Ah, Josephine Baker, icon of the 1920’s. Her name brings to mind her famous banana dance, singing, the breaking down of segregation, and covert WWII missions.
Wait…no? Just the dancing? Hold onto your butts, things are about to get awesome.
Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald, an illegitimate black child in St. Louis. Her childhood was rough to say the least. Her parents did the best they did as singers and actors, often bringing her onstage for the finale as an infant. However, her parent’s weren’t successful enough to keep the young Josephine from digging through the trash for food. She worked as a maid, being abused several times, even having her hands burned for putting too much soap in the wash.
As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, Josephine then witnessed the St. Louis racial riots. See, a black man was accused of raping a white girl and, in keeping the the times, white people rallied against black men everywhere. Within a few hours of the beginning of the riot, over 50 black men lay dead. The experience would forever haunt Josephine and mark her morals from then on.
She began performing in vaudeville as the comedic clumsy chorus girl; the girl on the end of the line who, throughout the performance, can’t quite get the steps. Yet in the encore she would reappear dancing better than everyone else. At thirteen she was married for the first time to a Pullman Porter but, as you can imagine, the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. She married again, this time to Willie Baker. Though the marriage was equally unhappy and short lived, she decided to keep his last name, becoming forever known as Josephine Baker.
Though she had many fans in the USA including Earnest Hemingway, Josephine felt she’d achieved all she could in America as a young black woman at that time. In 1925 she left for France which would grow to be the country she loved most. There, she was ‘exotic’, not ‘trashy’. She was celebrated for her risqué dance numbers, appearing on one occasion entirely nude, clad in just a pink flamingo feather. It was also here that she rose to stardom, cultivating not only her dance, but also her lovely soprano voice. She married a frenchman and renounced her American citizenship. When WWII broke out Josephine initially retreated to her chateau. There she met Jaque A., a member of the French resistance. He admired her patriotism and invited her to work in counter espionage. She accepted and wowed all with her courage. She attended parties all over Europe, gathering information on German activities without raising suspicion. In addition to donating her home, vehicles, and money she offered members of the resistance shelter in her band. She smuggled them across boarders, using her fame to her advantage. Secret messages were hidden in her sheet music.
During the occupation of France, Josephine left for Morocco, stating that she was in poor health. In fact, it was to further aid the French Resistance by running missions to Spain. She pinned notes containing the information inside her underwear, knowing that her fame would likely prevent a strip search. It was at this time she suffered several miscarriages and her internal damage was so severe she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy, which became infected. Many thought she would die.
Throughout her career with the military, she performed for troops. That is, she performed on one condition; her audiences must not be segregated. She had so much pull as a star, that her condition was honored. She was responsible for one of the first integrations of the French military. She also allowed civilians to attend her performances free of charge. Her fan base spanned the races and classes because of this; Josephine’s deeply ingrained sense of equality.
For her efforts in the war, she received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was even given the honorary title of Lieutenant by General Charles de Gaulle.
After the war she returned to her Chateau, and to the stage. Now predominately a singer, she impressed audiences with her daring performances. Once she appeared as Queen Mary, singing Ave Maria behind a stained glass window. Having pushed the boundaries of society in one way, she figured she could push them in the other. Soon, she was offered a gig at a swanky night club in Miami. She refused, stating she would not perform for a segregated audience. Such was her star power, the nightclub agreed, and the show was a sell out. She went on to tour the United States, always to un segregated audiences.
But it was not to last. One night she and her friends went to have dinner at the Stork Club. She ordered food and a bottle of wine, but when neither came in an hour, she left in a fury. She ran into a reporter, and later filed a complaint on the Stork Club, dropping the reporter’s name as he was a fan of hers, but did nothing to aid her. The reporter turned against her, claiming she was a communist at the hight of the communist witch hunt in the USA. She deported from the country broken hearted.
It was then that Josephine set out to prove once and for all that anyone of any race could get along. She adopted 12 children of various races and embarked on a mission to raise them together, calling them The Rainbow Tribe. But there was a problem. Though Josephine still earned top dollar in her performances, the expenses of this experiments were enormous. She did what she could by performing, but she had no head for money and the debts mounted up. Some of the wealthy donated, which helped to keep her head above water. It was around this time she suffered several strokes and a heart attack. After all of this, she was subjected to another blow. She lost ownership of her chateau. She collapsed on the steps as she said goodbye, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Finally she moved to Monaco, and the Rainbow Tribe grew up, but with a price. To pay for her efforts, Josephine would perform until the day she died. She ended her career with four sell out shows at Carnegie Hall before finally singing of her life on stage in Paris. Her performance was universally praised, but she would lot live to enjoy it. That night, she suffered a stroke and sunk into a coma. She died, and was given a 21 gun salute state funeral.