The extraordinary life of Josephine Baker

A star of stage, screen and song, a resistance fighter, and a civil rights activist, Josephine Baker took on many roles during a rollercoaster career straddling continents, epochs and wars. Half a century after her death, the American-born icon of the Jazz Age in Paris becomes the first Black woman to enter the city’s famed Panthéon, France’s mausoleum for “great men” – and, belatedly, great women too. FRANCE 24 looks back on Baker’s extraordinary life, from her humble origins in a segregated America to her Parisian stardom in the Années Folles, her wartime service for France, and her battle against racial injustice.

“I remember the horror of the East St. Louis race riot. (…) 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, unable to understand the horrible madness of mob violence.”
From a speech given in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 3, 1952.

Freda Josephine McDonald in 1908. © Wikimedia

Josephine Baker was a young girl in July 1917 when she witnessed desperate African Americans running for their lives across the Eads bridge linking East St. Louis, in Illinois, with her Missourian hometown of St. Louis. At least 39 Black people were lynched and thousands more were left homeless in the three-day rampage, dubbed the East St. Louis “Race War”. The brutal killings would leave a profound mark on Josephine, aged 11 at the time. So did the hardship and discrimination she experienced as a child.

The future idol of the Années Folles, France’s equivalent of the Roaring Twenties, was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, the daughter of Carrie McDonald, a St. Louis washerwoman whose adoptive parents were former slaves. Her estate identifies her father as vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson, though other sources dispute this. The family were poor, cold and hungry, and Baker took up several jobs to help out. From the age of eight, she worked as a live-in domestic for wealthy white households, where she was warned against “kissing the children”.

“Why did I become a dancer? Because I was born in a cold city. Because I was cold throughout my childhood. Because I always wanted to dance in a theatre.”
From “Les mémoires de Joséphine Baker” by Marcel Sauvage (1949)

Josephine Baker pictured by Henri Manuel in the 1920s. © Wikimedia

Baker had dropped out of school and was working as a waiter when she met her first husband, Willie Wells, aged 13. The marriage would last less than a year. Following her divorce she joined a street performance group called the Jones Family Band, soon making a name for herself with her dancing skills and mischievous antics on stage. The troupe was touring Philadelphia when she met rail worker Willie Baker, whom she married in 1921, aged 15. The second marriage was scarcely happier than the first, ending in divorce four years later, though she would keep the Baker name for the rest of her career.

At 16, the plucky young dancer left her home and husband to try her luck in New York, working first as a dressmaker on Broadway. Watching backstage, she learned all the parts in the hugely successful revue “Shuffle Along” and was ready to fill in when one of the dancers fell ill. Her trademark silly faces and outrageous movements made her an instant hit with audiences, catching the eye of Caroline Dudley Reagan, the wife of the US commercial attaché in Paris, who offered Baker a weekly wage of $250 – double her pay on Broadway – to star in her forthcoming show “La Revue nègre” in France.

“I understood Paris at once and loved it passionately. The city adopted me on the first night; I was feted, pampered … and, I hope, loved as well. Paris is the embodiment of dance – and I love dance.”
From “Les mémoires de Joséphine Baker” by Marcel Sauvage (1949)

Josephine Baker wearing her famous banana skirt at the Folies Bergère in Paris in 1927. © Wikimedia

Baker first set foot in France, in the port of Cherbourg, on September 22, 1925, aged 19. Just over a week later she was on stage at the prestigious Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, for the premiere of the “Revue Nègre”. Dressed only in a feather skirt, the young Missourian set off on a feverish Charleston dance that mesmerised the audience. Catering to colonial clichés, her “danse sauvage” (wild dance) captivated the white male imagination and revolutionised the capital’s musical scene. Almost overnight, the American teenager had become the toast of Paris and the darling of its artistic and intellectual elite.

