How Josephine Baker Went From Homeless Street Performer to International Superstar, French Resistance Fighter & Civil Rights Hero

There has maybe nev­er been a bet­ter time to crit­i­cal­ly exam­ine the grant­i­ng of spe­cial priv­i­leges to peo­ple for their tal­ent, per­son­al­i­ty, or wealth. Yet, for all the harm wrought by fame, there have always been celebri­ties who use the pow­er for good. The twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry is full of such fig­ures, men and women of con­science like Muhamad Ali, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson—extraordinary peo­ple who lived extra­or­di­nary lives. Yet no celebri­ty activist, past or present, has lived a life as extra­or­di­nary as Josephine Baker’s.

Born Fre­da Josephine McDon­ald in 1906 to par­ents who worked as enter­tain­ers in St. Louis, Baker’s ear­ly years were marked by extreme pover­ty. “By the time young Fre­da was a teenag­er,” writes Joanne Grif­fith at the BBC, “she was liv­ing on the streets and sur­viv­ing on food scraps from bins.” Like every rags-to-rich­es sto­ry, Baker’s turns on a chance dis­cov­ery. While per­form­ing on the streets at 15, she attract­ed the atten­tion of a tour­ing St. Louis vaude­ville com­pa­ny, and soon found enor­mous suc­cess in New York, in the cho­rus lines of a string of Broad­way hits.

Bak­er became pro­fes­sion­al­ly known, her adopt­ed son Jean-Claude Bak­er writes in his biog­ra­phy, as “the high­est-paid cho­rus girl in vaude­ville.” A great achieve­ment in and of itself, but then she was dis­cov­ered again at age 19 by a Parisian recruiter who offered her a lucra­tive spot in a French all-black revue. “Bak­er head­ed to France and nev­er looked back,” par­lay­ing her near­ly-nude danse sauvage into inter­na­tion­al fame and for­tune. Top­less, or near­ly so, and wear­ing a skirt made from fake bananas, Bak­er used stereo­types to her advantage—by giv­ing audi­ences what they want­ed, she achieved what few oth­er black women of the time ever could: per­son­al auton­o­my and inde­pen­dent wealth, which she con­sis­tent­ly used to aid and empow­er oth­ers.

Through­out the 20s, she remained an arche­typ­al sym­bol of jazz-age art and enter­tain­ment for her Folies Bergère per­for­mances (see her dance the Charleston and make com­ic faces in 1926 in the looped video above). In 1934, Bak­er made her sec­ond film Zouzou (top), and became the first black woman to star in a major motion pic­ture. But her sly per­for­mance of a very Euro­pean idea of African-ness did not go over well in the U.S., and the coun­try she had left to escape racial ani­mus bared its teeth in hos­tile recep­tions and nasty reviews of her star Broad­way per­for­mance in the 1936 Ziegfeld Fol­lies (a crit­ic at Time referred to her as a “Negro wench”). Bak­er turned away from Amer­i­ca and became a French cit­i­zen in 1937.

Amer­i­can racism had no effect on Baker’s sta­tus as an inter­na­tion­al superstar—for a time per­haps the most famous woman of her age and “one of the most pop­u­lar and high­est-paid per­form­ers in Europe.” She inspired mod­ern artists like Picas­so, Hem­ing­way, E.E. Cum­mings, and Alexan­der Calder (who sculpt­ed her in wire). When the war broke out, she has­tened to work for the Red Cross, enter­tain­ing troops in Africa and the Mid­dle East and tour­ing Europe and South Amer­i­ca. Dur­ing this time, she also worked as a spy for the French Resis­tance, trans­mit­ting mes­sages writ­ten in invis­i­ble ink on her sheet music.

Her mas­sive celebri­ty turned out to be the per­fect cov­er, and she often “relayed infor­ma­tion,” the Spy Muse­um writes, “that she gleaned from con­ver­sa­tions she over­heard between Ger­man offi­cers attend­ing her per­for­mances.” She became a lieu­tenant in the Free French Air Force and for her efforts was award­ed the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resis­tance by Charles De Gaulle and laud­ed by George S. Pat­ton. Nonethe­less, many in her home coun­try con­tin­ued to treat her with con­tempt. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she enter­tained huge crowds, and dealt with seg­re­ga­tion “head –on,” writes Grif­fith, refus­ing “to per­form in venues that would not allow a racial­ly mixed audi­ence, even in the deeply divid­ed South.” She became the first per­son to deseg­re­gate the Vegas casi­nos.

