Jospehine Baker: the hidden depths of Jazz Age icon

Josephine Baker was revered as the erotically charged poster girl of the Jazz Age, but she was so much more. Born into poverty, she found fame through Vaudeville theatre and then global celebrity, which she put to impeccable use as a French resistance agent during World War II and as a civil rights activist. Nige Tassell tells her story for BBC History Revealed

Josephine Baker lounges on a tiger skin around the time she starred in La Revue Nègre

“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, ’cos when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

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It had been quite some journey for Josephine Baker – from the poverty of her troubled upbringing in St Louis, Missouri, to addressing a quarter of a million protesters at the March on Washington in 1963. On the way, she’d found global fame as a dancer and actress. She’d renounced her homeland for French citizenship. And she’d played a significant, and highly decorated, role in the French Resistance during World War II. The March marked her latest opportunity to lend her profile to the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout an incredibly textured life, Baker smashed any and every taboo she encountered – racial, sexual, cultural, political – and left the pieces where they lay on the floor, never to be reassembled. This she did on both sides of the Atlantic. It was this dual life, split across continents, that truly defined both her work and her as a person.

Humble beginnings

It was an inauspicious start to life for Freda Josephine McDonald. Born in 1906 to vaudeville performers Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson (although later research suggests her biological father was actually white), the young Freda had few clothes to wear and rarely much to eat. At the age of eight, she was put into domestic service in the white neighbourhoods of St Louis. This was far from a happy time: there are reports of abuse meted out on the young girl. She also slept rough when she wasn’t a live in domestic.

By the age of 13, McDonald had graduated to waitressing at the Old Chauffeur’s Club in St Louis, and it was around this time that she met her first husband, Willie Wells. The (illegal) marriage didn’t last and, at the age of 14, she was already a divorcee. A year later, McDonald married for the second time.

Having danced on street corners for money, McDonald – now taking the surname Baker, that of her new husband, as well as dropping Freda – had an eye for a career in entertainment, despite her performer mother warning against it.

The Old Chauffeur’s Club was a hang-out for jazz musicians and entertainment types, and she successfully lobbied her way into a vaudeville show in her home city. From there, a trip to New York City saw her land roles in the chorus lines of Broadway shows Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies.

But Baker was no anonymous chorusline girl. She was employed at the end of the line as the comic turn, deliberately goofing up routines before, during the final number, dancing correctly and adding layers of complexity to the routine. Her natural comedy and lithe athleticism made her perfect for the role, to the cheering delight of her audiences and the green-eyed displeasure of the rest of the cast.

Paris match

As exuberant as her Broadway performances were, Baker’s star truly ascended in the skies of another continent. In 1925, at the age of 19, she was recruited into the ranks of a new, all-black production – La Revue Nègre – that was being assembled in Paris. For a young woman who had bluffed and blustered her way from homelessness to Broadway, she suffered a rare moment of insecurity the day before her ship departed for France. “I can only recall one single day of fear in my life,” she later reflected. “One day which lasted only one hour, maybe one minute, when fear grasped my brain, my heart, my guts with such force that everything seemed to come apart. It was September 15, 1925.”

As Baker intimates, it was a fleeting emotion, one that quickly passed as the possibilities of a new life, a reinvention, opened up. France – at that time still ruling French West Africa, a federation of eight colonial territories – was fascinated by ‘Negro’ culture and the Revue Nègre show proved a huge hit. Baker was dancing ‘La Danse Sauvage’, an erotic piece that dictated she wore only bikini bottoms adorned with flamingo feathers.

However, the reticence and anger she initially experienced about the costume requirements soon faded. “I came on stage,” she recalled, “and a frenzy took possession of me. Seeing nothing, not even the orchestra, I danced!” Baker was an instant hit. While the odd theatre critic took a haughty tone (“lamentable transatlantic exhibitionism,” sniffed Robert de Flers), others sang her praises from the Parisian rooftops. Critic Henri Jeanson declared the performance “as beautiful as the night” and “Joséphine Baker is the dream, the clown, the great sensation of the evening.”

The eagle-eyed will have spotted another subtle piece of reinvention: the addition of an accent over her name. This was deliberate on Baker’s part, displaying an eagerness to assimilate herself with matters French. It was a country she had fallen for quickly.

Having encountered embedded racism throughout her life in St Louis and New York City, life in France was something of a liberation. There was no segregation; white-only hotels and restaurants didn’t exist.

There was further confirmation of égalité and liberté on the night the Revue Nègre opened. “After the show was over,” Baker gushed, “the theatre was turned into a big restaurant. For the first time in my life, I was invited to sit at a table and eat with white people.”

On the road

When the Revue Nègre’s Paris run on the Champs-Elysées came to a close, the show was to undertake a European tour. Baker wasn’t so keen to go on the road. She felt she had finally found her true home. “I had plotted to leave St Louis. I had longed to leave New York. I yearned to remain in Paris. I loved everything about the city. It moved me as profoundly as a man moves a woman. Why must I take trains and boats that would carry me far from the friendly faces, the misty Seine?”

Dressed in the uniform of the Free French – the forces of Charles de Gaulle’s WWII government in exile – Baker stands at attention to receive the Légion d’Honneur (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Dressed in the uniform of the Free French – the forces of Charles de Gaulle’s WWII government in exile – Baker stands at attention to receive the Légion d’Honneur (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

After she travelled with the company to Berlin and Brussels, Baker jumped ship and returned to the French capital, joining the Folies Bergère, the music hall in the 9th Arrondissement. It was there that her fame catapulted, appearing in a show called La Folie du Jour, in which she performed wearing nothing other than a skirt made from fake bananas. Her name was up in lights and, as the continent marvelled at her act, she became an icon of the permissive Jazz Age.

