Baker, Josephine (1906–1975)
Baker, Josephine (1906–1975)
Baker, Josephine (1906–1975)
African-American singer, dancer, music-hall entertainer, civil-rights activist, who took Paris by storm. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906; died in Paris, France, on April 14, 1975; illegitimate child of Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson; married Willie Wells, in 1919; married William Howard Baker, 1921; married Jean Lion, in 1937; married Jo Bouillon, in 1947; children: adopted 12 (the "Rainbow Tribe"), 1954–1965.
Joined Jones Family Band, St. Louis (1919); became a member of "Dixie Steppers" (1920); appeared in shows, Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies
(1921–25); moved to Paris, France (1925); appeared in Revue Nègre and at the Folies-Bergère (1926); opened club Chez Joséphine in Paris (1926); "married" Giuseppe (Pepito) Abatino ("Count di Abatino," 1927); went on world tour (1928–29); starred at Casino de Paris (1930–33); starred in Offenbach's La Créole (1934); starred in Ziegfeld Follies, New York (1936); became French citizen (1937); fled Paris (1940); worked for French Resistance (1940–44); appeared in Carnegie Hall, New York (1973).
"If I'm going to be a success, I must be scandalous," Josephine Baker declared, "I must amuse people." And she was and did both of those things. Flamboyant and uninhibited, egocentric and exploitive, she "just wiggled her fanny," wrote one biographer, "and all the French fell in love with her." At age 19, she became a music-hall sensation in Paris when she appeared wearing nothing but a string of bananas, dancing the Charleston. Reviled as a reversion to African primitivism and admired for her natural, earthy demeanor, Baker achieved the notoriety she craved. Uneducated and unsophisticated, she often misused her money and power; she loved children and animals, performing, and her adopted country, France, and hated all forms of racial and religious intolerance and being alone.
Born in a St. Louis ghetto and brought up in filth and poverty, Josephine Baker sought security and stability throughout her life. The lonely, neglected child and the accomplished performer created fantasy worlds to compensate for a less than perfect reality. Josephine's father had abandoned the family. Largely ignored by her mother and stepfather, Josephine learned from her mother Carrie how to survive and to rely on herself. Rebellious and fiercely independent, she found school too restrictive, too regimented for her restless nature. At age eight, Josephine was sent to do housework for a Mrs. Keiser with whom she also lived. Treated like chattel, she slept with the family dog in a box in the cellar. When her employer punished her by plunging her hand in boiling water, Josephine left.
Carrie worked in a laundry to support her family, three girls, a boy, and her husband, Arthur Martin, whose mental instability prevented him from working. At age 13, Josephine was street-smart and able to earn a living on her own; she worked as a waitress in the Old Chauffeur's Club where the best jazz musicians in St. Louis played to well-dressed crowds. Josephine's goals were set—to be on stage, to be glamorous. In 1919, she married Willie Wells, a foundry worker. A few months later, Willie left after Josephine hit him with a bottle when he attacked her. Josephine returned to the Club where she joined the three-member Jones Family Band. Performing on street corners and collecting donations, she was noticed by the manager of the Booker T. Washington Theater who hired the band. In addition to singing and dancing with the band, she joined the chorus line, the Dixie Steppers. But one had to be different to rise to the top, and Josephine had a talent for being noticed. Placed at the end of the chorus line, she kicked out of step, "shaking and shimmying… adding a dash of eroticism with a series of bumps and grinds." In no time, she was a solo performer. Ambitious and determined, Josephine left with the Jones Family Band on a tour of the South as part of the Theatre Owners' Booking Association, a vaudeville chain which played only to black audiences. Life on the T.O.B.A. (called "Tough on Black Asses" by the performers) circuit was grueling and often degrading in segregated America.
At the end of the tour the Jones band stayed in New Orleans, but Josephine moved on to Chicago with the Dixie Steppers, then to Philadelphia. Lonely and rootless, she met and married William Howard Baker, a Pullman porter. His family disapproved of her, an underage chorus girl who was darker than the Bakers. This second marriage, at age 15, could not stifle Josephine's need for recognition. She auditioned for Broadway's all-black musical, Shuffle Along, but was not hired because of her age. Undeterred, she left her husband and traveled to New York. Her perseverance paid off, and she was signed on with the road company of the show. Baker was darker than the other chorus girls "who drew a vicious color line between themselves and Josephine," calling her "Monkey." Josephine occupied the comic spot, at the end of the chorus line, and her natural talent as a comedienne bloomed. The other chorus girls resented being upstaged, but audiences loved her crazy antics. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the writer-composer duo responsible for Shuffle Along, recruited Josephine for their new show, Chocolate Dandies. When she crossed her eyes, stuck her rear-end in the air, and shimmied and shook, audiences roared and applauded. Josephine Baker had found a niche, a home, and love and approval.
