by Louise Quick
Where to start with Josephine Baker? She was a glitzy 1920s star, a World War Two spy, and the only woman to speak during the March on Washington. Let’s begin where she did, with dancing!
Google ‘Josephine Baker’ and you’ll quickly find images of her wearing little more than a skirt made of bananas. Even describing it doesn’t sit well in the 21st century, but this was the iconic outfit she wore when she burst onto the scene while performing in Paris.
Like most overnight successes, Baker’s was preceded by years of hard graft. She was born into poverty in St Louis, Missouri in 1906, and much of her childhood was spent in and out of school helping to support her family. However, she found time to dance and, at just about 15 years old, she left home to join a dancing troupe and then be part of a chorus on Broadway. She soon caught audiences’ attention with her unique and, honestly, bizarre dance moves.
1920s France was obsessed with everything jazz and it was here that a 20-year-old Baker rocketed to fame while performing in Paris in 1926. Known as danse sauvage, her dancing resembled a wild sort of Charleston, with arm swinging, hip swaying, manic grinning, and eye-crossing. It’s funny, impressive, and amazing to watch.
The name, dancing, and slick 1920s image of Josephine Baker quickly swept across Europe as she graced stages across the continent and even starred in films, including Zou Zou (1932) and Princess Tam-Tam (1935).
By the late 1920s it’s said she was one of the highest earning entertainers in Europe – no small feat for an African American woman – and she certainly looked the part. As well as her jewels and glamorous outfits, Baker also owned an array of exotic pets, including a cheetah called Chiquita who wore a diamond collar.
In many ways, Baker was the Roaring 20s. Look up ‘1920s’ in the dictionary and there should be a photo of a glitzy Josephine Baker walking her pet cheetah.
Second World War spy
The story of Baker takes an unexpected turn with the outbreak of war in 1939, because the famous flapper star suddenly became a spy for the French military intelligence and French Resistance.
Baker’s celebrity status gave her the freedom to travel around Europe without raising suspicions. Her status also meant she had access to gatherings attended by high-ranking officials with information valuable to the war effort. It’s said she passed secret messages between the Allied powers via invisible ink on sheet music.
After the war, her work for the resistance was well rewarded with awards including the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance, as well as the title Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, (the highest French order of merit).
While Baker is remembered now for her pet cheetah and impressive dancing, her contribution to the war effort was heralded in her time. So much so that, when she died decades later, the French government honoured her with a 21-gun salute.
Civil Rights Activist
As an African-American woman growing up in the early 20th century, it’s safe to say Baker felt the impact of racism every day. Despite it all, she made a name for herself – and a big name – in Europe.
However, when she visited the USA to perform in the 1930s, her show was slated and it’s often said that her race was a big reason for that. Clearly, despite her fame, America wasn’t ready for a strong black female lead.
Two decades later, Baker returned to the USA – now with additional war hero status – and took up the fight against that same institutional racism that had tried to hold her back. The Civil Rights Movement was hotting up and she was ready to fuel its flames.
Among her stands, Baker publicly refused to perform to segregated audiences, forcing many clubs to allow African-Americans admittance. She also called out restaurants and hotels that refused her service and travelled across the USA giving talks on equality.
The NAACP actually declared 20 May ‘Josephine Baker Day’ and what’s more impressive is the fact she was the only woman to give a speech at the March on Washington in August 1963. Sharing the podium with Martin Luther King Jr, she talked about her experience returning to the USA:
“I do not lie to you when I tell you that 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.”
However, Baker had some interesting ideas on achieving equality and not all of them were exactly commendable. Take, for example, her so-called ‘Rainbow Tribe’. She adopted 12 children from across the world in an attempt to show that children of different races, ethnicities, and cultures could live together as equals.
Being part of the ‘Rainbow Tribe’ meant having press and guests visit you in Baker’s grand French home to see the experiment in action (children just existing as children, I guess). So yes, questionable by today’s standards – and probably by 1950s’ standards too.
Baker passed away at just 68 years old, but the story of her death perfectly fits her legend and brings her career full circle. On 8 April 1975, she starred in a review in Paris, celebrating her 50 years in show business. It was a sold-out hit and, just days later, Baker was found in bed having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, with her rave reviews scattered around her.
This post isn’t about holding Baker up as an aspirational figure. Yes, she was fabulous, but women’s history shouldn’t be about lauding all women as perfect heroic creatures, but instead seeing them as the complicated 3-D humans that they were – and learning about the ‘Rainbow Tribe’ certainly does that.
Plus, this post only scratches the surface of Baker’s eventful life. I haven’t even mentioned her four marriages, (and four divorces), or her chimpanzee Ethel.
Podcast: ‘You’re Dead To Me: Josephine Baker’ – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p086dx47
‘Josephine Baker, 1906-1975’ by Arlisha R Norwood – https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/josephine-baker
‘Josephine Baker, 1906-1975’ by the National Museum of African American History & Culture – https://nmaahc.si.exdu/LGBTQ/josephine-baker
About the Author:
Louise Quick is an experienced multimedia journalist, content writer, and proud history nerd.
She completed her Public History MA from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2018. Her MA project featured a YouTube cookery series, recreating Edwardian vegetarian recipes in a bid to highlight the little-known fact that many of Britain’s Suffrage campaigners were vegetarians. The project was called ‘Suffrage Eats’, (a pun she is far too proud off).
Before her MA, Louise worked as a lifestyle journalist in Dubai, but returned to the UK to pursue her love of history. She has since written forThe Guardian and All About History, and produced educational video series for Historic Royal Palaces and History Bombs.