The woman the world would know as Josephine Baker was born into abject poverty in 1906 in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Despite her humble background and numerous obstacles in her way, she became one of the most significant entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. However, the way she found success was unlike any of her contemporaries.
She later used her fame and celebrity as a highly effective spy during the Second World War.
Learn more about the incredible life of Josephine Baker on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The woman the world would know as Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, by adoptive parents of African and Native American descent who had been born into slavery.
Her mother had dreams of becoming a music hall dancer but made her living doing laundry.
She grew up without knowing her father. Many people believe that her father was a vaudeville drummer named Eddie Carson. However, there are many conflicting and contradictory stories from this period in her life, and the identity of her father isn’t known for a fact.
She grew up in a predominantly black section of town known as Chestnut Valley, an area that was subsequently demolished under the guise of urban renewal.
The buildings in her neighborhood didn’t have indoor plumbing at the time, and the neighborhood was known for its many brothels and bars.
She did not have what most people would consider an ideal childhood. Despite being quite intelligent, she received little formal schooling. She began working at the age of eight as a maid for a white family who abused her.
At eleven, she witnessed an event that would shape the rest of her life: the 1917 East Saint Louis Massacre.
The East Saint Louis Massacre is worthy of its own episode in the future, but in July 1917, mobs attacked African Americans in East Saint Louis, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Over 100 people were killed and hundreds of homes were burned to the ground.
As Baker herself later recounted, I can still see myself standing on the west bank of the Mississippi looking over into East St. Louis and watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment … frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings… So with this vision I ran and ran and ran….
She dropped out of school at the age of 12 and began living on the streets. She literally slept on cardboard, scrounged for food, and danced on street corners for money.
At the age of 13, she was married to a man named Willie Wells, the marriage didn’t even last a year.
She was married a second time in 1912 at age 15 to William Howard Baker, whose name she used as her stage name for the rest of her life.
She spent very little time with Baker, as she soon got a part in the chorus line in the traveling show “Shuffle Along.”
When she turned 16, she was added to the cast of the Broadway version of the show New York City, which, at the time, was in the middle of the period known as the Harlem Renaissance.
She soon found work dancing at some of the biggest clubs in Harlem at the time, the Cotton Club and the Plantation Club.
She was also in the chorus line of the Broadway musical The Chocolate Dandies.
At this point, the story of Josephine Baker was not too dissimilar to that of hundreds of women who sought careers as dancers and entertainers.
However, in 1925, at the age of 19, she made the decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of her life.
She left the United States for Paris.
This was a highly unusual move at the time, but in hindsight, it made perfect sense. In Jim Crow America, the options available for a young black woman were extremely limited.
In an interview she conducted in 1974, she noted, “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. Oh yes, Bricktop was there as well. Me and her were the only two, and we had a marvellous time. Of course, everyone who was anyone knew Bricky. And they got to know Miss Baker as well.”
Bricktop was the stage name for Ada Smith, a jazz singer and club owner in Paris.
In Paris, she got her start as a dancer in a show called la Revue nègre, and doubled what she was making in New York, now the equivalent of $250 a week.
The Parisians went crazy for her.
Her act at this time, known as the “Danse Sauvage” was quite scandalous, basically a burlesque performance appearing on stage with little but a skirt made out of artificial bananas. She later added a pet cheetah named Chiquita to the act.
She was the intersection of everything Parisians were fascinated by at the time: jazz music, American culture, and risque, exotic dancing.
Her success wasn’t just from the risque nature of her performance; anyone could do that. She was a performer and knew how to work a crowd, adding elements of physicality and comedy to her performance.
Her act garnered rave reviews in Parisian newspapers, and she quickly became the most popular American entertainer in France.
She became friends with many of the celebrities who came through Paris in the 1920s. She became good friends and spent many hours with Ernest Hemmingway, who called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Picasso did multiple sketches of her.
She became good friends with the French novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, and the poet ee cummings. She also did multiple endorsement deals for hair gel, cosmetics, and shoes.
She began touring throughout Europe, where she sold out her shows everywhere she went.
In 1927, she starred in the silent movie Siren of the Tropics, becoming the first black woman ever to be the star of a film. She went on to perform in several other silent films and two talking films. The films were popular in Europe but not so much outside of Europe.
In the early 1930s, after extensive training, she began a singing career. In 1931, she released her biggest hit, “J’ai deux amours,” or “I have two loves.” The song was about having two loves, her country and Paris.
Some of the lyrics in English are:
Manhattan is beautiful,
But why deny it,
what puts a spell on me is Paris,
Paris in its whole.
Seeing it one day
Is my pretty dream.
I have two loves,
My country and Paris.
The song and its subsequent popularity solidified Baker’s status with France and with Paris.
