“Josephine Baker. Black Diva in a White Man’s World.”

— Documentary Film (Annette von Wangenheim, Director)

Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis (naturalized French, Josephine Baker) this “diva” was an American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent and civil rights activist.

Did you ever wonder how many “civil rights activists,” you never heard of?

Let Josephine Baker rise to the top of the list, courtesy of either a rocketship or hot-air balloon.

She belongs at the top.

Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France.

She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film, Siren of the Tropics.

In her early career, Baker was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergere in Paris.

She caused a seismic sensation in the city with her 1927 performance in the revue, Un vent de folie.

Her costume contributed mightily to the scene.

A short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace.

That’s about it.

It was 1927.

She had achieved iconic status and became a symbol of both the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.

Not a bad start.

She was 21.

Baker was feted by artists and intellectuals of the era, alike.

Typical of that age–and perhaps this one–she was dubbed the “Black Venus,” the “Black Pearl,” the “Bronze Venus” and the “Creole Goddess.”

She renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national following her 1937 marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion, and raised her children in France.

American-born black performers at the time rarely, if ever, did this kind of thing.

Or received these sorts of accolades:

Aiding the French Resistance during WWII, she was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation; the Croix de Guerre by the French military; and was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

She ceremoniously sang, “I have two loves, my country [France] and Paris.”

And, as history informs us, she was not exactly swimming in a sea of positivity in the U.S.

Baker’s early life was a reflection–and a harbinger–of conflict and uncertainty.

Academic Bennetta Jules-Rosette, author of “Josephine Baker in art and life: the icon and the image” (2007) wrote about the difficulty of establishing the truth relating to her early years, given “the factual and counterfactual reworkings of her numerous biographers,” and Baker’s own “numerous and often contradictory reworkings of the story, which frequently lacked coherence.”

In 1917, when she was 11, a terrified Josephine McDonald witnessed racial violence in East St. Louis, Illinois.

Years later in a speech, she vividly recalled what she had seen.

“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…frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings…

So with this vision I ran and ran and ran.”

And she never stopped.

By 12, she dropped out of school.

At 13, she was married.

It lasted less than a year.

At 15, in 1921, she was married again, to a man named William Howard Baker.

She left him when her vaudeville troupe was booked into a New York City venue; they divorced in 1925.

It was then that she began to realize significant career success, and she continued to use his last name professionally, for the rest of her life.

Baker sailed to Paris in 1925, and opened on October 2 in “La Revue Negre,” at Theatre des Champs-Elysees.

She was 19.

In a 1974 interview with The Guardian, Baker clarified where, in fact, she got her first big break.

“No, I didn’t get my first break on Broadway.

I was only in the chorus in ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Chocolate Dandies.’

I became famous first in France in the twenties.

I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris.

Oh yes, Bricktop [American dancer, jazz singer, vaudevillian and self-described saloon-keeper Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith] was there as well.

Me and her were the only two, and we had a marvellous time.

Of course, everyone who was anyone knew Bricky.

And they got to know Miss Baker as well.”

After a while, Baker was the premier American entertainer working in France.

Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

Picasso did paintings depicting her alluring beauty.

She became friendly with French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Cocteau, who helped vault her to international stardom.

She endorsed “Bakerfix” hair gel, bananas, shoes and cosmetics, among other products.

In 1929, she was the first African-American star to visit Yugoslavia, while on tour in Central Europe, via the Orient Express.

She performed in Belgrade at Luxor Balkanska, the capital city’s most luxurious venue at the time.

In Zagreb, she was received by adoring fans at the train station.

Baker’s popularity in France far eclipsed the reception she received in the States.

Her star turn in a 1936 revival of Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway was not commercially successful, and later in the run she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee.

Time magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench…whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris”, while other critics felt that her voice was “too thin” and “dwarf-like” to resonate and fill the Winter Garden Theatre.

She was devastated–heartbroken–and returned to Europe seemingly for good, becoming a legal citizen of France and renouncing her American citizenship.

Baker was a WWII “honorable correspondent,” recruited by the French military agency, the Deuxieme Bureau, after France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland.

Her cafe-society grandeur allowed her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from the Germans, to high-ranking Japanese officials and Italian and Vichy bureaucrats, all the while secretly gathering information without raising suspicion.

She was a decorated war hero who couldn’t get a cup of coffee in the United States.

This did not deter her however, from supporting the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s.

And it was then that she began to adopt children, forming a family which she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.”

Baker wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”

She raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina and ten sons from France, Korea, Japan, Colombia, Finland, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Venezuela.

Two of her sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York City, which celebrated their mother’s life and works.

Josephine Baker continued to influence celebrities more than a century after her birth.

In a 2003 USA Today interview, Angelina Jolie cited her as “a model for the multiracial, multinational family she was beginning to create through adoption.”

In September 2006, Beyonce performed Baker’s banana dance at the Fashion Rocks concert at Radio City Music Hall.

And in 2016, Vogue magazine described how her 1926 “danse sauvage” in her renowned banana skirt “brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination,” and “radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today, from Prada to Beyonce.”

But the greatest tribute was yet to come.

Josephine Baker died on April 12, 1975 of a cerebral hemorrhage, at 68.

Four days earlier, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Josephine a Bobino 1975, celebrating her fifty years in show business; it opened to rave reviews in front of such luminaries as Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minelli.

Newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance, surrounded her on her deathbed, as she lay peacefully.

On November 30, 2021, she entered the Pantheon in Paris, the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France, and one of only six women at the mausoleum, alongside Simone Veil, Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Marie Curie, Germaine Tillion and Sophie Berthelot.

Her body remained at its resting place in Monaco, but a symbolic casket containing soil from various locations where she lived–St. Louis, Paris, the South of France and Monaco–was carried by the French Air and Space Force in a parade in Paris, before the Pantheon ceremonial interment.

The first black woman to be honored in the secular temple to the “great men” of the French Republic, finally received her just reward.

She earned it.

And she deserved it.

She survived poverty and segregation in America.

She fought against racism and anti-Semitism.

She destroyed stereotypes.

Annihilated them, actually.

The first American-born person to be honored alongside the likes of Voltaire and Hugo.

French President Emmanuel Macron encapsulated it nicely in the eulogy he delivered from the monument’s nave.

“Stereotypes, Josephine Baker takes them on,” he said.

“But she shakes them up, digs at them, turns them into sublime burlesque.

A spirit of the Enlightenment ridiculing colonialist prejudices to music by Sidney Bechet.”

He held her up as a fighter for “the equality of all before the identity of each.”

And he closed by saying, “Ma France, c’est Josephine,” playing on the lyrics of Baker’s hit “J’Ai Deux Amours.”

Most fitting indeed.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in December 2021.]




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Peter J. Kaplan

Peter J. Kaplan

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