The consummate entertainer, Baker soon began to tour European countries, becoming one of the continent’s highest-earning artists. Just two years after landing in France, she had her own show at the famed Folies Bergère dance hall, where she delivered her bombastic danse sauvage in a now-iconic banana tutu. She learned French and took singing lessons, starring in three movies and scoring a hit in 1931 with her signature song “J’ai deux amours” (I have two loves). Five years later she sailed back across the Atlantic hoping to replicate her European success, but her return to Broadway drew mixed reviews tinged with racial prejudice. TIME magazine mocked a “slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped almost anywhere outside of Paris”.

Baker returned to France broken-hearted but determined to settle there for good. In 1937 she married local businessman Jean Lion, born Levy, thereby obtaining French citizenship. The couple moved to the Château des Milandes, a Renaissance castle overlooking the Dordogne River in southwest France.

"I did what I had to do (…). I sang once in a while, but most of all I worked for the Resistance. Because I had but one thing on my mind: to help France recover its former self and prove that what it lost at the start of the war was just a temporary misfortune.”
Interview with French broadcaster TF1 on March 26, 1975.

Josephine Baker in military uniform rehearsing her iconic song “J’ai deux amours,” with songwriter Vincent Scotto, in a Parisian restaurant in October 1944. © AFP file photo

When France declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, Baker did not hesitate to join her adopted country’s war effort. She joined the counter-intelligence service, using her charm and notoriety to gather information on her travels, rubbing shoulders with those in the know at cafés, clubs and embassies. She also helped raise funds for the French army and sent her family and husband, who was of Jewish origin, to safety in America.

When French forces collapsed in the summer of 1940, Baker continued her intelligence-gathering, this time for the French Resistance movement, famously passing on coded information in her musical scores. She moved to Morocco the next year and began touring North Africa and the Middle East to entertain Free French and Allied troops, despite a string of health problems. She joined the Air Force as second lieutenant and landed in Marseille, following France’s liberation, in October 1944. In reward for her service she received the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest civilian and military distinctions, as well as the medal of the French Resistance.

“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth.”
From Josephine Baker’s August 28, 1963 speech in Washington, DC.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ralph Bunche presents Josephine Baker with lifetime membership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on May 20, 1951. © AFP file photo

After the war, Baker turned to a more personal struggle, returning to her home country to join the civil rights movement. Her refusal to perform for segregated audiences forced many venues to change their policies. During a trip to the US in 1951, she was made a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which declared May 20 “Josephine Baker Day”. Later that year, she kicked up a storm at the swanky Stork Club in New York, claiming she had been refused service. While Grace Kelly, who was dining at the Stork, rushed to her defence, Baker scolded journalist Walter Winchell, an old ally, for not following suit. The vexed columnist responded with a series of scathing articles, accusing Baker of Communist sympathies. The witch-hunt resulted in the termination of her work visa, forcing her to cancel all her engagements and return to France.

Baker returned to America a decade later, taking part in the March on Washington organised by Martin Luther King in August 1963. The last speaker before Dr. King, she gave a fiery address on the freedoms she enjoyed in France, dressed in her French Air Force uniform decorated with the Legion of Honour. According to Baker’s biographers, after King’s assassination she was approached by his widow, Coretta Scott King, who asked her to take over as leader of the civil rights movements – but she declined.

“The idea came to me after witnessing so much misunderstanding between human beings, the so-called adults. I was certain that innocent little children would offer the perfect example of global fraternity.”
From an interview on French television in 1960.

Josephine Baker poses with her adopted children during the presentation of her book “The Rainbow Tribe” on October 25, 1957, in Paris. © AFP file photo

Even as she battled injustice in the US, Baker was building her own interracial utopia in her château back in France. The singer dreamt of having many children but a severe infection during the war forced her to undergo a hysterectomy. With her fourth husband Jo Bouillon, a prominent orchestra conductor whom she married in 1947, Baker decided to adopt a “Rainbow Tribe” of children from different countries.

Over the years, as the couple toured the world, they adopted ten boys and two girls: Akio and Janot from Japan, Jari from Finland, Luis from Colombia, Marianne and Brahim from Algeria, Moïse, Jean-Claude and Noël from France, Koffi from Ivory Coast, Mara from Venezuela, and Stellina from Morocco. Baker, who saw herself as a “universal mother”, opened the château’s park to neighbouring children too, and encouraged visitors to watch her model family as they sang and played.

“I will continue to fight as I have always done, because the [Château des] Milandes represents an ideal that is too important to me. This is not the time to give up.”
From an interview with Rhône Alpes Actualité in February 1968.

Josephine Baker pictured at a clinic in Aubervilliers, north of Paris, following her eviction from the Château des Milandes © AFP file photo

Baker’s dream estate, complete with a menagerie of exotic animals that included a pet cheetah and multiple monkeys, came at huge financial cost – one she found increasingly hard to keep up with. By 1964 her lavish lifestyle had brought her to the brink of bankruptcy and eviction. With creditors eyeing her château, the icon of the Jazz Age made a desperate plea for help. A moved Brigitte Bardot, then at the height of her fame, rushed to her side and appealed on television to the French people to chip in too.

The respite was brief and four years later the Château des Milandes was auctioned off for good – though Baker had to be forced out of the building in March 1969 after she barricaded herself inside. Crestfallen and weakened, she was taken to hospital in the Paris region, before her close friend Princess Grace of Monaco offered her financial assistance and a seaside residence in Roquebrune, on the French Riviera.

“To live is to dance. I wish to die breathless, exhausted, at the end of a dance or chorus.”
From “Les mémoires de Joséphine Baker” by Marcel Sauvage (1949)

Josephine Baker’s last show at the Bobino in Paris, on March 26, 1975 © Pierre Guillaud, AFP

Now in her 60s, the music hall diva was soon back on stage, performing at L’Olympia in Paris, as well as in Belgrade, Copenhagen, London and New York’s Carnegie Hall. She was married for a fifth and final time in 1973, to the American art collector Robert Brady, though the couple split after a year.

In the spring of 1975, Baker starred in a new show at the Bobino in Paris, marking 50 years since her sensational arrival in the French capital. The flamboyant spectacle recounted every chapter of her extraordinary life; the humble Missourian beginnings, the early triumphs, the wartime resistance and the battle for equal rights. It was feted with rapturous applause by an audience that included the likes of Diana Ross, Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger. But exhaustion and advancing age had taken their toll on the “Black Venus”, who was found lying in her bed unconscious on April 10, after suffering from a brain haemorrhage. She was placed in a coma at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, where she died two days later, aged 68.

Days later, more than 20,000 mourners lined the streets of Paris for her funeral at the Église de la Madeleine, which was broadcast live on French television. The government ordered a 21-gun salute as Baker became the first American-born woman to receive full French military honours at her funeral. She was later laid to rest at a cemetery in Monaco.

“My last wish (…) is to become like a fairy, after my own heart; the good fairy of a little French village.”
From “Les mémoires de Joséphine Baker” by Marcel Sauvage (1949)

The Panthéon mausoleum in Paris, a resting place for France’s “great men” – and, belatedly, great women too. © Lionel Bonaventure, AP

The dancer, singer, spy and activist has continued to fascinate since her death, inspiring books, films and documentaries. Streets, squares and schools across France have been named after her; so has a vast open-air swimming pool on the River Seine, in the heart of Paris. It was only a matter of time before her name was put forward for a place in the nation’s Panthéon of heroes too – particularly in light of France’s belated attempts to address the mausoleum’s massive gender imbalance.

On August 21, following a petition signed by more than 37,000 people, President Emmanuel Macron announced that Baker would become the first Black woman to be inducted in the nation’s secular necropolis, and only the sixth woman over all. In justifying the move, the Élysée Palace hailed “an exceptional figure” who embraced France and its values “in the name of her lifelong struggle for freedom and emancipation”. The induction was scheduled for November 30, the anniversary of her naturalisation as a French citizen. Baker’s grave will remain in Monaco, in keeping with her family’s wishes. Instead, a cenotaph plaque inside the Panthéon in Paris will sanction her place among the great women and great men of France. It will contain soil from St Louis, her birthplace, from Paris, her "second love," from Milandes, her beloved château, and from Monaco, her final home and resting place.