On tour with Shuffle Along in the East and Midwest, Baker earned the astronomical sum of $125 a week. Her success continued after she joined the cast of Chocolate Dandies in New York. Her routines included a part in blackface and as a vamp in a sexy white satin dress. When the show closed in May 1925, Baker found work at the Plantation Club in New York which catered to cafe society and where, wrote her biographer, she was "expected to make the customers happy in ways other than singing and dancing." Well paid and popular, Baker wanted more; she wanted to sing like Ethel Waters . It was time to move on, and the opportunity came when she met Caroline Dudley who was hiring a cast for an all-black vaudeville show in Paris.
In collaboration with André Daven of the Champs-Élysées Theatre, Dudley recruited 30 black entertainers for the proposed Revue Nègre. When the Plantation Club offered her $300 a week to stay, Baker hesitated, but Dudley tripled that offer, and Baker accepted. Money, opportunity, and French racial attitudes all influenced her decision. Dudley and the troupe, including Evelyn Anderson , sailed from New York on September 15, 1925. Baker was fully aware of the momentous step she had made: "When the Statue of Liberty disappeared over the horizon," she later recalled, "I knew I was free." The rootless waif from the St. Louis ghetto would shortly be dubbed the Black Venus and achieve international fame. Baker was impressed with the absence of segregation in Paris and with the popularity of the many American black musicians who played in clubs centered in the Montmartre area. She soon became friends with Bricktop [Ada "Bricktop" Smith , 1894–1984], a black American woman who owned a club where Baker met many American expatriates such as the black poet Langston Hughes, then a waiter at the club, and Cole Porter, who had written "Miss Otis Regrets" for Bricktop.
La Revue Nègre opened after a massive publicity campaign. Paris was plastered with posters by the artist Paul Colin which featured Baker and a blatant caricature of two black men. The show opened on October 2, 1925, and Josephine caused a sensation; against the backdrop of a Mississippi levee, wrote her biographer, she entered "walking on all fours, bottom up, head down, dressed in rags, a tattered shirt and cutoff pants," her hair slicked down with grease which "shown like a bowl of caviar." She then rose and danced a spirited Charleston to "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." Some spectators whistled (the French version of booing), fearing that "a new barbarian invasion was swooping down on Paris." But nothing prepared the onlookers for the final number as Baker, wearing only a pink feather between her thighs and rings of feathers around her neck and ankles, was carried on stage by a large black dancer, Joe Alex, and began undulating, wrote one critic, in a kind of "primitive mating dance." Next day almost all the newspapers reviewed the show. Most were favorable, but Baker even welcomed the accusations of "primitivism"—her "danse sauvage," she told a reporter, "represents slavery, discrimination, and liberation." "La Revue Nègre proved to the French that black is beautiful," Janet Flanner wrote in The New Yorker magazine.
Paris is the dance, and I am the dancer.
Anderson, Evelyn (1907–1994)
African-American dancer. Born in 1907; died of pneumonia on October 29, 1994, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The last surviving member of La Revue Nègre, Evelyn Anderson returned to America after the group disbanded in 1926 but continued to visit Europe often. In 1941, she was detained by the Nazis and held for three years, first in a Dutch internment camp, then in a German convent. Eventually, she was released as part of a prisoner-exchange program with the United States.
Baker loved Paris and easily adapted to her new environment. Paul Colin, now one of her lovers, introduced her to French manners, French fashion, and the sights of Paris. Her habits of eating spaghetti with her fingers and wearing overalls in public became taboo as Baker wanted to be accepted by the refined Parisians. Through acquaintance with Bricktop, Baker became a part of the permissive, free-spending Montmartre coterie who frequented the local "dives, cafés, dance-halls, and bordellos." The show closed on November 19, then began a tour of Berlin and Moscow. Baker was apprehensive about leaving; in Paris, money and celebrity were assured, and rich men willingly paid for her company and favors. Baker knew she had power, and used it with little discrimination, but feared encountering American-type prejudice in these foreign cities. Before departing for Berlin, Paul Derval of the Folies-Bergère approached Baker to appear in his next review and agreed to pay her $5,400 a month. Knowing she would have to abandon Dudley and La Revue Nègre and that the show would fold, she signed a contract, then went to Berlin without telling Derval. A third career option came from the famous German film director Max Reinhardt, who wanted her to attend his acting school. Berlin appealed to Josephine; it satisfied her craving for action.
