Singer, Dancer, Superstar, Spy: Josephine Baker

 

Before there was a Beyonce, there was Josephine Baker.

She didn’t raise the bar for what it meant to be a female superstar, she was the bar for super stardom.

The immense talent she possessed was only surpassed by the ability to harness it along with her sensual sex appeal to amaze audiences with her avante guarde presence and show stopping stardom.


She was too sexy for Americans.


In fact, Josephine Baker was so amazing, so sexy and so ahead of her time, she was too much for American audiences.

Being black meant that she was not allowed to perform in many places throughout the country. Jim Crow laws barred her from performing throughout the South. Her use of sexuality and her amazing dancing made her shocking to the audiences of even the Roaring Twenties.

So, she went to where her artistry could be appreciated.

glov450She went to Paris, of course.

Born in 1906 into a very poor background and abused by a woman she worked for, she ended up living on the streets of St Louis at the tender age of 12. Here she learned to dance, and was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at 15 before leaving for New York and the Harlem Renaissance where she soon became known as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.”

In 1925 she danced in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, and became well known for her erotic dancing, ending up at the Folies Bergeres, where she danced her infamous banana dance in little more than a tiny skirt made of artificial bananas.

She never obtained the same level of fame in America, and during a visit to the States in 1935, she received poor reviews for her role in the Ziegfeld Follies and was later replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee.

She returned to Paris in 1937 where she married and became a French citizen.

8ddf6e94c68d5b67e9446dca267e5459During World War II she used her fame to advantage as she was able to travel Europe performing and passed on vital news to the French Resistance in invisible ink on her sheet music.

In addition to being a celebrity superstar, Josephine Baker was also a spy!

When Adolf Hitler and the German army invaded France during World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy.

When Baker would travel Europe while touring, she obviously had to carry large quantities of sheet music with her. What customs officials never realized, though, was that a lot of this music actually had secret messages written on it in invisible ink.

Fawning immigration officials never thought to take too close a look at the diva’s luggage, so she could sneak all sorts of things in and out of countries. On some occasions, Baker would smuggle secret photos of German military installations out of enemy territory by pinning them to her underwear.

This invaluable intelligence work eventually helped Baker rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, and when the war was over she received both the Croix de Guerre (a first for an American woman) and the Medal of the Resistance in 1946.


After many years of performing in Paris, Baker returned to the United States.

Her return home forced Baker to confront segregation and discrimination that 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.

Her opposition against segregation and discrimination was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1963, she was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Her speech detailed her life as a black woman in the United States and abroad:

“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.”

Baker continued to fight racial injustices into the 1970s. Her personal life was a testament to her political agenda.


Throughout her career, she adopted 13 children from various countries.

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The Rainbow Tribe

She called her family “the rainbow tribe” and took her children on the road in an effort to show that racial and cultural harmony could exist. In this way Baker shows that she is not merely a patriot in the service to her country in war, but a patriot to her country in promoting tolerance and equality.

 

Baker remained on stage late into her life and in 1975 she performed for the last time. The show was sold out and she received a standing ovation. Baker passed away on April 12, 1975.

In the 1950s Baker supported the American Civil Rights movement and her refusal to perform for segregated audiences led to the introduction of mixed audiences in Las Vegas.

Lastly, she was LGBTQ+.

Baker was known to have had relationships with men and with women, embracing who she was privately as well as publicly.

Her son, Jean-Claude Baker said in her biography:

“She was what today you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. You have to put her back into the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, Chorus Girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading men if he liked girls.

But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together, and the girls would develop lady lover friendships.

But if one of the girls by preference was gay, she’d be called a bull dyke by the whole cast. So you see, discrimination is everywhere.”

Baker shows us that it is best and bravest to always be yourself, even if the times have yet to catch up with who you are. In time, society and the world will see that Baker was an icon of patriotism, talent, beauty and love that we can all appreciate and celebrate.

She died suddenly in 1975 and was given full French military honors at her funeral.

See some of Josephine’s fabulous dancing here


Sources:

https://vintography.wordpress.com/category/famous-flappers/

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/josephine-baker

Norwood, Arlisha. “Josephine Baker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/josphine-baker.

http://mentalfloss.com/article/23148/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-josephine-baker

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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