The Herstory of Josephine Baker
A bisexual cabaret dancer who dated Frida Kahlo became the first African-American movie star and spied on the Nazis
In 1907, Eddie Carson and Carrie McDonald brought their one-year-old daughter Freda “Josephine” McDonald out on stage with them during the finale of their mediocre song-and-dance routine. With her debut into show business, a new star was born. However, Josephine spent her early life in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood of St. Louis, which was a racially mixed low-income neighborhood near Union Station, consisting mainly of rooming houses, brothels, and apartments without indoor plumbing. She also attended Lincoln Elementary School, as a homely and hungry child, receiving a poor education in the process. Nonetheless, this little girl was born to be a superstar.
When she was only eight years old, Josephine Baker began working as a live-in domestic for white families in St. Louis. Eventually, though, she left and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters, scavenging for food in the trash, and making a very meager living as a street-corner dancer. At the age of thirteen, Josephine worked as a waitress at the Old Chauffeur’s Club at 3133 Pine Street. There she met Willie Wells and married him the same year. However, the marriage lasted less than a year. Following her first divorce, she found work with a street performance group called the Jones Family Band. As such, the beautiful young lady was forced to grow up way too fast.
Baker’s consistent badgering of a show manager in her hometown led to her being recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. At the age of 15, she headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club, and in the chorus lines of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along in 1921 and The Chocolate Dandies in 1924. Soon, Baker was billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”. In this way, Josephine became a famous symbol of the Jazz Age. She was cast as “The Pony”, so Baker performed as the last dancer on the end of the chorus line, where her act was to perform in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it with additional complexity. She would even go on to make the “banana dance” her signature move.
In many ways, her career began with blackface comedy at local clubs. Of course, this was the kind of entertainment that her mother highly disapproved of, and for good reason. Nonetheless, these performances landed Baker an opportunity to tour in France. This was really important because there was no better place for a performance artist to be back then. She was at the hub of modern art, poised to become the first black superstar in history. Thus, at age nineteen, she opened in La Revue Nègre in October of 1925. In Paris, Baker became an instant success for her exotic and erotic dance moves, and for appearing practically nude on stage. The thing was that after a successful tour of Europe, Baker broke her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergere, thus setting the standard for her future acts.
The beautiful ebony goddess did everything in her power to subvert racist and sexist stereotypes as an avant-garde artist. Fortunately, Josephine Baker’s success coincided with the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, which gave birth to Art Deco, and also with a renewal of interest in non-Western forms of art, specifically African. As such, Baker took the art world by storm, giving rise to modern interpretive dance. She was constantly breaking new ground, in this way. Thus, in the late 1920s, Josephine became the most successful American entertainer working in France. At one point, Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” He even spent hours talking with her in Parisian bars. On top of that, Pablo Picasso made a few paintings depicting her alluring beauty. She also befriended Jean Cocteau, among other prominent people, and all of this helped her to become an international sensation.
Of course, the most important person in her career was Giuseppe Pepito Abatino. While she was still married to her second husband Willie Baker, Josephine hired Abatino as her manager and entered into a love affair with him. He made her a diva in no time at all. She even became an acclaimed actress. Baker starred in a few different films, although most of them were only popular in Europe. Regardless, it all began in 1927 with the silent film Siren of the Tropics. She also starred in Zouzou in 1934, Princess Tam Tam in 1935, and more. Abatino also transformed Baker into an opera singer, getting her the lead role in a revival of Jacques Offenbach’s La creole, which premiered for a six-month run at the Theatre Marigny.
In September of 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the French military intelligence, Deuxieme Bureau. Josephine collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. Baker specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, all the while gathering sensitive information. Her cafe-society fame enabled her to mingle with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and then to report back what she had heard.
This was right around the time that Josephine Baker met Frida Kahlo. They were both brilliant artists who fell in love at a time that was absolutely against them. In 1939 Baker was married to the Frenchman Jean Lion, meanwhile, Kahlo was married to Diego Rivera. As such, they both desperately wanted out of their loveless marriages. Unfortunately for them, the early years of the 20th century were not generous towards LGBT people. Outright hatred and bigotry were normalized, still, Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker became famous for being bisexual and defying social conventions. Both of these daring women established their arts all over the world, never succumbing to the temptation to sell out. More importantly, they became each other’s muse for a while, looking at each other with such affectionate and inspired eyes.
All the while, Josephine Baker was under the employ of the French Military Intelligence. So, when the Nazis tried to take over the world, Baker left Paris and went to her home in the south of France. There, she housed people who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle. As a performance artist, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carried information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. The notes were all written in invisible ink on Baker’s sheet music. She even pinned important notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear, counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search. All of this led to her becoming a highly decorated soldier.
Although she was based in France, Baker also supported the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 1950s. When she arrived in New York with her husband, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because of racial discrimination. She was so upset by this treatment that she wrote articles about the segregation in the United States. She even refused to perform for segregated audiences in America, and her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate live entertainment shows in Las Vegas. Then, she began receiving threatening phone calls from members of the KKK, but Baker publicly stated that she was not afraid of the Klan. Josephine was always fearless in the face of adversity.
Baker worked with the NAACP who had May 20th of 1951 declared “Josephine Baker Day”. She was presented with a lifetime membership, which spurred her to further her crusading efforts. Although, as a decorated war hero who was bolstered by the racial equality she experienced in Europe, Baker became increasingly regarded as controversial. Regardless of her racy reputation, in 1963, Baker spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. While wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Legion of Honor, she introduced the “Negro Women for Civil Rights.” Then, after King’s assassination, his widow approached Baker to ask if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. However, after many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her adopted children were all “too young to lose their mother”.
In 1951 Baker was invited back to the United States for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club’s audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. Then, in 1952 Baker criticized the Stork Club’s unwritten policy of discouraging black patrons, and she scolded the columnist Walter Winchell for not rising to her defense. Winchell, who was best friends with J. Edgar Hoover, responded swiftly with a series of harsh public rebukes, including accusations of Communist ties. That was a very serious charge at the time, but the FBI couldn’t substantiate the claim. Still, all the bad publicity resulted in the termination of Baker’s work visa, forcing her to cancel her engagements and return to France. It was almost a decade before US officials allowed her back into the country.
In January of 1966, Fidel Castro invited Baker to perform in Havana, Cuba, at the 7th-anniversary celebrations of his revolution. Her spectacular show in April broke attendance records. However, within a couple of years of that Baker faced serious financial troubles. She even wanted to give up on singing and dancing altogether, but family members encouraged her to continue performing. So, in 1973 she went on stage at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation. The following year, she appeared at the London Palladium, and then at the Monacan Red Cross Gala, celebrating 50 years in show business. Four days later, Josephine Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. In the end, after having lived a very full life, Josephine Baker died happy, at the age of 68, on April 12th of 1975, leaving behind a legacy like no other.