Her legend grew rapidly. As Ylva Habel, an academic specialising in the African diaspora, observed, “the degree to which Baker’s looks and agile body were considered not only beautiful, but spectacular in Europe is demonstrated by the diversity of photographs, postcards, artworks, posters and caricatures that depicted her. In Paris, Baker was indeed her own culture.” The young American, or at least her image, was inescapable.

Live performance wasn’t enough for Baker and, in 1927, she was cast in the silent film La Sirène des Tropiques. It was no piecemeal, tokenistic role. As one anonymous writer noted, “contrary to American film narratives where she would have been cast as a marginal slave figure, Baker played the leading part”.

Back in the US

By the mid-1930s, she had returned to Broadway as part of the revived Ziegfeld Follies show, but the box office numbers were unimpressive and the reviewsmlukewarm at best. Time magazine sourly referred to Baker as a “Negro wench” and ungenerously declared that her singing and dancing “might be topped practically anywhere outside of Paris”. So back to the bosom of her beloved French capital she retreated, marrying the industrialist Jean Lion and taking French citizenship.

When World War II broke out a couple of years later, Baker employed her talents for a greater cause, taking advantage of her high-level contacts and connections to spy for the Deuxième Bureau, France’s military intelligence bureau.

During the German occupation of France, she travelled widely without suspicion, working for the Resistance by passing on information in Spain and North Africa. At the end of the war, Baker’s efforts were rewarded with some of France’s highest military honours.

The spy in the limelight

When France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland, French intelligence wasted little time in enlisting Baker as an unlikely spy. But the logic of her appointment as “honourable correspondent” was faultless and inspired.

The entertainer had extraordinary access to the movers and shakers of Europe, rubbing shoulders with influential people at a succession of embassy soirees and parties. Using her renowned charm, Baker would elicit details of German ground movements and pass them on to the Deuxième Bureau, the arm of French intelligence charged with gathering information about enemy troops.

And, of course, no-one would suspect an exotic dancer and singer.

After the German invasion of France in May 1940, Baker began to work for the French Resistance. By this time, she had left Paris for a retreat in the Dordogne, where she would accommodate those sympathetic to General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French resistance movement. As an entertainer, Baker enjoyed largely uninterrupted travel across Europe, which she took full advantage of by delivering vital intelligence to Allied countries.

When doing so, she adopted some innovative techniques. One involved writing information in invisible ink on the sheet music she’d carry between engagements.

On a later trip to North Africa, her unorthodox means again went unchallenged when she hid messages and intelligence in her underwear. At the war’s end, Baker was awarded prestigious medals for her services to the Resistance, including the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance.

After the war, Baker returned to the Folies Bergère stage to further success and decided to reignite her troubled relationship with the country of her birth. But she and her fourth husband Jo Bouillon were denied reservations at dozens of hotels in New York City, provoking Baker to speak out publicly against the segregation that was continuing to poison the US. She refused to play to segregated audiences, even when faced with telephone threats by the Ku Klux Klan.

Elsewhere, she successfully petitioned for the desegregation of one particular Miami venue, and was proclaimed ‘Most Outstanding Woman of the Year’ by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1951. An unsavoury incident of perceived discrimination at the Stork Club in Manhattan only further hardened her resolve to fight on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Stork Club incident

The Stork Club was one of the places to be seen in mid 20th-century Manhattan. It was the favoured haunt of movie stars, royalty, singers, writers, future US presidents and A-grade socialites. And it was where, from table 50b the gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote his columns and broadcast his radio shows.

In 1951, having returned to Broadway from Paris, Josephine Baker and three companions arrived at the Stork Club for dinner. However, an hour after ordering her steak, Baker’s meal had yet to arrive, causing the entertainer to claim she was being racially discriminated against. In the kerfuffle, another diner, the actress Grace Kelly, expressed her indignation at Baker’s apparent treatment, and the pair – who didn’t previously know each other – stormed out of the club together.

Baker filed a complaint with the New York Police Department, but reserved some of her ire for Walter Winchell who, she claimed, had witnessed the incident but not stood up to offer his support. Her accusations towards the gossip columnist made headline news causing instant damage to his reputation. Winchell, claiming ignorance of what had gone on in the club, then got in his retaliation, claiming that Baker had communist sympathies. In the febrile atmosphere of the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts, this was mud that stuck.

With plentiful files on Baker opened by the FBI, her work visa was revoked, causing her to cancel her engagements and return to Paris. It would be nearly a decade before she was allowed back into the country of her birth.

Five years after speaking at the March on Washington in 1963, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Baker was informally asked to become the new leader of the movement by his widow Coretta Scott King.

After careful consideration, she declined, citing the welfare of her 12 adopted children as her priority. These kids – ten boys and two girls from places as far-flung as Japan, Colombia, Finland, Morocco and Korea – were held up by Baker as proof that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers”.

Baker continued to perform right up until her death in 1975. Indeed, just four days before a fatal brain haemorrhage, Baker had appeared in a show saluting her 50 years as an entertainer. Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger and Jackie Kennedy Onassis were among the attendees.

The drive that had taken her from those humble beginnings in St Louis to worldwide stardom, that commitment to make the world a better place, never diminished. Whether on stage, on screen, on the campaign platform or simply at home, Baker never stopped defying expectations and never stopped smashing taboos.

“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone,” she once sighed, “when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birthplaces have the weight of a throw of the dice.”

Nige Tassell is an author and journalist who writes about sport and history.

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This content first appeared in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed