From the street corner to stardom: The incredible life of Josephine Baker (Reprint)

Volume 21

Updated 12 March 2022

By Hannah McCann

If you were to travel to St Louis, Missouri, to the Union Station in the early 1900s, you would see a young black girl playing in the railway yard and making her money by dancing on the street corner. This girl is Freda Josephine McDonald who was born in St Louis on 3 June 1906. She would grow up to become Josephine Baker - the trailblazing singer, soldier, spy and civil rights activist. 

Josephine had a turbulent childhood and two divorces before she turned twenty. However, her big break came when she became part of the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show - after stubbornly and persistently asking the show manager for a role. Her determination to achieve her goals was a key element of her success. 

After this, she travelled to New York City and performed at the Plantation Club where she became the “highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”. Baker was bisexual and had a relationship with Clara Smith, a famous Blues singer, while she was in New York. When she was 19, she was talent spotted for a “groundbreaking” revue in Paris that would only feature black dancers.

In Paris, Baker’s career skyrocketed due to her talent, both for performing and for shaping the situation to her advantage. There was a disturbing attraction of the majority-white public to Baker and black culture in general. They believed that black people were uncivilised. Baker, “brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination”, by playing to these stereotypes. Her erotic dance, the “Danse Sauvage” where she wore a skirt made of fake bananas, allowed her to reclaim her image and her power. Beyonce wore a similar skirt during a 2006 performance in honour of Baker.

Baker also played to the white audience’s expectations of an ‘exotic’ African by having a pet cheetah (with a diamond collar) join her on stage. There are stories of the cheetah escaping into the orchestra which added another aspect of entertainment.

She was the toast of Paris, Picasso drew her, Ernest Hemingway spent many hours talking to her in the bars of the city. During this time, Baker had a short relationship with the French novelist Colette and may have also had a relationship with Frida Kahlo.

In 1929, she visited Yugoslavia as part of her European tour - the first African American to do so. She wore the local tapestry in her performance and donated some of her profits to poor children in the region. She had grown up in poverty and her kindness was clear throughout her life. Some of her performances were cancelled due to complaints from the church and morality police but Baker continued to perform nonetheless. 

In 1927, she stared in the silent film ‘Siren in the Tropics’ and was the first black woman to star in a major movie. However, her success was limited to Europe as her attempts at launching her career in America failed due to the widespread racism she faced there. In 1937, she returned to France and married Jean Lion, becoming a French citizen. 

When World War II broke out Baker was recruited by the French military intelligence agency as an honourable correspondent. Her job was to gather information on the Nazis while she attended parties and embassy meetings. After France was occupied, she sheltered members of the Free French resistance in her home and supplied the resistance with visas.

When she travelled around Europe, she passed information to the Allies without raising suspicion because as an entertainer she could travel more freely. Notes were written on her sheet music in invisible ink. In 1941 she travelled to the North African French colonies where she continued to share information. She also entertained the soldiers to boost morale.

When the war ended, Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. After the war, she moved away from comedy and took on more serious roles. In 1951 she returned to America and was refused reservations at 36 hotels in New York. The racism she faced was also clear when she toured. She demanded audiences had to be desegregated and refused $10,000 to sing for a segregated audience. She wrote articles about segregation and gave a talk at a historically black college (Fisk University) on the “Equality of the Races in France”.

She was then forced to leave America again after criticising the Stork Club’s policy of refusing service to black customers. However, before she left America Baker was awarded the NAACP’s Woman of the Year in front of 100,000 people parading in Harlem in her honour on Josephine Baker Day. 

She would continue to campaign against racial discrimination, for example she campaigned against the death penalty placed on Willie McGee, a black man, who had been convicted on poor evidence. In 1963, she was the only official female speaker at the March on Washington.

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

Some members of the Civil Rights organisation were critical of Baker as they were anxious that her early career would harm the movement. Yet, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Baker was asked to become the new head of the movement. She declined, saying that her children couldn’t “lose their mother”. 

Baker had 12 children and affectionately referred to them as the “Rainbow Tribe”. She wanted to show that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers”. They lived on her vast estate in France which had a farm and rides. Her children were adopted from France, Morocco, Korea, Japan, Colombia, Finland, Israel, Algeria and Venezuela as part of her plan to create a model for the world.

She continued to perform and take part in the Civil Rights movement throughout the 1960s. In 1975, Baker took part in a show in Paris that celebrated her career, where extra seats were added to cope with the demand. Baker received rave reviews and the audience of the opening night included Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Mick Jagger. 

Four days after the opening night Baker was found in bed with the newspapers containing her reviews scattered around her. A cerebral haemorrhage had put her into a coma and she later died in hospital aged 68.

She received full military honours at her funeral - the only American-born woman to ever do so - and there was an immense procession in the streets of Paris. Her funeral was held in the grand L’Eglise de la Madeleine.

Josephine Baker was a talented and ingenious woman. She not only manipulated the racism around her to her advantage but fought against it. She fought against Nazism and racism in the USA. She cared deeply about children and worked to improve their lives. Baker was a black, bisexual, activist, feminist icon.

“When Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world”.

Further reading

Josephine Baker’s birthday and the power of her banana skirt - Vogue

Josephine Baker: From exotic dancer to activist - BBC Culture

Josephine Baker - Wikipedia

March on Washington had one female speaker: Josephine Baker - The Washington Post

Category: Modern