Josephine Baker, a French-American Heroine

Josephine Baker – the French-American music hall performer who had deux amours, the Resistance fighter, the civil rights advocate, the adoptive mother of 12 – will become, on November 30, the first Black woman to be honored at the Panthéon in Paris. In our archives, read about her storied life.
Josephine Baker, 1944. © John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images

Should she enter the Panthéon? That is the wish of philosopher Régis Debray, in a 2013 opinion column in Le Monde: “Our age would only be endorsing, loudly and clearly, what is most unique and dynamic about her. She differs from her predecessors in that, [thanks to her] liberated women, colonized individuals, people of color from distant lands, bisexuals or homosexuals burst onto the stage with dance, rhythm, jazz and song, art forms that had been scorned until then […]. Josephine Baker does not have the appearance of a heroine. She is unusual. She is not a myth. She is an example. Of what? Of an emancipation that disrupted conventions and knocked down boundaries.”

In June 2014, the singer Rihanna wore a transparent dress inspired by Josephine Baker to the Council of Fashion Designers of America evening. Her outfit, designed by Adam Selman, was set with 216,000 crystals. “Risqué!” as we say in English. This year, Rihanna became the first Black female ambassador for Dior. Josephine Baker was a friend of Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, and the first Black woman to wear their dresses on her American tours.

Josephine Baker also impressed the British actress Cush Jumbo, author of the play Josephine and I – staged in London in 2013 and in New York in 2015. Jumbo discovered Baker in Zouzou, the movie directed by Marc Allégret and starring Jean Gabin (1934). As a child, Jumbo realized that it was the first time a Black woman had the main role. “She just kind of shone out of the screen,” remembers the actress. In the spring of 2015, on stage at Joe’s Pub in New York, Cush Jumbo spoke of her obsession with the queen of music hall, replayed scenes of her life, wove in some of her own personal experiences, celebrated her courage, and made sure that the memory of Baker was kept alive. A musical comedy, adapted from Stephen Papich’s book, Remembering Josephine, is in the works with actress Deborah Cox in the title role. The premiere is scheduled for May 2016 at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, before a likely transfer to Broadway.

Cabaret Icon

At 19, Freda Josephine McDonald, born in St. Louis, Missouri, made her debut on the music hall stage in Paris. It was a radical change for a little girl who grew up in poverty, danced to “keep warm,” and collected coal from along the railway tracks for heating use. In Paris, the actress’s body was eroticized to the extreme, in an African décor, fantasized to satisfy spectators’ colonial imagination. Her show at the Folies-Bergère in 1926 made a lasting impression: “She came on stage in a dusky light, walking backwards and crawling on all fours, her arms and legs stretched out against the thick branch of a painted tree, which she then climbed down like a monkey […]. She wore nothing but a belt of stuffed bananas. This costume, which remained associated with her for the rest of her life, was at its most suggestive when she rolled her hips, with both arms raised, and the bananas tossed and turned on her hips.” As Josephine Baker herself subsequently notes, “I was not naked, I just didn’t have any clothes on me.”

Josephine Baker, ca. 1925. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Josephine Baker became an iconic figure in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties. “France adopted me right away,” she recalls. Accompanied by a cheetah on a leash, she fascinated Cubists and Surrealists, collected lovers including Georges Simenon, as well as girlfriends. She posed for Pablo Picasso, Kees Van Dongen, Jean Cocteau, and Man Ray. She appeared in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Colette and Paul Morand. But her American tour in 1935 with the Ziegfeld Follies was not a success. Her performances were unremarkable, the reviews were aggressive, and after the insouciance of her Parisian life, she rediscovered her country under the full force of the Jim Crow laws.

Josephine in the French Resistance

During World War II, as “Captain Josephine,” she placed herself at the service of a battling France, “the country that gave me everything.” She worked for the Red Cross in Paris, gave concerts to support the war effort. She transformed the estate of the Château des Milandes in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the Périgord region, into a shelter for displaced people and for Resistance fighters. Her fame served as a cover: She hid information in her musical scores, which she passed on to the Allies. Under threat in mainland France, she fled to North Africa. The American media announced her death. Yet journalists found her in Marrakech. Once peace was restored, she was decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. She remained a devoted Gaullist for the rest of her life.

On August 28, 1963, Josephine Baker proudly wore her Free French Forces uniform and her Legion of Honor medal to take part in the Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. “I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that I have never experienced fear in that country, France. It was a magical place.” A French citizen since 1937, she addressed the crowds that had gathered at the National Mall. Her presence was neither expected nor guaranteed. In America, the artist and activist striving for the emancipation of African-Americans was seen as “too French” by the most radical militants, too distant from the concerns and equality struggles led in Montgomery or Little Rock. Yet Josephine Baker knew the Reverend Marin Luther King Jr. And attorney General Robert Kennedy removed her visa restrictions. Her manager, Phil Randolph, made sure that her presence was “noticed,” and that “decent and suitable” accommodation was provided for her.