Baker's dealings with Dudley and Derval were typical of her business relations during her entire career. With her name in lights and her popularity at its height, the "Black Pearl" became a commercial commodity. Josephine Baker dolls, cocktails, and "hair goo" all bore her name. But celebrity and money did not bring her what she most coveted—social acceptance in Parisian high society. As a showgirl, she could never attain her goal. Moreover, she was practically illiterate, spoke ungrammatical English and French, and her lack of education made her "a stranger to the world of education and culture that surrounded her." Sadly, Baker never understood the depth of the chasm separating her world from that of the French haute monde.
Baker's star status did attract wealthy admirers who lavished gifts on her in exchange for sex, but an expensive apartment, cars, and jewels did not bring respectability. And love seemed to elude her, until she met a gigolo, Giusseppe ("Pepito") Abatino, at a club she frequented in Paris. Suave and handsome, Pepito flattered her, doted on her, and set out to "make her a lady." Their liaison lasted for nine years. Singing and dancing lessons, French lessons, proper etiquette, and learning to converse helped ease Baker's social insecurities. As her manager, Pepito showed his genius for organization and business; with backing from one of Josephine's former lovers, he acquired a cabaret where Baker could sing. Chez Joséphine opened in December 1926 and was an immediate success.
Her increasing confidence is evident in the first, and best, of her four autobiographies, coauthored by Marcel Sauvage. Written before she considered herself a legend, it had only a vague relationship with fact, revealing her propensity to fantasize ("I don't lie. I improve on life," she once said). To marry "an average man" and have children and pets was her stated goal. But this desire for a home and family was forever overruled by her need to perform, to live in the spotlight. By the end of the second season at the Folies, Baker's wiggles and bumps and grinds were no longer à la mode. And racial incidents intruded on her newfound freedom; American tourists objected to having a "nigger woman" present in the classy hotels and restaurants they patronized in Paris. Uncertainty about her career and her need for love and respectability made her consider marrying Pepito on whom she could depend, and who loved her. However, she was still married to Willie Baker, which didn't prevent the "couple" from announcing to the press that they had wed in June 1927. Josephine and Pepito, the self-styled "Count di Abatino," or the "no-account count" as Bricktop called him, gave out varying stories of the wedding. The press was skeptical, but The Amsterdam News (a black New York newspaper) accepted the marriage as genuine. A 16-carat diamond ring failed to convince a dubious public, and the pretense was soon dropped.
Josephine's popularity waned, and Pepito sought a new medium for her talents. A short film, The Siren of the Tropics, failed, however, to capture Baker's stage presence. She wept when she saw it. To recoup her image (she had also been booed at a benefit performance), Pepito organized a tour of 25 countries in Europe and South America in 1928–29. Racial epithets and noisy demonstrations marred appearances in several European cities; cries of "Congo savage" and "Go back to Africa" were hurled at a startled Josephine. In marked contrast, she received wild acclaim in Latin America. With Pepito's coaching and her rejuvenated celebrity, Baker became more "urbane, softer, more subdued." Unfortunately her attitude towards her manager-lover changed too. She began to treat him as an employee and no longer bothered to hide her one-night stands from him. In 1930, Pepito obtained a contract for Baker to star in a revue at the Casino de Paris, a higher class music-hall than the Folies-Bergère. Baker was thrilled for she finally got to sing.
Vincent Scotto wrote a song especially for her, "J'ai deux amours," which became her theme song. ("I have two loves/ my country and Paris/ by them always/ my heart is ravished.") In a review of the show, Janet Flanner noted that, "On that lovely [feral] visage lies now a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence." Baker had been domesticated and not only on stage. She put down roots in Le Vésinet, 45 minutes outside Paris, where she bought a 30-room mansion; she lived there for 18 years. None of the residents objected to her presence, and she became intimately involved in the community, especially the local orphanage.
