Day In History ► Josephine Baker Born

Dateline June 3, 1906 – Chanteusse Josephine Baker is born. Is there any doubt that had Josephine Baker been born White, she’d have been a huge star in ‘Merka who everyone would still know today? As her official web site puts it:

Josephine Baker sashayed onto a Paris stage during the 1920s with a comic, yet sensual appeal that took Europe by storm. Famous for barely-there dresses and no-holds-barred dance routines, her exotic beauty generated nicknames “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl” and “Creole Goddess.” Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals. She maintained energetic performances and a celebrity status for 50 years until her death in 1975. Unfortunately, racism prevented her talents from being wholly accepted in the United States until 1973.

The WikiWackyWoo adds:

Baker was the first African American female to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-famous entertainer. She is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (she was offered the unofficial leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968 following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, but turned it down), for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de guerre.

Born as Freda Josephine McDonald into relative poverty, Baker started earning her living as a child working as a cleaning woman/babysitter for wealthy St. Louis Whites. At 13 she began to wait tables at The Old Chauffeur’s Club, where she met the first of her four husbands, Willie Wells. As a street corner busker, she danced her way into the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show when she was only 15, which began her official show biz career. She kicked around vaudeville for a few years until she auditioned for “Shuffle Along,” the first all-Black Broadway musical, written by Eubie Blake [one of my favourite artsts] and Nobel Sissle. Amazingly, as her web site puts it:

She was rejected because she was “too skinny and too dark.” Undeterred, she learned the chorus line’s routines while working as a dresser. Thus, Josephine was the obvious replacement when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. The audience loved her comedic touch, and Josephine was a box office draw for the rest of the show’s run.

That’s when Josephine Baker became a star. However, it was only when she went to Paris that she became a SENSATION. Paris society was integrated and Baker became one of the highest paid entertainers in all of Europe and welcomed into all aspects of Parisian society. Yet, when she returned to ‘Merka in 1936, she was savaged by the ‘Merkin critics; the New York Times calling her a “Negro wench.” She is reported to have returned to France heartbroken by the reception.

Here is Josephine Baker performing the famous Banana Dance that WOWED Paris:

However, if Josephine Baker’s singing and dancing were her only accomplishments, she would be remembered as merely an entertainer who scaled the heights of Europe and little more. In my mind her greater accomplishments are those that are less well known. Josephine Baker is the first ‘Merkin woman to be buried in France with a 21 gun salute and full military honours for her work for the resistance during the Second World War. The WikiWackyWoo picks up the story:

Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Baker’s agent’s brother approached her about working for the French government as an “honorable correspondent”, if she happened to hear any gossip at parties that might be of use to her adopted country, she could report it. Baker immediately agreed, since she was against the Nazi stand on race, not only because she was black but because her husband was Jewish. Her café society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in-the-know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and report back what she heard. She attended parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gathered information. She helped in the war effort in other ways, such as by sending Christmas presents to French soldiers. When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France, where she had Belgian refugees living with her and others who were eager to help the Free French effort led from England by Charles de Gaulle. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations like Portugal, and returning to France. Baker assisted the French Resistance by smuggling secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Despite the treatment she received in ‘Merka in 1936, she wasn’t done with her native land quite yet. In the ‘50s she threw her support behind the ‘Merkin Civil Right’s Movement, though she still lived in France. She refused to perform for segregated audiences when she toured and is credited with helping to integrate Las Vegas shows. In a famously reported incident, she accused the Stork Club in Manhattan with refusing her service. Grace Kelly, who happened to be in the club at the time, saw what happened. She marched her entire party out of the club, arm-in-arm with Baker. Kelly never set foot in the club again and the two women became friends to the end. [Years later, when Baker had fallen on hard times she was supported by Grace Kelly, who was known as Princess Grace of Monaco by then, with money and a villa, .]

Baker worked with the NAACP and was beside Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March On Washington in 1963, the only woman to officially address the throngs. After Dr. King was assassinated Coretta Scott King asked her to lead the ‘Merkin Civil Rights Movement. Baker declined. She also adopted 12 children of various backgrounds, calling them her Rainbow Tribe, as demonstrable proof that people can get along.

But wait! That’s not all!

Baker was bisexual. Her son Jean-Claude Baker and co-author Chris Chase state in Josephine: The Hungry Heart that she was involved in numerous lesbian affairs, both while she was single and married, and mention six of her female lovers by name. Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all African-American women whom she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career. She was also reportedly involved intimately with French writer Colette. Not mentioned, but confirmed since, was her affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Jean-Claude Baker, who interviewed over 2,000 people while writing his book, wrote that affairs with women were not uncommon for his mother throughout her lifetime. He was quoted in one interview as saying:

“She was what today you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also a historian. You have to put her back into the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, Chorus Girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading men if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together, and the girls would develop lady lover friendships, do you understand my English? But wait wait…If one of the girls by preference was gay, she’d be called a bull dyke by the whole cast. So you see, discrimination is everywhere.”

On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.

Four days later she was found in a coma in bed, surrounded by the latest rave reviews of what could have been the second act to her fabulous career. She never came out of it and died 4 days later.

By any standards Josephine Baker’s life is worthy of memorializing, which Lynn Whitfield did in 1991 in HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story. For her performance she received the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, making her the first Black woman to do so.

Despite the biopic, sadly, when you mention Josephine Baker to people these days they stare blankly. Is there any doubt this would be the case were she White?

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.