10 (little) Things You Might Not Know About Joséphine Baker

Josephine Baker was a dancer at the Folies Bergère, a jazz singer, an actress, a sex symbol, a member of the Resistance and a civil rights activist.

Josephine Baker was the most Parisian American, the most sultry music hall dancer and the most sardonic of icons.

She was the first black woman to become a star in Europe and was a symbol of the liberated Roaring Twenties. Baker performed so much that it is sometimes hard to grasp the true complexity of her character. Some can only picture a wild dancer, with a belt of bananas around her hips. Others remember the resistant, who was a spy for the French, or the 1960s civil rights activist...

So that you don't miss any part of this romantic and exciting story, here are 10 (little) things that you might not know about Josephine Baker.

Cinderella of the Folie Bergère

Josephine Baker's younger years read like a modern, American version of Cinderella. Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, she grew up in poverty, and received little love or affection from her mother Carrie, working before and after school to provide for her family.

Joséphine Baker enfant, à Saint-Louis.
Joséphine Baker enfant, à Saint-Louis.  © Getty

Even as a child, she loved to dance and amuse an audience. But who could have imagined that at only 20 years old, she would be the darling of the Folies Bergère, and dressed by the greatest couturiers of Paris?

But there's no room for a fairy godmother in Josephine Baker's story; she made her own luck. Josephine was an eternal optimist, she took her fate into her own hands and eventually managed to be hired as a dressmaker for the Dixie Steppers, before joining the team of Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical performed by a black cast. 

A Mask 

When Josephine Baker crossed the Atlantic in 1925, she was not a complete unknown. She had already danced on Broadway, where she was known for her expressions.

This was her ultimate weapon throughout her career: she would squint and contort her face. It was a weapon because it had a great effect on the audience, but also because it acted as a valuable facade for Baker, herself; it was a form of defence. 

Joséphine Baker en 1928.
Joséphine Baker en 1928. © Getty

This clowning allowed Josephine to hide her fear, her anxieties and her complexes. As a little girl she was told that she was not beautiful. And when she began her career as a dancer, in the United States, she was considered too small and thin.

« I do not pretend to be pretty. I have pointy knees and breasts like a seventeen year old boy. But if my face is thin and ugly, if my teeth come out of my mouth, my eyes are beautiful and my body smart». (An interview by Baker for Marseille-Matin, 21 November 1931).

The Incarnation of a Colonial Fantasy

Josephine Baker expressed herself through dance. She was a sensation in the famous Revue Nègre (1925), in Paris, as critics and audience members were fascinated by her body and the energetic, crazy, almost possessed way she moved.

In the final dance of the show, she appeared topless, with a collar of feathers around her neck. This costume was a direct response to the fantasy French society had about the peoples and traditions of Africa: wild, primitive, but dominated countries. Josephine did not however come from the colonies, but from New York, and the steps she danced came from the most fashionable American dances of the moment, like the Charleston.

The most popular dance when Baker arrived in Paris was, by contrast, the waltz. Baker's frenetic and erotic performances therefore represented a revolution, as powerful as the premiere of the Rite of Spring.

A Life Well-Lived 

In 1926, the Revue Nègre troupe returned to Paris, after a triumphant  European tour. Josephine then joined the Folies Bergère where she would become a great star.

Here she is on the stage, wearing her famous banana costume. She was a huge success and even influenced Parisian fashion: women wanted a tanned complexion and flattened their hair to their skull, with 'Bakerfix'.

La célèbre ceinture de bananes de Joséphine Baker dans 'La Folie du Jour', spectacle des Folies Bergères en 1926.
La célèbre ceinture de bananes de Joséphine Baker dans 'La Folie du Jour', spectacle des Folies Bergères en 1926. © AFP

She was barely 20 years old when the journalist and writer Marcel Sauvage asked her to write her memoirs... Though she had only just left her teens, she had already experienced enough for a lifetime, from the poverty of East Saint Louis to her rebirth as a sex symbol of the Roaring Twenties.

Fervent Criticism 

Robert de Flers, a member of the French Academy and an influential critic for Figaro, wrote that the Revue Nègre was "lamentable transatlantic exhibitionism that takes us to the depths of depravity". 

This violent, racist criticism, was just the beginning of the verbal violence  Josephine was to face in Europe. The climate was becoming increasingly xenophobic, Adolf Hitler would soon publish Mein Kampf

During her second European tour in 1928, her shows were the subject of fervent criticism. In Vienna, Catholic churches rang their bells to announce the arrival of this "degenerate". In Munich, her show was canceled to maintain public order, as the clashes between her supporters and critics were too violent. 

Some were motivated by racist sentiment, they could not understand people paying to applaud a black dancer. The Catholic Church meanwhile was against the nudity and obscenity of the show's choreography. In Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, they protested the exorbitant price of tickets and the lavishness of the costumes.

Jazz and Opera Singer 

Josephine Baker's career spanned some 50 years, though it began with the whole world coming to Paris to see her move her hips, she gradually also started to sing. On the eve of the Second World War, Josephine Baker sold out the Casino de Paris, dancing and singing in a small jazzy voice.

