Portrait of American singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker (1906 – 1925) in a military uniform, 1944. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
Josephine was born as Freda in St. Louis, Missouri. Although publicly her father was believed to be a vaudeville performer Eddie Carson, his true identity was a secret that her mother Carrie McDonald took to her grave. Josephine grew up in a low income neighbourhood mainly comprised of brothels. Her street, Targee Street, had gained notoriety in 1899 when a prostitute discovered her pimp in the embrace of another woman and fatally shot him. Josephine made her stage debut at one year old, when she accompanied her parents onstage for the finale of their vaudeville act. She attended elementary school to the fifth grade and at around eight years old Josephine began to work for white families as live in domestic help. One of her employers burnt her hands for adding too much soap to the laundry. In 1919, thirteen year old Josephine became a waitress and that year married a Willie Wells. Their marriage lasted less than a year; Josephine left her husband and joined an African-American vaudeville group. In 1921 Josephine married a Willie Baker, but they divorced in early 1925 and she left with her troupe for New York City. There she was prominently featured in the chorus of the hugely successful Broadway production “Shuffle Along” and was referred to as “the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville”. In late 1925 Josephine travelled to Paris and performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as an erotic dancer, often appearing onstage virtually nude. She became an instant success and was often accompanied onstage by her pet cheetah “Chiquita”, who wore a diamond collar and frequently escaped into the orchestra. Josephine starred in three films between 1927 and 1935, which were commercially successful in Europe.
Poster entitled “Casino de Paris – Josephine Baker” by Louis Gaudin-Zig in 1930
In 1934 Josephine starred in the opera “La Créole” at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris, for which she took months of lessons with a vocal coach. Her performance was praised by critics. Hoping to mimic this success at home, in 1936 Josephine returned to the US to star in “Ziegfeld Follies” on Broadway. Her performance was met with unfavourable reviews and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee. Josephine returned to Paris and in 1937 married a Jewish man Jean Lion. She renounced her US citizenship and became a French citizen. In September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, Josephine was recruited by French military intelligence. She used her celebrity to attend social events with high ranking diplomatic officials, where she gathered information. After the Germans invaded France, Josephine sheltered friends loyal to Free France, the government in exile led by Charles de Gaulle. As an entertainer, she had a premise to travel around Europe without attracting attention. Josephine would visit neutral countries, such as Portugal, with information for transmission to England written in invisible ink on her sheet music or pinned into her underwear. In 1941 Josephine was working for the French Resistance in Morocco when she suffered a miscarriage, which resulted in a severe infection requiring a hysterectomy. Following her surgery she developed peritonitis and septicemia. Josephine miraculously survived and despite this traumatic experience began touring North Africa to entertain allied troops. For her service in the war, Josephine was awarded the Rosette de la Résistance and became the first American born woman to receive the Croix de Guerre. She was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
With her reputation greatly bolstered by her wartime heroics, in 1951 Josephine was invited back to the US for an engagement in a Miami nightclub. She was offered $10,000 but refused to perform to a segregated audience. The club reluctantly agreed to her condition and after a sell out run Josephine took her show on a national tour. When she had first arrived back in the States, she was refused reservations at 36 hotels due to the colour of her skin. At the Stork Club in Manhattan Josephine was refused service and the actress Grace Kelly stormed out with her entire party in protest; the two became lifelong friends. Josephine later publicly opposed the Stork Club’s policy of discouraging African-American patrons, for which she was vilified by the press and accused of harbouring communist sympathies. She also worked closely with the NAACP and was named their “Woman of the Year” in 1951 at a parade of 100,000 people in Harlem. In 1963 Josephine spoke at the March on Washington alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She was the only official female speaker and introduced the “Negro Women for Civil Rights”, including Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates. Following King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Josephine to offer her leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement. After much consideration she declined, stating that her children were “too young to lose their mother”.
Josephine at the March on Washington in 1963″. This photo was used by the Washington Post with the credit “DALMAS/SIPA”(photography agencies).
Josephine adopted 12 children in her lifetime and often referred to her family as the “Rainbow Tribe”. Her children included: Marianne, Jean-Claude and Noël from France, Stellina from Morocco, Jeannot from Korea, Akio from Japan, Luis from Colombia, Jari from Finland, Moïse from Israel, Brahim from Algeria, Mara from Venezuela and Koffi from the Côte d’Ivoire. Josephine was determined to prove that children of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds could live harmoniously together. At her home in the south of France, Château des Milandes, Josephine organised tours so that visitors could observe the happiness of the “Rainbow Tribe”.
Josephine and husband Jo Bouillon in 1959 with some of the 12 children she adopted”, photographed by Larry Coyne.
In later life, Josephine played at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and at the Royal Variety Performance in 1974. In 1975 she starred in a revue celebrating her 50 years in showbusiness, financed by Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. Tickets sold out and extra chairs had to be brought to the theatre. Josephine was found lying in bed surrounded by her rave reviews 4 days later, having slipped into a coma due to a cerebral hemorrhage. She died in hospital on 12th April 1975 at 68 years old.
Josephine photographed in 1934 by George Hoyningen-Huene
Sophie Munro is a passionate amateur historian from Devon, UK. For more fascinating stories of weird and wonderful women find her at instagram.com/weirdwonderfu
lwomen and twitter.com/ weirderfulwomen