In 1934, she performed the lead in the opera La créole, which was a major transformation for her, going from a dancer to an operatic diva.
After a decade of success in France, in 1936, Josephine Baker decided the time was right to make her triumphal return to America. She was booked to star in a revival of Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway.
Her return……did not go as she had hoped. The show lost money, had bad reviews, and she found herself subject to the same racism that she had before she left for France.
She returned to France in 1937, married the French industrialist Jean Lion, and became a French citizen, renouncing her American citizenship in the process.
Here, the story of Josephine Baker takes a very interesting turn.
Arguably one of the most famous entertainers in Europe at this point, when France declared war on Germany in 1939, she was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, or French military intelligence, to function as what they called an “honorable correspondent.”
Normally, spies try to remain hidden and covert. Josephine Baker was the exact opposite of that. She used her celebrity to hobnob with Germans who frequented nightclubs in Paris. She was able to gain access to officials at the Italian and Japanese embassies.
All the while, she was gathering information and funneling it back to French counterintelligence officials.
After the invasion of France by Germany, because of her celebrity, she was publicly able to continue to perform throughout Europe, including visiting neutral countries like Portugal.
In 1941, she made a tour of French colonies in Africa, but again, it was just a cover to gain intelligence for the French Resistance.
The information she gathered would be written on invisible ink on her sheet music or hidden in her underwear, counting on the fact that her celebrity would prevent her from getting strip searched.
During the war, she also moved to the Château des Milandes in southwest France. There, she aided members of the French Resistance during the war.
After the war in 1961, she was awarded Frace’s highest honors, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre, by Charles de Gaulle himself.
After the war, Josephine Baker gained new prominence with the public acknowledgment of her activities during the war. In 1951, she was invited to perform at a club in Miami. However, the club was racially segregated. She refused to perform until the club changed its policy, which they eventually did.
After her successful engagement and several sold-out shows, she went on a national tour and was named the first NAACP Woman of the Year.
However, all was not well on her return to the US. While in New York, she was refused service at the Stork Club due to her race. The actress Grace Kelly was there that night, and she walked out with Baker in support of her and refused to return.
The incident resulted in the suspension of her work visa, which prevented her from returning to the US for another decade.
It was then that she began to adopt children to live on her estate at the Château des Milandes. She adopted a lot of children. Twelve in total. Foreshadowing later adoptions by celebrities like Madonna or Angelina Jolie, she adopted children from different cultures and religions from around the world.
During the 1950s, she adopted children from Morocco, Algeria, Columbia, Japan, the Ivory Coast, Finland, Venezuela, and, of course, France.
She dubbed her family the “The Rainbow Tribe”.
It was her attempt to show that people from different backgrounds and religions could all live together.
While in France, she continued to support the Civil Rights movement in the United States. When she was finally allowed to return to the US, she was invited to be a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. She was the only woman to speak at the event. She wore her uniform from the Free French Army, complete with her Legion of Honor medal.
She had difficulties in the 1960s. She was getting older and wasn’t performing as much. Having 12 children and a large chateau wasn’t cheap. She eventually lost the chateau over mounting debts, and her friend, now the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, offered her an apartment.
By the early 1970s, she assumed that the public had forgotten about her, but that was far from the case.
In 1973, she performed at a sold-out show in New York’s Carnegie Hall. In 1974, she again performed to a packed audience in London’s Palladium Theater and Paris’s Gala du Cirque.
Her last performance took place on April 8, 1975, in a retrospective show celebrating her 50 years in French show business. The show was so crowded that folding chairs had to be brought in. In attendance on opening night were Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.
Just four days later, Josephine Baker was found in her bed, having died in her sleep. She was surrounded by newspapers with positive reviews of her last show.
Josephine Baker has been remembered for many things. Despite being in France, she became the poster girl for the entire decade of the Roaring Twenties. Her look, hairstyle, and dress were the epitome of the flapper trend of the period.
As a performer, she was an inspiration to many black women who came. Shirley Bassey credited her as her inspiration for getting into show business. Diana Ross and Beyonce have both done homages to her banana skirt that she made famous.
However, her greatest legacy was in France. This African-American woman embraced France as her adopted homeland, and they embraced her in return. There is a street in Paris named after Josephine Baker, and her former home, the Château des Milandes, is now a museum dedicated to her memory.
However, perhaps the greatest honor she has been bestowed occurred in 2021. She was given a place of honor in the French Pantheon, the resting palace of many of the greatest citizens of the French Republic, including the likes of Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
No one would have expected a poor girl from Saint Louis, Missouri, to become one of France’s most celebrated citizens. Yet, she did. As she told the audience in attendance when she received the Legion of Honor, “I am proud to be French because this is the only place in the world where I can realize my dream.”