Josephine Baker is mainly remembered for her erotic and provocative dances, vaudeville routines, and appearances in films. However her efforts to fight the tyranny of Fascism have received very little attention.
She was born as Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie, was adopted in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1886 by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom were former slaves of African and Native American descent. Her career began with blackface comedy at local clubs. her mother did not approve of this type of “entertainment” .But it was because of these performances Josephine had an opportunity to tour in Paris, which would become the place she called home until her final days.
Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in the city. Her costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, became an iconic image and a symbol both of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.
When the German army invaded France during World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime.
Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France. She had been approached by Jacques Abtey, the head of French counter-military intelligence. Abtey was recruiting people for espionage duties.
Josephine was an ideal candidate for this work, as her celebrity allowed her to move easily between countries and offered her enhanced protection. When Abtey approached Josephine to see if she would take the risk and join the resistance, she told him. “France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything… I am ready, captain, to give them my life. You can use me as you wish.” . Being able to travel to neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She could carry information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France.
She housed people who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and supplied them with visas. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy. The Nazis found out of the resistance activity happening at Josephine’s chateau, and went to the estate. Josephine had been hiding several resistance fighters at the time of the visit. She successfully charmed the Nazis when they questioned her, but the visit had become a bit too close for comfort and she took the close encounter as a sign that it was time to leave France. Abtey contacted General Charles de Gaulle, who instructed both Abtey and Baker to travel to London via Lisbon.Between them, the pair carried over 50 classified documents and secret intelligence. Josephine carried hers by writing the information down in invisible ink on her sheet music.
After D-Day and the liberation of Paris, Josephine returned to her adopted Paris wearing a military uniform. She quickly took note of the terrible conditions many French people endured after the Nazi occupation. She sold pieces of jewelry and other valuables to raise money to buy food and coal for the poor citizens of Paris. Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, General de Gaulle awarded Josephine the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. He also named her a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, the highest order of merit for military and civil action.
A few years after the war she returned to the USA. Ironically she regularly received less respect at home then she did from the Nazis. Baker had to confront segregation and discrimination which she had not experienced since she was a child in St. Louis. She often refused to perform to segregated audiences, which usually forced club owners to integrate for her shows. For this she would often received threatening phone calls from the KKK.
In her later years, Baker converted to Roman Catholicism. She lost her castle due to unpaid debts. Grace Kelly aka Princess Grace offered her an apartment in Roquebrune, not too far away Monaco.[
Baker was back performing at the Olympia in Paris in 1968, in Belgrade and at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium and at the Gala du Cirque in Paris in 1974. On 8 April 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50th anniversary in show business. The revue, paid for by notably by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. The demand for seating was such that foldable chairs had to be added to seat all attendees . The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.
On April 12, 1975 , Josephine Baker was found peacefully in her bed around her were newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, she died there the same day , aged 68.
She was a beautiful woman in every sense of the word.
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