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Josephine Baker, French American Icon

Today I am excited to introduce a new long-running series to the blog. As some of you may know, I grew up in France and have been living in America for almost a decade, or all of my adult life. While living in a different place than my birth country can be challenging at times, I truly believe that having experienced both cultures is a great gift. I am always very interested in learning more about the history between the two countries, the evolution of their relationship and mainly, I am deeply attached to stories of individuals who lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore I decided to start a new series on the blog, focusing on a variety of French-American things: whether an art movement, a collection of facts or a specific character or artist whose story is linked to both nations.

Josephine Baker in 1940. Photo by Studio Harcourt.

To kick off this series, I thought who better to write about than Josephine Baker, an American-born, self-made woman from the twentieth century who travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to pursue new opportunities in the entertainment world, then was actively part of the French Resistance before coming back to the US and becoming a figure of the civil rights movement as well as being an advocate for equal rights for all around the world. While you may be familiar with pictures of Josephine Baker’s early burlesque days in Paris, wearing a banana skirt on stage or walking her cheetah in the streets of the French capital, you might not be aware of the fact that she was the first American woman to be buried on French soil with military honor back in 1975. Her life was full of achievements, so much so that I thought only a biographical post would be good enough to do it justice. I have my husband and amateur historian William to thank for his tremendous help in building this thorough recap of the eventful life of the famous entertainer.

Baker’s music is still well known to this day, one of her major songs being “Deux Amours” in which she sings her love for both her birth country and the city of Paris. I have included some of her live performance recordings in this article from different periods of her life. Start listening, and read about her unique life story.

Early Life in the U.S.

Political cartoon about the East St. Louis massacre of 1917 by William Charles Morris for the New York Daily Mail. 1917.

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, 1906 to a washerwoman[1]. While her mother never married her father, official records indicate that he was a vaudeville performer [1] (though the identity of her father has been speculated on by certain sources). At the age of eleven, Josephine lived through the harrowing experience of the East St. Louis riots of 1917. As the State Historical Society of Iowa describes it: “Between July 1-3, 1917, violent race riots exploded in East St. Louis, Illinois, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of African-American homes and businesses and the deaths of at least thirty-nine African Americans.”[3] Josephine recalled in a 1974 interview. “I’ll always remember East St Louis. It had a terrible effect on me.”[2]

As a young girl, Josephine first started out cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families.[5] Then in the latter half of 1919, when she was just thirteen years old, she landed her first job in entertainment as a waitress at a St. Louis music club.[5] That same year Josephine also got married to a man named Willie Wells, though the union did not last long.[5]

In 1920, Josephine’s career moved onto the stage when she began touring around the United States performing in vaudeville shows [1] with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers.[4, 5] After a year of touring with those bands, she landed a part in the chorus of the successful Musical Shuffle Along [4] in 1921 in New York City. That year also saw Josephine marry for a second time, to American Willie Baker. While this marriage eventually also ended in divorce, she kept his surname the rest of her life.[4, 5]

In 1925, after a few years of playing in various shows, sometimes as a lead, Josephine was discovered in New York City by American socialite Caroline Dudley Reagan [9, 10] (also sometimes spelled Regan [8]). The impresario asked her to play in a Paris show she was planning to put on with André Daven Davin, co director of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees that would star Black American performers.[10, 11]

Life in Paris

By the end of 1925, Josephine moved to Paris to play her part in the show, called La Revue Nègre.[1, 2, 4, 8] Once that production finished running, she began starring in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater in 1926.[1, 4, 5, 8] As Josephine later recounted: ”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 colored Americans to move to Paris.”[2]

1926 also saw the opening of Josephine’s own nightclub in Paris, Chez Joséphine [8] as well as the introduction of her famous banana skirt costume as part of her La Folie du Jour act.[8] According to her official biography ”by 1927, the performer earned more than any entertainer in Europe.”[5] The late 1920s and 1930s saw Josephine Baker become an international superstar, starring in a number of hit stage shows in Paris, touring numerous cities in both Europe and South America, receiving critical acclaim starring in an opera (A revival of Offenbach’s La Créole), releasing French as well as English language recordings and finally acting as a major character in two motion pictures.[5, 8,12]