After starring in an Offenbach operetta and another film, Zou-Zou, Baker undertook a tour of the United States in 1935. Pepito arranged for her to appear in New York in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, but Baker was furious to find she had only secondary billing. And she was bitter about the critical reviews she received in contrast to the raves showered on Fanny Brice and Bob Hope. A stinging reminder of being "home" was realized when she was permitted to stay at the Hotel St. Moritz but was not to be seen in the lobby or using the guests' elevators. Even American blacks chastised her for supporting Italy's invasion of Ethiopia; Baker admired Mussolini and castigated the ruler of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, whom blacks idolized, as "an enemy of the people." In a rage, she blamed Pepito for all her problems and dismissed him; he returned to France and died of cancer a few months later. Baker remained in New York and opened a nightclub, Chez Josephine, with only marginal success. While in the States, she obtained a divorce from Willie Baker and visited her family. She returned to France to appear in another revue at the Folies-Bergère, and to open a new club, Le Frontenac.
In 1937, Josephine met Jean Lion, a handsome, blond multimillionaire, who regarded her as a "plaything," but eventually decided to marry Baker against his family's wishes. Jean wanted a docile wife who would further his career in politics and whose world would revolve around him. Josephine, however, lacked the necessary social refinement to fit into his social circle, and her behavior shocked and embarrassed Jean in public. They had nothing in common, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1942. But Baker always had her career and the love of the audience. She continued to perform; she shared the stage with Maurice Chevalier at the Casino de Paris, and, in 1939, they entertained French troops as war fever engulfed Europe. And as a licensed pilot, Baker flew supplies to vital areas for the Red Cross.
As the Germans approached Paris in June 1940, Baker fled south to her 50-room château, Les Milandes in central France, but this ardent French patriot, and citizen, had no intention of abandoning her country. Through her acquaintance with Jacques Abtey of the French military secret police, Baker became an official member of a French Resistance group with ties to General Charles de Gaulle. Her prewar connections with Italian and German embassies made her a valuable resource, and, as an entertainer, her presence at embassy parties would not arouse suspicion. She recorded information obtained at diplomatic gatherings in invisible ink on her sheet music and passed it on to Abtey. From Marseille, Lisbon, and Morocco, Baker and Abtey collected valuable intelligence at considerable risk to their personal safety. In 1941, Baker gave birth to a stillborn child in Casablanca, Morocco. Critically ill, she underwent several operations, convalescing at the luxurious palace of the pasha of Marrakesh who had befriended her. After American
forces landed in North Africa in November 1942, Baker was approached by the Red Cross to entertain troops at an interracial canteen. This led to a grueling tour of army camps which took her across North Africa to the Middle East, and eventually to Italy. She also raised funds and produced propaganda for de Gaulle's Free French Forces and was made a member of the Ladies Air Auxiliary. For her work, she was awarded the Legion of Honor and the Medal of the Resistance after the war.
Her war experiences made her long for stability, for a family. Les Milandes, in the Dordogne region of France, would provide the setting for her new life. Baker was determined to adopt children, but for this she needed a husband. In June 1947, she married her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, an orchestra leader she had met on a tour of army camps in liberated European countries. Les Milandes would be transformed into a tourist complex, a money-making business. To raise funds for this venture, Baker sold her house in Le Vésinet and her apartment in Paris, returned to the Folies-Bergère, and went on tour. While in the United States, she persuaded her mother, her sister Margaret and her husband, and brother Richard to move to France. World War II and tours in America had profoundly affected Josephine and had given her a mission, a cause: "I'm going to dedicate my life to helping my people," she declared. Racism must be abolished and replaced with the brotherhood of man. In the U.S., major hotels refused to admit her and restaurants refused her service. Traveling in the South, incognito under the name Mrs. Brown, she became the victim of Jim Crow laws. Determined to smash racial barriers, Baker was the first black allowed to register at a first-class hotel in Miami and the first to perform for a non-segregated audience in that city. On the tour, she insisted that blacks be hired as musicians and stagehands for her shows. In all major cities, she defied color barriers, and was soundly criticized by blacks and whites for her verbal attacks on America and praise of French racial attitudes. Called a Communist (she admitted she did not know what one was) and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, she refused to be silenced. Baker never fully grasped the import of these attacks on her, even when some of her engagements were canceled. But nothing deterred her from crusading for brotherhood, even when it adversely affected her career.
