September's Woman of the Month - Josephine Baker
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
"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. And then look out, 'cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world .." - Josephine Baker
There's a new season upon us and with all the change associated with September I thought I'd start a "Woman of the month" feature to celebrate the lives of influential women from the past (or present). In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, September's choice is Josephine Baker.
Not only was Baker a highly skilled dancer, she was also a civil rights activist and member of the French Resistance during WW2. Born in Missouri in 1886, to a black mother and unknown father who's identity was unknown to Josephine her entire life. It is speculated that he was wealthy and white, having paid for her mother to give birth in an all white hospital and for the baby's birth to be registered by the hospital. As a young girl, Josephine was subject to constant racial abuse as a live-in servant to local affluent white families. Later, living in the slums of St Louis, she began to make money by street-corner dancing. By the age of 15, she had been married no less than two times! She divorced her second husband Willie Baker in 1925 as her career began to flourish but continued to use his name professionally. She moved to NYC aged 15 during the "Harlem Renaissance" in which African-American cultural expressions exploded across Midwest and Northern America. However, blackface comedy was central to Baker's early career, which her mother abhorred but ultimately led to Baker's success in Paris.
Josephine was one of the first African-American's to move to Paris,"I just couldn't stand America" she later said. Indeed, she never returned to her home country and made a life for herself in France, marrying a Frenchman in 1937. She became a living embodiment of the luxury and glamour of the "Art Deco" period and was ultimately the most successful American entertainer working in France. Baker was also a singer and actress although her films were successful only in Europe. In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence, as an "honourable correspondent". Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She specialised in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, while gathering information. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she heard. She attended parties and gathered information at the Italian embassy without raising suspicion. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carried information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbours, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. These important notes were written in invisible ink on Baker's sheet music.
After her wartime experiences, Baker expressed more serious subject matter in her performances and in 1951 undertook a national tour of America which spurned her civil rights activism. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in America, giving academic lectures in the South and writing articles on racial discrimination. Baker worked with National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People for the remainder of her life but she remained a controversial figure due to her being both a woman and opinionated and for the erotic dancing of her early career.
She was the only official female speaker during the famous March of Washington, speaking alongside MLK Kr. In 1963, MLK Jr's widow asked Baker to become leader of the civil rights movement but by then, Baker had a growing number of adopted children to care for. These children, two girls and ten boys of various ethnicities she called her "Rainbow Tribe". Baker wanted to prove to a hateful world that children of all ethnicities and religions could form the closest of bonds.
By the end of her life, she had married four times but Baker also had several relationships with women such as Ada Smith, Collette and possibly even Frida Kahlo. Up to her final days, Baker's enigmatic personality continued to captivate audiences and her patrons included Jackie Kennedy, Rainier III of Monaco and Princess Grace. Since her death in 1975, she continues to influence celebrities all over the world and is remembered for her flair, spirit and talent.
- Ellie x