Despite her breakout success on the European stage, a 1936 return to the United States to star on Broadway for the Ziegfeld Follies was unsuccessful and Josephine soon went back to France, marrying Frenchman Jean Lion and becoming a French citizen in 1937.[5, 8]

Josephine Baker in official military uniform, 1948. Photo by Studio Harcourt.

Involvement during WWII

The outbreak of war across Europe in 1939 saw the launch of another career for Josephine, that of an allied intelligence operative. In a press interview with the U.S. Department of Defense, curator of the CIA Museum and 24-year CIA veteran Linda McCarthy described Josephine’s wartime activities as such:

"(Josephine) volunteered her services to the French intelligence service. She performed for the troops and was a correspondent for the French Resistance and a sub-lieutenant in the French Women's Auxiliary Air Force. One of the neat things they did was to write (in invisible ink [7]) super-secret information in the margins of her sheet music, and she passed up and down the different concert venues throughout Europe. The 'groupies' traveling with her entourage were actually French resistance operatives. Baker would make copious notes of what she'd heard at parties, go back to her hotel room and write it on little bits of paper and pin the paper to her underwear. And someone said, you're doing what? She said, 'Who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?' No one ever did. For her service during World War II, French President Charles de Gaulle presented her the Legion of Honor, which was France's highest decoration. She was also awarded the Medal of Resistance with rosette."[6]

In 1941, Josephine fell ill while staying in Casablanca. After her recovery, she left to tour Spain only to return once again ill to North Africa, where she had to undergo a hysterectomy to treat her severe infections. In 1942, while recovering from surgery, Josephine met a US Army Lieutenant who asked her to perform for Allied troops, which she accepted.[8] 1943 and 1944 saw Josephine primarily supporting the war effort as well as releasing an album with French Orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, whom she would go on to marry after the war in 1947, her fourth and final marriage.[5, 8]

Josephine Baker singing at the Théâtre aux Armées, a show put on for French soldiers during the war in 1939.

Post-War and the Civil Rights Movement

After the war concluded, Josephine fully dove back into her stage career and also took a renewed interest in Civil Rights issues in the United States as a result of her experiences touring there postwar.[1, 4, 5] During a tour in her birth country in 1948, Josephine saw her reservations refused by thirty six hotels while in New York City. [8] In 1951, the singer once again toured the United States, famously refusing to perform for segregated audiences[4] and thus becoming a figure in the US Civil Rights movement. As a result of her Civil Rights work, the FBI had begun surveilling her by the end of the year.[8] Josephine returned to St. Louis in 1952, performing a benefit concert in support of school desegregation. [13] Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Josephine continued to provide support to the cause of Civil Rights in both the US and abroad. At the famed March on Washington Civil Rights protest in 1963, Josephine was the only official female speaker.[4, 8, 14] To recognize her contributions, NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day.[5, 8]

The Rainbow Tribe

Josephine Baker and some of the many children she adopted taking a boat ride in the canals of Amsterdam in 1964.

Besides fundraising and acting as a spokesperson, Josephine also showed her strong commitment to the cause of equality through her family life. The star and her husband Jo began adopting children of different backgrounds in 1954, ultimately adopting twelve children in total.[5, 8] The family, which she and others often referred to as “the rainbow tribe”[5], lived at a 16th century French Chateau that she had purchased back in 1947.[8, 15] Josephine worked to turn the estate into a tourist destination that represented her “utopian vision”[15] and showcased her diverse family.[8,15] Unfortunately this situation proved very difficult to manage and Josephine divorced Jo Bouillon in 1957 and lost that estate due to unpaid debts in 1969.[8]

Final Years and the Death of an Icon

Josephine Baker at the Grand Gala du Disque in Amsterdam in 1964.

Ultimately, Josephine returned to the stage in both Europe and the United states, including a triumphal performance at Carnegie Hall in 1973.[8] On April 8th 1975, Josephine opened what ended up being her final show in Paris, as she fell ill and slipped into a coma two days later and passed away a couple of days after that at the age of 68.[8] In recognition of her wartime service, CIA Museum curator Linda McCarthy says that “when Baker died on April 12, 1975, the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute. She became the first American woman to be buried on French soil with military honor.”[6] And as the Smithsonian summarized, Josephine was “the first African American woman to star in a motion picture, to perform with an integrated cast at the American concert hall, and one of the first African American entertainers who achieved acclaim both in movies and on the stage.”[1]

I hope that you enjoyed listening, seeing and reading about Josephine Baker’s beautiful voice, her exceptional drive and trailblazing career. To this day, her influence can still be felt in the music and fashion industry. Can you tell which entertainers are inspired by her style for their performances or red carpet looks? As always, please reach out with any comments or feedback!

Josephine Baker starring in French Movie Princess Tam-Tam in 1935.

Works Cited

[1] “Josephine Baker (1906–1975) Was an American Dancer, Singer, Actress, and Civil Rights Activist Who Found Fame as an Expatriate in Europe.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian, nmaahc.si.edu/LGBTQ/josephine-baker.

[2] Murari, Tim. “From the Archive, 26 August 1974: An Interview with Josephine Baker.” The Guardian, 26 Aug. 1974.

[3] “Silent Protest Parade in New York City Against the East St. Louis Riots, July 28, 1917.” State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/reconstruction-and-its-impact/silent.

[4] “Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975).” Josephine Baker - Historic Missourians - The State Historical Society of Missouri, historicmissourians.shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/baker/.

[5] “Biography - The Official Licensing Website of Josephine Baker.” Josephine Baker, www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/about/biography/.

[6] Williams, Rudi. “Women's Memorial Exhibit Tells Story of Women Spies.” DoD News, U.S. Dept. of Defense, 2 May 2002, archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=44107.

[7] “Clandestine Women: Untold Stories of Women in Espionage.” Women's Memorial at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery., U.S. Dept. of Defense, www.defense.gov/observe/photo-gallery/igphoto/2001088182/.

[8] Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in Art and Life: the Icon and the Image. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2007.

[9] Jefferson, Margo. “CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: When Black America Triumphed in France; An Exhibition Revives the Excitement Of Josephine Baker's 1925 Paris Revue.” The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2000, www.nytimes.com/2000/10/03/theater/critic-s-notebook-when-black-america-triumphed-france-exhibition-revives.html.

[10] Wintz, Cary D., and Paul Finkelman. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Routledge, 2004.

[11] “SELECTIONS FROM THE DAYBOOKS, 1925.” The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selections from the Daybooks, 1922-30, by Carl Van Vechten and Bruce Kellner, University of Illinois Press, 2007, pp. 91–91.

[12] Borge, Jason. “Chapter 7: The Portable Jazz Age: Josephine Baker's Tour of South American Cities (1929).” Urban Latin America: Images, Words, Flows and the Built Environment, by Bianca Freire-Medeiros and Julia O'Donnell, Routledge, 2018, pp. 127–138.

[13] “JOSEPHINE BAKER RETURNS TO PROTEST OVERCROWDING IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN SCHOOLS.” University of Missouri–St. Louis, www.umsl.edu/virtualstl/phase2/1950/events/1950benefitconcert.html.

[14] Goldstein, Jessica. “March on Washington Had One Female Speaker: Josephine Baker.” Washington Post, 23 Aug. 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/march-on-washington-had-one-female-speaker-josephine-baker/2011/08/08/gIQAHqhBaJ_story.html.

[15] Guterl, Matthew Pratt. Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.