“J’ai deux amours…Mon pays et Paris”. “I have two loves…my country and Paris” was Josephine Baker’s signature song.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman who aspired to be a music hall dancer. Her father was a vaudeville drummer who soon disappeared from their lives. Josephine ran away from home at age 13 and took up dancing “to keep warm” and collected coal from railway tracks for the same reason.
She danced in a couple of musicals to modest success and in 1925 she traveled to France to perform in Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. The following year she appeared at the Follies Bergeres and was an instant hit. She danced in an exotic, fantasy African decor clad only in a skirt of 16 bananas which bounced around her as she swirled her hips. She says “I wasn’t really naked. I simply did not have any clothes on.” She was funny, she was sensual. At no time was she pornographic. They called her Black Venus and Black Pearl.
Josephine then starred in two movies…Zou-Zou and Princess Tam Tam. She quickly moved into French society, mingling with Picasso (who painted her), and the authors Simenon, Cocteau, Colette and Man Ray. She was not only accepted but became a celebrity herself. That is why her return to the United States in 1935 on a tour with the Ziegfeld Follies was such a shock. Suddenly she was plunged into a racist and hostile world. Not admitted to the Stork Club, or the hotel of her choice. Confronted with “colored” lunch counters and bathrooms and “move to the end of the line.” She went from riches to rags instantly, then quickly returned to France and became a French citizen.
During World War II Josephine Baker performed for the Allied troops in North Africa and also was active in the resistance movement. She had by then acquired a vast property in the Perigord which she named Chateau des Milandes and it became a shelter for the resistance. At the end of the war Baker was decorated with the Croix de Guerre. Medaille de la Resistance and eventually the Legion d’Honneur.
In the 1950s she began to adopt babies from around the world (12 altogether), her “rainbow tribe” was an experiment in brotherhood. At the Milandes she raised them in the traditions of their respective countries. Was that where Angeline Jolie got the inspiration for her own “rainbow family?”
During the fifties Josephine frequently returned to the United States to support the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 she participated in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke at the National Mall. She told of freedom in France and of being able to enter a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, of not having to go to segregated public places, and not having to fear the stares and insults of white people. She wished everyone in the audience to be as lucky as she had been without having to actually flee their homeland.
In 1973, after years of rejection and humiliation at the hands of her countrymen, including being accused of being a Communist, Josephine Baker performed at Carnegie Hall and was greeted with a standing ovation. The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day. Josephine Baker died in 1975. At her funeral 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to see the procession and the French Government honored her with a 21-gun salute. She was the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.
I was so close to Chateau des Milandes when in Dordogne few years ago. Now after reading your short but comprehensive story of Josephine Baker, I may want to make an effort to go back to the region and visit the Chateau. Traveling becomes more fun with a highlight like this.
Thank you for this essay on Josephine Baker. I knew about her fame and happiness in Paris, but did not know about her resistance during World War II. Thank you, as always, for sharing your research. Your blog brightens up my mind!