International Civil Rights Figure

Josephine Baker and the activist Daisy Bates were the only women to speak in front of 250,000 marchers. Baker spoke of freedom in France, of being able to enter a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, and of not having to go to segregated public places. She said she has grown accustomed to this newfound freedom, and that she did not fear the stares and insults of white people. At the end of her speech, she wished everyone in the audience to be as lucky as she has been – without having to actually flee their homeland.

According to the historian Matthew Pratt Guterl, a professor at Brown University and author of Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe (2014), today’s civil rights activists could learn a great deal from the life of the iconoclastic Josephine. “It would be interesting to see celebrities join forces in a way that is more than just symbolic,” notes Matthew Guterl, “running up debts for a political struggle, investing in a library in Baltimore, or opening a university in disadvantaged neighborhoods.” In 1951, Josephine Baker has a man arrested in Los Angeles who refuses to “be in the same room as a negro woman.” She follows the police van to the station, denouncing this racist, “anti-democratic” and “anti-American” behavior. The same year, the New York branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declares May 20 to be “Josephine Baker Day.”

She used her popularity to speak out without fearing violent reactions. She refused to perform in racially segregated theaters, stayed in the finest hotels and ate at the best restaurants to show that skin color did not imply differential treatment and was no obstacle to wealth and fame. At times, Josephine took advantage of her reputation: She sued a restaurant owner in Los Angeles for discrimination, convinced that she was served after a white male customer.

As of the early 1950s, the FBI opened an investigation into the Franco-American artist and tried to establish whether she had Communist associations. During her international tours, Josephine Baker openly criticized institutionalized racism in America. The State Department could not limit her movements by seizing her passport, since she traveled on her French papers. Her Central and South American tour (1950-1951) was a success, especially the Havana leg of it. Miami promoters invited her, yet she refused to sign a contract if clubs were not opened to Black people. An agreement was reached, and Baker’s shows in Miami were a triumph. “She walks like Mae West, has a low voice like Edith Piaf, swings like Diosa Costello, styles her hair like it’s a cross between Carmen Miranda and the Empire State Building, and wears original designs by Christian Dior like the five best-dressed women in the world,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune.

Mother-in-Chief of the Rainbow Tribe

Her activism spilled over into her private life. Starting in 1953, long before Madonna and the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie couple, Josephine Baker built a utopian family by adopting twelve children from all over the world. She dressed and educated them at the Château des Milandes according to their cultural traditions. This Rainbow Tribe was the realization of the anti-racial, peaceful dream of Martin Luther King Jr.’s universal brotherhood. Long before Neverland, Michael Jackson’s ranch, Baker’s family estate was transformed into an amusement park, open to the public, allowing everyone to see the children growing up in harmony. This aspect of her life is perhaps the least well known.

Josephine Baker and her children at the Château des Milandes on August 22, 1961, the day she received the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre. © Georges Ménager/Paris Match/Getty Images

Josephine Baker gradually moved away from African-American activism. Movements were radicalized, leaders were assassinated, and the emergence of Black Power and self-segregation pushed her to take her distance. The children grew up, family problems multiplied, and Josephine Baker’s health deteriorated. “This family set-up was odd and provocative, and gave people food for thought in the 1950s and 1960s,” explains Matthew Guterl. “Today, there is no one to push the boundaries.”

Josephine Baker became the world’s wealthiest Black American woman. Her activism, her limitless spending and her philanthropy accelerated her bankruptcy. In 1968, the tribe was forced to leave the Milandes, chased out by the new owners. The family found refuge in Roquebrune on the French Riviera, thanks to the support of Princess Grace of Monaco.

At the age of sixty-seven, Josephine Baker returned to the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall and in 17 American cities before settling for a long stretch at the Théâtre Bobino in Paris. L’Express could not believe it: “This is no longer a comeback, it is an eternal return.” Yet on April 12, 1975, four days after leaving the stage, she died of a brain hemorrhage. One of the members of the tribe, Jean-Claude Baker (who died in 2015), wrote a biography of the artist – Josephine: The Hungry Heart (2001)  and perpetuated her memory in his New York museum-restaurant, Chez Josephine.

“Lightness can rhyme with freedom, and fantasy can lend a certain humility to courage,” concludes Régis Debray. “This street mermaid could help us warm up the urns and the statues, introduce a little turbulent behavior and sunshine in this cold and woefully stilted crypt [the Panthéon].”

Article published in the July 2015 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.