But she was also “refused admis­sion to a num­ber of hotels and restau­rants.” In 1951, when employ­ees at New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her, she charged the own­er with dis­crim­i­na­tion. The Stork club inci­dent won her the life­long admi­ra­tion and friend­ship of Grace Kel­ly, but the gov­ern­ment decid­ed to revoke her right to per­form in the U.S., and she end­ed up on an FBI watch list as a sus­pect­ed communist—a pejo­ra­tive label applied, as you can see from this declas­si­fied 1960 FBI report, with extreme prej­u­dice and the pre­sump­tion that fight­ing racism was by default “un-Amer­i­can.” Bak­er returned to Europe, where she remained a super­star (see her per­form a med­ley above in 1955).

She also began to assem­ble her infa­mous “Rain­bow Tribe,” twelve chil­dren adopt­ed from all over the world and raised in a 15th-cen­tu­ry chateau in the South of France, an exper­i­ment to prove that racial har­mo­ny was pos­si­ble. She charged tourists mon­ey to watch the chil­dren sing and play, a “lit­tle-known chap­ter in Baker’s life” that is also “an uncom­fort­able one,” Rebec­ca Onion notes at Slate. Her estate func­tioned as a “theme park,” writes schol­ar Matthew Pratt Guterl, a “Dis­ney­land-in-the-Dor­dogne, with its cas­tle in the cen­ter, its mas­sive swim­ming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its own­er, its bath­rooms dec­o­rat­ed like an Arpège per­fume bot­tle, its hotels, its per­for­mances, and its pageantry.” These trap­pings, along with a menagerie of exot­ic pets, make us think of mod­ern celebri­ty pageantry.

But for all its strange excess­es, Guturl main­tains, her “idio­syn­crat­ic project was in lock­step with the main­stream Civ­il Rights Move­ment.” She wouldn’t return to the States until 1963, with the help of Attor­ney Gen­er­al Robert Kennedy, and when she did, it was as a guest of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and the orga­niz­ers of the March on Wash­ing­ton, where, in her Free French Air Force uni­form, she became the only woman to address the crowd. The visu­al recount­ing of that moment above comes from a new 600-page graph­ic biog­ra­phy that fol­lows Bak­er’s “tra­jec­to­ry from child ser­vant in St. Louis,” PRI writes, “to her days as a vaude­ville per­former, a major star in France, and lat­er, a mem­ber of the French Resis­tance and an Amer­i­can civ­il rights activist.”

In her speech, she direct­ly con­front­ed the gov­ern­ment who had turned her into an ene­my:

They thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a com­mu­nist.  And you know, too, what that meant.  Those were dread­ed words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hound­ed by the gov­ern­ment agen­cies in Amer­i­ca, and there was nev­er one ounce of proof that I was a com­mu­nist.  But they were mad.  They were mad because I told the truth.  And the truth was that all I want­ed was a cup of cof­fee.  But I want­ed that cup of cof­fee where I want­ed to drink it, and I had the mon­ey to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I want­ed it?

Bak­er made no apolo­gies for her wealth and fame, but she also took every oppor­tu­ni­ty, even if mis­guid­ed at times, to use her social and finan­cial cap­i­tal to bet­ter the lives of oth­ers. Her plain-speak­ing demands opened doors not only for per­form­ers, but for ordi­nary peo­ple who could look to her as an exam­ple of courage and grace under pres­sure into the 1970s. She con­tin­ued to per­form until her death in 1975. Just below, you can see rehearsal footage and inter­views from her final per­for­mance, a sold-out ret­ro­spec­tive.

The open­ing night audi­ence includ­ed Sophia Lau­ren, Mick Jag­ger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minel­li. Four days after the show closed, Bak­er was found dead in her bed at age 68, sur­round­ed by rave reviews of her per­for­mance. Her own assess­ment of her five-decade career was dis­tinct­ly mod­est. Ear­li­er that year, Bak­er told Ebony mag­a­zine, “I have nev­er real­ly been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of uni­ver­sal broth­er­hood so much, that I have put every­thing I have into them, and I have been blessed.” We might not agree with her crit­i­cal self-eval­u­a­tion, but her life bears out the strength and authen­tic­i­ty of her con­vic­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Watch Nina Simone Sing the Black Pride Anthem, “To Be Young, Gift­ed and Black,” on Sesame Street (1972)

James Bald­win Bests William F. Buck­ley in 1965 Debate at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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