Josephine Baker : Fighting for Freedom
On November 30th, Franco-American entertainer, Josephine Baker, was inducted into France’s Pantheon, making her the first Black woman to join other French literary, scientific, and political luminaries honored for their achievements, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Simone Veil…
French President, Emmanuel Macron, paid a vibrant homage to “a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer; a Black woman defending Black people but first of all, a woman defending humankind, American and French. Josephine Backer fought so many battles with lightness, freedom, joy.” He added: “Josephine Backer, you are entering into the Pantheon because, you may have been born American, but there is no greater French than you.”
Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, on June 3rd, 1906, in a Black slum, Josephine Baker discovered the meaning of racial segregation and violence at an early age. The racial riots of East Saint Louis, in 1917, left their mark: “I can still see myself standing on the west bank of the Mississippi looking over into East St. Louis and watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment…”
She dropped out of school at thirteen, married for the first time, in the hope she could escape a life of poverty and abuse. She worked as a waitress and supplemented her low income with street-corner dancing, before being hired by a local Company as a chorus girl to tour the Black vaudeville circuit. Her marriage ended within a year. She then headed to Philadelphia where she met her second husband, Willie Baker. Being a housewife was not of Josephine’s liking, however. She decided to move to New York, hoping to integrate the popular first all-Black Broadway musical hit, Shuffle Along. She was only fifteen, therefore underage. She lied about her age and was hired, not as a chorus girl, to her great disappointment, but as a dresser. One evening, a dancer failed to show up. Josephine begged the show's director to let her dance instead. "I know the act," she pleaded. Once on stage, Josephine stood up immediately from the other girls by adding mimics and humor to the routine, not to mention her unique style of dancing.
Performing on Broadway was soon to lead to a breakthrough. Josephine was spotted by a producer, Caroline Dudley, who was looking for Black artists to star in a new musical, in Paris, La Revue Nègre. She signed a contract and sailed to France. The show premiered on October 2nd, 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Josephine, who agreed, albeit reluctantly, to perform topless, was an instant sensation. She saw the act as a way to mock the then widespread image of the “good African” as widely promoted by French colonialism.
A new star was born. Josephine loved everything about Paris, not least the architecture. But what she enjoyed the most was the absence of institutional racism. Segregation did not exist. She could mingle with white people, be served at a restaurant without fear of being treated as a second-rate citizen because of the color of her skin. This is not to say racism did not exist in France in the 1920s. It did! But it was not as brutal as in the United States.
Josephine toured with La Revue Nègre in Brussels, then in Berlin. Weeks later, she broke her contract with Caroline Dudley and headed back to Paris to star in a new show, La Folie du Jour, at the Folies-Bergère. It was there that she appeared on stage, dancing the Charleston, wearing nothing but a skimpy skirt made of artificial bananas around the waist. In 1926, Josephine fell for a fake Italian Count, Giuseppe Abatino, dubbed Pepito, who transformed her into an international superstar, the contemporary of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. That said, she was not always welcome. Conservative and religious circles warned repeatedly the public against her intense display of eroticism. While touring in Vienna, to quiet her many critics, she unexpectedly appeared on stage dressed all in black.
In the 1930s, under the management of Pepito, she starred in four movies and capitalized on her singing voice. In 1931, she released “J’ai deux amours” (“I have two loves, my country and Paris”), which would become her trades mark.
In 1937, she married French businessman Jean Lion. Following a miscarriage, Josephine separated from Lion. But her short union offered her the most precious of gift: the French citizenship. Josephine would soon prove to the world what it meant for her to be French. Two years later, as another war in Europe loomed, a French secret service operative, Captain Jacques Abtey, contacted Josephine. Would she agree to spy on behalf of the French Second Bureau (counterespionage)? She immediately said yes: “France made me who I am. Parisians gave me their heart and I gave them mine. I am ready, Captain, to offer them my life.” Thus, she became a “honorable correspondent,” in other words an agent whose mission was to gather information from foreign military officials or diplomats in Paris. During the “phoney war,” she transmitted key information as to the likely entry into the war of Italy, Japan’s policy, and the presence of Nazi operatives in Paris. Abtey warned her that the mission could be dangerous, especially if the Germans ended up invading France, which they did in the spring of 1940.
At that point, Josephine left Paris. She refused to perform for the occupants. She also knew all too well the Nazis’ racial policies. Accompanied by her “manager”, Captain Abtey, she found her way to her home in Dordogne, the Château des Milandes, in unoccupied France. She provided visas to people trying to leave France, including her former husband Jean Lion. At the beginning of 1941, still accompanied by Abtey, she travelled to French North Africa via Spain. Once in Morocco, her mission was to transmit, via Portugal, documents to Free French agents. She left for Lisbon, alone, carrying information pertaining to German troop buildup along the Atlantic coast, the so-called “Wall of the Atlantic,” written in invisible ink on her sheet music or hidden in her clothes. Back to Morocco, she fell ill, suffering from a severe peritonitis and had to stop her activities. She had made a full recovery by the time the Americans and the British landed in North Africa (Operation Torch), in November 1942. To her dismay, racial segregation was strictly enforced within the ranks of the U.S. Army, something Josephine could not accept. She agreed to perform for the troops, but on the condition Black soldiers would be allowed to attend.
In the spring of 1943, Josephine met General de Gaulle in Algiers, who offered her a cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the French Resistance, in gold. She toured North Africa to support the morale of the Allied troops, promote de Gaulle’s action and raise money for the Free French. For services rendered during the war, Josephine Baker received the Medal of the Resistance, the Legion of Honor in 1961, together with the Croix de Guerre, a military decoration bestowed to soldiers who performed acts of heroism.
Following the end of the war, Josephine married for the fourth time, quickly re-established herself as a leading entertainer, returning to the Folies-Bergère and became a civil-right activist, challenging segregation laws in her home country. Invited back to the U.S. in 1951, she triumphed everywhere she went. Following an incident at the Stork Club in New York, where the staff refused to serve her on the ground she was “colored,” she accused the club’s owner of racism. Grace Kelly, then a rising movie star, witnessed the scene, walked to Josephine and, together, they stormed out, vowing never to return. Subsequently, Josephine was accused of being a communist sympathizer and saw her work visa revoked. She would only return to the U.S. in 1963 to attend Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
Back to France, she spent more time at her Château des Milandes and promoted tirelessly racial harmony. Over the next few years, she adopted twelve children from various parts of the world, her “rainbow tribe” as she called them. She still performed but her stage career declined steadily. Money no longer flowed and, before long, Josephine was facing deepening financial difficulties. In 1968, she lost les Milandes and relocated first in Paris, then in Monaco where Grace Kelly, now Princess Grace of Monaco, offered her a villa.
In April 1975, she staged a triumphant come back in Paris, only to suffer from a cerebral hemorrhage days later at the age of sixty-nine.
As a tweet from the French embassy in Washington reads, “her legacy is rooted in the soil of her beloved homes and in the memory of agents of freedom everywhere. Thank you and merci.”