Daring, free and electrifyingly modern, Josephine Baker was an overnight sensation when she debuted on the Paris stage on 2 October 1925. Although the 19-year-old performer wore glamorous outfits as she danced and sang, she was also a comic, flailing her arms and crossing her eyes to make the audience laugh. Her most iconic dance was described as: “a Charleston, a belly dance, Mama Dink’s Chicken, bumps, grinds, all in one number, with bananas flying.”
However, Baker was much more than a performer. She was a woman perceived to be so dangerous that, in the course of her life, the FBI kept 471 pages of files against her.
From poverty to Broadway
Born on 3 June 1906, Baker grew up in acute poverty, sleeping six to a bed with her family in the slums of St Louis, Missouri, at a time when the so-called ‘Jim Crow laws’ enforced racial segregation in the American south. When she was just eight years old, her mother pulled her out of school to work as a live-in domestic servant to white families in the city, where she was not allowed to look her employers in the eye. Baker explained that these experiences growing up taught her “to believe that I was inferior like many, many coloured peoples of the world, who are taught, every day, to feel that they are inferior to white people”.
Aged 13, Baker found an out from her life as a domestic servant – she started making a living street-corner dancing in St Louis. She was recruited to a local vaudeville show aged 15, and in 1919 moved to New York City to perform in Broadway revues. Baker was typically the last chorus girl, but she attracted attention and at the height of the ‘roaring twenties’ she was recruited to an all-black dance troupe heading to Paris.
In Paris, Josephine Baker – already twice married and separated by the time she’d left the United States – defied convention by making love to men and women. She was irresistibly charismatic; Ernest Hemingway described her as “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw”.
Finally earning a fortune to match her fame, Baker acquired a gold piano, Marie Antoinette’s actual bed, and even a diamond-collared cheetah that caused havoc whenever it jumped into the orchestra pit at her performances. From her famous hairstyles slicked down with egg white, to her flamboyant dresses, Baker was celebrated for her style and performed to huge crowds in a city where American culture was viewed as novel and exotic. The love affair was mutual. In 1937, Baker renounced her US citizenship when she married Frenchman Jean Lion.
Elsewhere in Europe, Baker’s skimpy outfits and sensual dancing meant she was seen as a danger to moral decency, and during her European tour her shows were often derailed. In Vienna, the church opposite the venue rang its bells before and during the concert to warn attendees they were committing a sin by seeing Baker perform, while in Zagreb, the show had to close after protestors targeted the theatre.
Baker’s pet cheetah “caused havoc whenever it jumped into the orchestra pit at her performances”. (Getty Images)
The war years
When war was declared in 1939, Paris was filled with refugees fleeing the Germans. Every night after her show, Baker would go to a nearby homeless shelter on Rue du Chevaleret to make beds, bathe old people, and comfort new arrivals.
Yet when the Nazis occupied the French capital in the summer of 1940, Baker took on a more dangerous and risky role in the war. She became a spy for the French Resistance, reportedly saying: “France made me who I am, the Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life”. Baker’s performances provided her with the perfect excuse for travelling across Europe, and as a glamorous star she was invited to embassy parties wherever she went. At these parties, Baker would eavesdrop and flirt to gather information about German troop locations and airfields from high-ranking Italian, Japanese, and Nazi officials. Fellow secret agent Jacques Abtey, masquerading as her assistant, recorded the information in invisible ink on her sheet music, while Baker pinned important photos to her underwear and counted on her fame to avoid a strip search.
In 1941, Baker and her entourage travelled to the French colonies in north Africa. The stated reason for the trip was her health – she was recovering from pneumonia. However, Baker was actually there to establish a permanent liaison and transmission centre with British intelligence in Casablanca, and to help set up a network making Spanish Moroccan passports available to eastern European Jews in order to help them escape for South America.
Through the war, Baker also entertained French, British, and American troops to help boost their morale, and refused payment for her performances. Her hope was that: “When soldiers applaud me, I like to believe they will never acquire a hatred for colour because of the cheer I have brought them.” This was an idea that would spark the beginning of Baker’s civil rights work in the United States.
Josephine Baker photographed in 1945. (Getty Images)
While in Europe and North Africa she was welcome in the palaces of kings and queens, at home Baker could not even walk into certain hotels or order a cup of coffee – simply because she was black. She found this ridiculous, and in 1951 she went on tour around the United States, in an effort to help fight segregation. It was written into her contracts that the theatres she played at had to let any ticket holder enter, regardless of their skin colour.
Segregation was not limited to the American south, and Baker had her work cut out. When she arrived in New York City with her husband at the time, Jo Bouillon, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was African-American. This experience was repeated across the country, including in Las Vegas, where even immensely popular stars such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole were barred from the best hotels at the time. When Vegas club El Rancho refused to let black ticket holders into her concert, Baker refused to perform. She sat down on the stage until the owners relented, and is credited with helping the process of desegregating Vegas casinos. Baker’s American tour climaxed with a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem, New York City, to honour her new title: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) ‘Woman of the Year’.
Baker wrote about the injustices she had witnessed for a French paper, France-Soir. From Montevideo to Copenhagen, she gave talks about the evils of US segregation, and on 28 August 1963, she was the only official female speaker to speak alongside Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. In her French military uniform, Baker spoke about her own struggle for justice to a quarter of a million people. Looking out at the mix of races in the crowd, she declared: “Salt and pepper — just what it should be.”
Yet these actions did not go down well with the FBI, who had a file open against her since 1951 because of her “anti-United States statements and her fight for racial equality”. For 15 years, until Baker’s 60th birthday, they recorded her actions and called her a Communist Party apologist, not least because she occasionally partied with the Castro brothers in Cuba.
With the aim of showing the world that it was possible to break down the barriers of race and nationality, from 1954 onwards, Baker adopted 12 children from countries across the world including Japan, Algeria, Israel, and Colombia. She styled herself as a universal mother figure to her “Rainbow tribe”. They all lived together in her 15th-century castle, the Château des Milandes in France’s Dordogne Valley, though by that point Baker’s life was plagued by financial hardships.
Baker photographed with some of her adopted children. She went on to adopt a total of 12 children from across the globe. (Getty Images)
Being the first black woman to become a global celebrity and to star in a major feature film – 1934’s Zouzou – undoubtedly made Josephine Baker an influential cabaret siren and fashion icon. Yet she was also so much more. A Second World War spy for the French Resistance, a civil rights activist, a suspected communist sympathiser, and a single mother to twelve adopted children from all over the globe, Baker refused to dance to anyone’s drum but her own.
Her words still resonate today: “Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free.”
Ailsa Ross is a journalist living in the Canadian Rockies. She’s writing and illustrating a book about the bold women through history who’ve gone on big adventures — chart their stories on Instagram @womenadventurers.