Hers is a rag to riches story, a traveler’s expat story, dotted with espionage as well as work for racial harmony. I speak of Josephine Baker who would have been 111 years old today.
She started in what was then a rough neighborhood in St. Louis. For those of you familiar with the area, she grew up just northwest of the Jefferson & Scott Avenue intersection, a commercial area that now has a Residence Inn by Marriott. The former neighborhood was razed to make way for US route 40/Interstate 64. Back then, Josephine was working at age 8 as a live in domestic for white families in the area and then as a waitress. She had some luck with her vaudeville troupe as a teen and then from there her career took off in New York and then in Paris. Ernest Hemingway is credited as saying that she was the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.
When WW II broke out, she worked secretly for French intelligence. Her celebrity allowed her to meet officials and travel all the while collecting information on the whereabouts of German troups not only throughout France but Spain, Morocco, and onwards. For her work, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
When Baker did return to the U.S., she was treated as a second-class citizen despite her fame. In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against the Stork Club in Manhattan, where she alleged she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, also at the club backed Baker, and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return. Afterwards, the two women became close friends.
Such treatment compelled Josephine to give talks and write articles on segregation in the U.S. She refused to perform before segregated audiences and pushed for integrated shows. She became a crusader for the NAACP and spoke at the March on Washington, where MLK Jr famously gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. That day when she looked out on the crowd, she noted, “Salt and pepper. Just what it should be.”
Baker began adopting children, creating a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe”. Her hope was to show that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and 10 sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. For some time, Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in the Château des Milandes in Dordogne, France, and arranged tours so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in “The Rainbow Tribe” were.
In 1968, Baker lost her castle due to unpaid debts. Her friend, Princess Grace, again came to her rescue and offered her an apartment in Roquebrune, near Monaco.
Josephine was dancing until the very end. Her last show, Joséphine à Bobino, a retrospective revue celebrated her 50 years in show business. Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to a nearby hospital, where she died on April 12, 1975. She is buried at the Monaco Cemetery.
What a life – what a character filled with notables and travel. Whatever you might feel for her dancing, I at least see someone whose strength kept her going until she pulled herself up to the very top. Someone who truly desired to see more harmony in the world. With all the demonstrations for race relations and distrust for refugees that we see now, it’s a good time to go back and applaud someone who also hoped for social change.
I encourage you, if you’re able, to visit Place Joséphine Baker in the Montparnasse neighborhood in Paris or the Chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne region. Here in the states, you can see her star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Wherever you might be, wish Josephine a happy birthday and honor her in some way.