced African artists, values, and culture. Given that rich and welcoming climate—along with her sinuous dancing and happy displays of near nudity—Josephine Baker was both a success and a succès de scandale—the toast of Paris.
A year after arriving in France, she opened her own club, Chez Joséphine, where she danced from midnight till morning, gliding among the customers, getting them on the dance floor, even going into the kitchen and dragging the chef out for a turn. Le Soir described the club in a kind of tone poem: “Midnight. Naked shoulders … Blue chandeliers pour a soft light … to the slow dying of the jazz … the flesh is sad … a world exhausted … Suddenly a shiver goes through the sold-out room … Josephine Baker has just made her entrance … Joy, absent until now, has returned.”
Invisible Ink on Sheet Music
Baker soon traded her American citizenship for a French passport. After all, in Paris they appreciated her, they loved her, and they embraced her. Not so in America.
Her danse sauvage conveyed a kind of liberty she would never have gotten away with back home. Even today, her exuberance and her skill are breathtaking. If it’s possible to be subversive in plain sight, Baker was exactly that. Back in the U.S., racist cartoons of Black folks often depicted them as banana-eating primitives. She lampooned that, appearing halfway up a palm tree in her girdle of bananas. It was her brilliance to transform racist symbols into a celebration of exuberant female sensuality, to marry primitivism to a knowing modernism.
When the Second World War broke out and German troops marched into Paris, Baker joined the Resistance. She despised the Nazis, who were fomenting racial hatreds and had denounced her as a “black devil” in Vienna during her European tour. By now married a third time, to a sugar broker named Jean Lion, Josephine was targeted for being a successful Black artist married to a white Jewish man. She was also openly bisexual. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, she fled, moving into the Château des Milandes in the South of France, where she took in other refugees and found visas for them.
Jacques Abtey, head of French military intelligence, recruited Baker in his efforts against the occupation. Her high profile gave her access to diplomatic parties at the Italian Embassy. She smuggled documents and information cajoled from diplomats, and collected information on German-troop movements, jotting it down on notes pinned to her underwear. (She correctly assumed that her fame would protect her from strip searches.)
When the Nazis tramped in their hobnailed boots through the château where Josephine hid Resistance fighters during the occupation, she managed to put them off, but she realized that her luck—and ability to charm—might not hold out. She accepted a visa from Charles de Gaulle to travel to London with Abtey. Between the two of them, they secreted 50 classified documents out of France (Josephine wrote her information down in invisible ink on sheet music) and delivered them to British intelligence.
Beyoncé performed Baker’s notorious banana-skirt dance at Radio City Music Hall in 2006. Rihanna paid homage with her cloche and cropped hairstyle.
In October of 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Josephine returned to France in her military uniform. (She had achieved the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Forces.) One Black G.I., a musician, recalled how she “stopped traffic … a million people up and down the Champs [Élysées] to see her when she came in … she was in a big Daimler, and that car could only crawl about three miles an hour, so many people were out there … people were throwing flowers.”
Back in France, Baker took pity on the now impoverished Parisians trying to put their lives back together. She sold her jewelry to buy food and coal for the starving. As a girl in St. Louis she had rummaged through other people’s garbage for coal for her family; now she was able to pay for it. After Germany’s surrender in 1945, she was awarded the Rosette de la Résistance, and in 1946, General de Gaulle bestowed upon her the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest military honor.
Josephine Baker’s work in the Resistance wasn’t the only form of activism she practiced. She adopted 12 children of different races and ethnicities—her “Rainbow Tribe”—raising them in her château as a statement about racial harmony. But she often felt she had not done enough to further civil rights in her native country.
Baker had never forgotten the terrifying violence of the East St. Louis race riots in the summer of 1917, which she had witnessed as a girl, and when she returned to America to embark on a tour in 1951, she found that too little had changed. She took a swing at Jim Crow when she publicly refused to perform to segregated audiences at the Copa City nightclub in Miami Beach, and the club’s owner backed down.
Despite her international renown, she was often refused admission at hotels and restaurants. Even in the exclusive Cub Room in Manhattan’s Stork Club, she had to wait an hour for the steak she ordered, while others at the surrounding tables were served ahead of her. The powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell was seated several tables away but declined to come to her defense. Baker reported the restaurant to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The N.A.A.C.P. was soon picketing the Stork Club for an hour each day, signifying the time it had taken Baker to be served.
Eager to preserve his relationship with the fabled watering hole and its racist owner, Oklahoma-born Sherman Billingsley, Winchell used his widely syndicated newspaper column to accuse Baker of everything from being a Fascist, a Communist, and an anti-Semite—accusations that landed Baker on an F.B.I. watch list. As a result, she would find a movie contract suddenly canceled.
It would be 12 years before Josephine Baker returned to America. This time, Robert F. Kennedy aided her 1963 homecoming, to speak at the March on Washington. Baker—one of only two women who addressed the crowd that day—appeared onstage in her Free French Air Forces uniform with her Légion d’Honneur medal, bringing the two strands of her “resistance” together. She told the crowd, “I have always taken the rocky path … but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, offered her a leadership position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which she turned down in fear for her safety.
A 21-Gun Salute
By the early 70s, Josephine Baker’s star had dimmed and she scrambled for bookings. Her adopted son and co-biographer, Jean-Claude Baker, recalled in his book, “There was never enough money. If you had given her one million dollars at 9 a.m. by 4 p.m., she would have been in front of the métro entrance, begging for a token.” The choreographer George Reich recalled meeting Baker during this period and found her to be “broken down, but she still had the magic.”
Princess Grace of Monaco came to Baker’s aid. They had been friends for a long time. The former movie star had, early on, helped Baker buy a villa in Roquebrune, arranging for her to live there in perpetuity, providing a suitable home for her and her adopted “Rainbow Tribe” of children, from which she would never be evicted.
In 1973, Baker visited another expat, the writer and activist James Baldwin, who was living in Provence. What brought them together was a young Henry Louis Gates Jr., then 22 years old and a London-based correspondent for Time magazine writing a story on Black American expatriates. So, in August of 1973, Gates rented a car and picked Baker up at her Monte Carlo château, then drove her to Baldwin’s villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
Baker collected information on German-troop movements, jotting it down on notes pinned to her underwear. (She correctly assumed that her fame would protect her from strip searches.)
In his essay, “The Welcome Table: James Baldwin in Exile,” Gates, “with my gold-rimmed cool-blue shades and my bodacious Afro,” was awed both by the company and by the heavenly setting of southeastern France in the foothills of the Alps, near the Mediterranean. “The air carries the smells of wild thyme, pine, and centuries-old olive trees,” he wrote.
Baldwin’s biographer, David Leeming, also wrote about that meeting in his 1994 biography: “Both Baldwin and Baker looked back over their careers, both spoke with sadness of their having to expatriate themselves.” Baker described being rejected by her own country. Of his chosen exile, Baldwin said, “I realized that the truth of American history is what happened to black people.”
That evening, Gates asked Baker if she had ever felt guilty for having left the United States, for “not being there to participate, particularly during the civil rights era.” She answered that she’d thought often about that question, “about running away from the problem. At first I wondered if it was cowardice, wondered whether I should have stayed to fight. But I couldn’t have done anything. I would have been thwarted … I probably would have been killed.”
Astoundingly, Time’s editors refused to publish Gates’s article, describing both Baldwin and Baker as “passé.” But that visit was a catalyst for Baldwin’s last, unfinished play, The Welcome Table. “There was only one night Josephine Baker was brought to James Baldwin’s house,” Gates told the Harvard Gazette. “He wrote it because of that night.”
By April of 1975, at the age of 68, Josephine Baker was back on her game. Her final triumph took place at the Théâtre Bobino, a small venue in Montparnasse on the Rue de la Gaîté, in a retrospective song-and-dance revue of her career and her storied life, from St. Louis to Paris. “For the second time in fifty years,” Le Figaro raved, “Josephine Baker has conquered Paris.”
Her triumph, however, would be brief. After 14 performances, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. With Princess Grace kneeling beside her hospital bed, Josephine Baker died in the early hours of April 12, 1975.
Huge crowds thronged her funeral at the Church of la Madeleine. The crowd flowed down the steps, along the Rue Royale, nearly to the Place de la Concorde. A phalanx of policemen locked arms to restrain the surging masses. Baker was honored with a 21-gun salute, befitting the only American-born woman to receive full French military honors, and buried in Monte Carlo on October 2, 1975, 50 years to the day after she first danced on a stage in Paris. In 1986, her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker opened Chez Josephine in New York, a brasserie and piano bar along West 42nd Street’s Theatre Row, in tribute. A mini-series about Baker’s life, starring Ruth Negga, is now in development at ABC Signature.
Though buried in Monte Carlo, Josephine Baker will always be associated with Paris, where Place Joséphine Baker, in the Montparnasse quarter, now bears her name. In 1951, the N.A.A.C.P. declared May 20 “Josephine Baker Day,” which has been honored more in her adopted country than it has in her native land.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood