One of the things I like about stories of the Holocaust is that they illustrate that under the right circumstances, ordinary people who find themselves in exigent situations can accomplish extraordinary and heroic things that one would not think possible. One such example is that of Josephine Baker.
It is likely that not many of you are familiar with the story of Josephine Baker. I, for one, had never heard of her. However, in my view, she led one of the more interesting and significant lives of the 20th century. Read on, and see if you agree.
Despite humble beginnings, as a young lady she was a much celebrated entertainer based in France. As such, during WWII she was uniquely positioned to spy on the Nazis for the Allies, which she did to great effect. Later in life she was a strong advocate for civil rights for women and people of color.
Freda Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, MO. Her lineage was somewhat murky. Her mother had been adopted by her maternal grandparents both of whom were former slaves. I could not find any information about her birth parents. Her estate listed her natural father as a vaudeville drummer named Eddie Carson (who was white), however, her birth certificate lists her father vaguely as “Edw,” perhaps, to disguise his real identity. It is worth noting that Josephine and her family always believed her real father was white, but not necessarily Carson. Her real lineage remains a mystery to this day.
Baker appears to have had a troubled, turbulent and undisciplined childhood. For example, she was raised in a racially mixed low income neighborhood in St. Louis, an area that consisted primarily of rooming houses, brothels and apartments without modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing. Her mother had married a “kind but perpetually unemployed” man, and the family barely earned a subsistence-level income. Josephine spent a lot of her time on the streets doing whatever. As a young girl she began working as a live-in domestic and earned spare change by dancing on street corners.
At 12 she dropped out of school. At 13, she got married. After less than a year she was divorced, and then she remarried at 15. Her relationship with her mother was contentious and turbulent to say the least.
In her mid-teens she decided she wanted to become an entertainer. Her mother objected, telling her that she should stay at home and “tend” to her second husband. But, Josephine was very independent-minded and used to making her own decisions. She joined a dance troupe called the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show, divorced her second husband, and left with the troupe for NY. She performed at clubs, such as the Plantation Club and in hugely successful Broadway revues, such as Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies. Soon, she became a featured dancer and was billed as “the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” Eventually, her tumultuous relationship with her mother led her to further her career in France.
In Paris her popularity and fame rose to a new level. Baker was one of the first dancers of color to move to France. She always said she “couldn’t stand” America with its overt racial prejudice and segregation lifestyle. Even though she had begun her dancing career in NY on Broadway she always felt she got her big break in Paris.
She specialized in “erotic dancing,” that is, she would often dance virtually nude. Her signature costume was a “banana costume,” which was basically a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. It was considered very risque for the times, even for Paris. Before long, she was one of the most successful American entertainers performing in France. No less a personage than Ernest Hemingway considered her to be “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
All of this was preamble for the most significant stage of her life. As we know in September, 1939 Germany began WWII by invading Poland, whereupon France and other countries declared war. Before long, Baker was recruited by the Deuxieme Bureau, France’s chief intelligence agency as an “honorable correspondent.” Her job was to collect military intelligence and pass it along. Due to her occupation and her celebrity she often socialized with high-ranking Axis diplomats, military officers and intelligence operatives, which made her uniquely qualified for the job. Nevertheless, this was still very dangerous work. Basically, she was a spy and despite her fame, if caught she would have been tortured and executed.
Later, she moved to southern France where she provided housing, visas and other documents to the Free French. In addition, her status as a famous entertainer enabled her to carry sensitive information, often in invisible ink hidden on her sheet music or pinned to her undergarments, to other countries such as Portugal, Spain, Morocco and South America.
In 1943 she toured North Africa entertaining the Allied troops and raising some three million francs in the process. In 1944 after France had been liberated Baker returned to her beloved Paris. She was appalled by the dire living conditions of its citizens and proceeded to sell her own valuables to raise money for food, shelter, and other necessities for them. Her contributions to the war effort were recognized after the war by none other than Charles de Gaulle, who presented her with the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance and made her a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.
After the war she resumed her career, first in France then later in the US and other places. She still chafed at the racial inequities in the US, and often her outspoken nature got her into trouble. For instance, while performing at the Stork Club in 1951 she criticized the club’s unwritten policy of discouraging Black patrons. Then she doubled down by criticizing powerful columnist, Walter Winchell, an old friend, for failing to support her in the aftermath. Winchell responded with a harsh rebuke, which included mentioning what he referred to “communist sympathies,” a very serious allegation in the era of “McCarthyism.” As a result, the State Department terminated Baker’s work visa, which necessitated her returning to France. It would be some ten years before she would be allowed to return.
During the 1950s from her home in France Baker was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the US. Upon her return to the US to perform she was appalled by the racial discrimination that was still prevalent [in the US]. She gave speeches at Black colleges, such as Fisk University. She refused to perform before segregated audiences. She became active in the NAACP. She was the only official female speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. As a result of her work and her fame after MLK’s assassination she was encouraged by none other than King’s widow, Coretta, to succeed him as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She declined, saying “her children “were too young to lose their mother.”
Despite her busy lifestyle Baker found the time to adopt and raise 12 children of various nationalities and religious affiliations. She referred to her family as the “Rainbow Tribe.”
Toward the end of her life Baker fell on hard times financially. For example, she lost her castle due to unpaid debts, although none other than Princess Grace helped her out by offering her an apartment in Monaco.
Baker passed away on April 12, 1975, but her influence still lives on. For example:
- In 2003 Angelina Jolie, in an interview with USA Today referred to her as “a model for the multiracial, multinational family she was beginning to create through adoption.”
- In 2006 Beyonce performed Baker’s signature “banana dance” at Radio City Music Hall.
- In 2017 Google released an animated slideshow it called a “Google Doodle,” which chronicled her life and achievements.
- In 2019 she was one of the honorees inducted into the Rainbow Honor Walk, which celebrated LGBTQ persons who have made “significant contributions in their fields.”
- There have been numerous songs, sculptures and films honoring her life and achievements, too many to mention here.
As I said at the outset, in my opinion, Baker, despite very humble beginnings, led one of the most interesting and significant lives of the 20th century. I believe that outside of the entertainment field she is not as well known as she should be.