In 1934, she was offered the title role in La Créole, Jacques Offenbach's operetta. An operetta? Josephine feared that it would not be "jazzy" enough. Could she measure up to Mr. Offenbach? "He's dead," they told her. And so, she took on the role, filling the Théâtre Marigny for weeks. 

Baker had an unshakeable confidence on stage, in front of the public. It was another story when she was in the recording studio or on a movie set; her first film, The Siren of the Tropics, was a failure. 

Married (at least) Five Times 

Josephine Baker's sexual appetite was as lively as her choreography. In Paris, she had a number of lovers, including Georges Simenon, the author of the Maigret series. 

Then, in 1926, it was love at first sight when Baker fell for an Italian, Giuseppe Abatino, who called himself Pepito. For ten years, he acted as her manager, and financial and artistic advisor. The two lovers tried to make the press believe that they were married and that Pepito was the heir of a great aristocratic family, but it was not so. 

Josephine did not in fact want to marry Pepito. She had already been married twice, at 13 and then at 15. It was until 1937, that she accepted a proposal from Jean Lion, a rich broker. Their marriage allowed Josephine to obtain French nationality.

She went on to have two other husbands: the quiet and devoted Jo Bouillon, with whom she adopted twelve children and built a huge estate, the Milandes. She then married Robert Brady, an American artist but they divorced after just a year. 

Josephine Baker et Jo Bouillon, après un spectacle, en 1951.
Josephine Baker et Jo Bouillon, après un spectacle, en 1951.  © Getty

007 Baker

When France declared war on Germany in 1939, the intelligence services recruited from all circles; artists who performed on all the great European stages, socialites who spent their evenings at salons. Josephine could easily move throughout Europe and had the perfect profile.

They were however slightly reticent to recruit Baker, as the shadow of Mata Hari, the Dutch dancer who betrayed the French during the First World War, still loomed large. 

Engagée par les services de renseignement français pendant la Première guerre mondiale, la danseuse et courtisane Mata Hari est accusée d'espionnage en faveur de l'Allemagne et est fusillée en 1917.
Engagée par les services de renseignement français pendant la Première guerre mondiale, la danseuse et courtisane Mata Hari est accusée d'espionnage en faveur de l'Allemagne et est fusillée en 1917. © Getty

Josephine's intelligence, charm, and love of France managed to convince them. She first worked the Parisian party scene, where she gained the confidence of the officers. When the Germans invaded France and Paris, she took refuge in the South and then in North Africa. She was hospitalised for a long period, suffering from three cases of sepsis, but as soon as she left the hospital, she joined General de Gaulle's Resistance movement. 

After the war, she travelled to the United States several times, to add her voice to the growing civil rights movement. She had suffered at the hands of racism and segregation, so took every opportunity to defend the African-American community: by attending trials, giving statements to the press and going to meetings with business leaders, but also by adding clauses to her contracts to prevent any discrimination at the entrance to theatres.

En août 1963, Joséphine Baker est invitée à prendre la parole à Washington, à l'issue de la 'Marche pour l'emploi et la liberté' des Afro-américains.
En août 1963, Joséphine Baker est invitée à prendre la parole à Washington, à l'issue de la 'Marche pour l'emploi et la liberté' des Afro-américains.  © Getty

Josephine Baker's Disneyland 

In the aftermath of the war, Josephine wanted to prove that friendship between all cultures was possible. She adopts twelve children of various nationalities, with her husband Jo Bouillon. These adoptions garnered lots of criticism: she was accused of collecting children like souvenirs. Even Jo Bouillon was worried by the extreme generosity of his wife and  her lack of pragmatism.

Joséphine Baker et ses enfants, dans sa propriété des Milandes, en Dordogne.
Joséphine Baker et ses enfants, dans sa propriété des Milandes, en Dordogne. © Getty

Josephine made her dream a reality. She moved her family to a large castle in the Dordogne, where she constructed a sort of tourist attraction, building two hotels, a miniature golf course, tennis courts, a wax model museum, stables, a post office, a gas station and even a heliport...

This huge operation and the cost of educating twelve children soon put Josephine Baker in extreme debt. Despite her best efforts, by 1968 the operation was in ruins. The castle was sold, and Josephine Baker gave up on her dream.

Her Style 

Josephine Baker was capable of extravagance and simplicity. One day she go out walking with her leopard, Chiquita, wearing furs and luxurious dresses. The next day she would stay in the suburbs, in Vésinet, gardening in simple shirt and taking care of her many animals.

Joséphine Baker et son guépard Chiquita, en 1930, à Deauville.
Joséphine Baker et son guépard Chiquita, en 1930, à Deauville. © Getty

She had experienced such poverty as a child - an extreme lack of love and money - that she took full advantage of all that was offered to her and was interested by everyone who crossed her path.

She always sat in the front seat of taxis to talk to the driver. While traveling, she became friends with hotel employees - in Israel, in 1973, one even invited her to drink tea in their village.

The crowd and members of the French State at her funeral, in 1975, were therefore also arguably paying tribute to her committed, generous nature as well as her artistry. The Mayor of Paris, the Minister of Culture, the son-in-law of General de Gaulle, actress Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco were all present at her funeral.