In September 1952, Baker took her tour to Argentina where her political naiveté created a furor in the United States. She openly admired Juan Peron and his late wife Eva Peron ; through Juan Peron, she became involved in Argentine politics with disastrous results. As a dictator of a fascist state, he used Baker in his propaganda war against the U.S., showering her with gifts, money, and flattery. Praising Peron and referring to Argentina as an "enlightened democracy" and America as a "barbarous land living in a false, Nazi-style democracy," she was denounced in her native land. In response to a threat by the U.S. Immigration Service to bar her from re-entering the States, Baker declared she would consider it an honor to be barred. Refusing at first to see the abject poverty of the masses in Argentina, she eventually grew disillusioned with the regime as she visited hospitals and poor areas. But she never retracted her statements about America.
Her campaign for racial harmony was carried to extremes at times. She wanted to turn her château of Les Milandes and the village of that name into a kind of sovereign State of World Brotherhood where Baker would reign as queen over her "subjects." A flag and fake postage stamps were adopted as symbols of statehood. However, the glitz and gaudiness of her tourist attractions appalled her more conservative, wealthy, castle-owning neighbors. Nevertheless, Josephine was determined to prove that racial harmony was possible, even if only within the confines of her "state." She and Jo Bouillon adopted children of various races and religions, eventually 12 in all—Josephine's "Rainbow Tribe" of ten boys and two girls. Early on, the tourist complex made money, but expenses soon exceeded revenue. Baker continued to perform on stage and go on tour, often for more than six months a year. Though she had her family, she also needed the devotion of an audience. She had become a legend, but her need to dominate alienated her family and destroyed her marriage.
In August 1963, Baker was deeply in debt, but she flew to the United States to participate in the historic March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the crowd. Josephine told a nephew that she didn't think King's remarks were strong enough: "I could have done it better," she said. Baker desperately wanted to be a part of the civil-rights movement, on her own terms and in a leadership position, but her reputation of being volatile made people wary. When she tried to organize a benefit concert, she had trouble getting people to work for her—Baker had a habit of not paying her bills. Though the concert was a huge success, Baker was often rude to her fans while her manager went unpaid. So did the French government to whom she owed about $200,000. Other French creditors threatened to have her property seized and sold at auction. Rather than economize, Baker made plans
to turn Les Milandes into an International Brotherhood College. This never materialized, and the architects went unpaid. Despite her appeals for money to the Empress of Iran, King Hassan II of Morocco, Fidel Castro of Cuba and funds from a TV special hosted by Brigitte Bardot and other French notables, her debts increased.
When Les Milandes was sold at auction in 1969, Josephine Baker was 62 years old, homeless, and broke, with 12 children. Exhausted and desperate, she was rescued by Princess Grace of Monaco [Grace Kelly ] who arranged for her to be the guest star at a ball in Monaco. Further, the princess convinced the Red Cross to give Baker a down payment on a villa near Monte Carlo. More than charity or sympathy, Baker needed an adoring audience. An offer to appear in Carnegie Hall in New York in June 1973 proved to be one of the highlights of her long career. A month later, after giving a concert in Copenhagen, she suffered a heart attack and stroke. Refusing to rest, a week later she was working 12-hour days. A pilgrimage to Lourdes and another tour in the U.S. seemed to revitalize her, but she often rambled incoherently and suffered memory lapses. On returning to France, she starred in a revue based on her life. From Monte Carlo, she took the show to Paris in April 1975. It was a hit, and her friends gave a gala in her honor, celebrating 50 years in show business. Two nights later, Baker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in a coma on April 14, 1975.
"She died of joy," said a friend. And the joy she had given generations of Parisians was repaid the next day at her funeral where over 20,000 people and a 21-gun salute paid her tribute. A second, private funeral was held in Monaco; Princess Grace paid for the burial. A fitting end, wrote Josephine Baker's biographer, for "the ragamuffin from St. Louis, who dreamed of castles and kings."
Haney, Lynn. Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1981.
Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time. NY: Doubleday, 1989.
Baker, Jean-Claude. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. NY: Random House, 1993.
Baker, Josephine, and Jo Bouillon. Josephine. Trans by Mariana Fitzpatrick. NY: Harper & Row, 1977.
Hammond, Bryan. Josephine Baker. With theatrical biography by Patrick O'Connor. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988.
Papich, Stephen. Remembering Josephine: A Biography of Josephine Baker. NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah