Josephine Baker was a sexy and highly sexual woman. She became the biggest African-American star in the world. Here is her strange mini-biography.
Josephine was born in 1906 on the wrong side of the tracks in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA. Her grandparents on her mother’s side had been slaves.
Her parents had a vaudeville background. Vaudeville was live variety entertainment presented in theaters. Acts ranged from singing and dancing to magic, juggling, trained animal acts, and comedy. Back in the day, vaudeville was an attractive pursuit that was profitable for some performers, but barely made ends meet for most.
Her deadbeat father was a drummer who left when Josephine was one year old. He may have been of Native American heritage. No one seems to know for sure. Her poor mother had to take in laundry to barely put food on the table.
To make matters worse, her mother found another man to marry. Another deadbeat. Oh, this one didn’t leave the family, but he didn’t work either. He spent his days sitting around reading the newspaper. The family was so poor that Josephine, her younger step-brother and two step-sisters, her mother and father all slept in the same bed.
After a while, that was too much for her, so she took to sleeping on the floor, under a blanket made from newspapers.
When she was eight years old, to bring in more money her mother sent her off to work for a white family as a maid. Things got worse, not better. Josephine slept in that family’s basement with their dog.
One time, she put too much soap in the laundry. The white woman burned her hands. Evidently, it was just mild enough not to leave permanent scars.
Despite all that, Josephine managed to stay in school until age twelve.
Things weren’t yet bad as they could be. By the age of thirteen, she was living on the streets, scavenging for food and using cardboard boxes for shelter from the weather. Needing money, she took up unskilled street performing. She emulated popular dances of the era, Trucking, The Tack-Annie, The Itch, and Messing Around.
Finally, things started to improve. She met and married Willie Wells. She was thirteen years old at the time. He was fifteen. One can only imagine what kind of sex life they had. How much did they even know about sex at that age?
Josephine’s rough street performing improved and she started performing with the Jones Family street performers in front of Booker T Washington theater.
One day, the opening act in the theater, the Dixie Steppers, failed to show. You guessed it. The Jones family, along with Josephine were invited into the theater to perform on stage.
By this time, Josephine could dance, cross her eyes, and play trombone at the same time. She had comedy talent.
By the time she was 15 years old, she had divorced Willie, and married a guy named William Howard Baker at age 15. Just like her father, William turned out to be a lazy non-worker. Isn’t it amazing how often people will marry someone who has the same traits as one of their parents?
Right around this time, the manager of the Dixie Stepper took the Jones family and Josephine to New York. During this time, Josephine’s career evolved. She was truly a professional, although not by any means well-paid.
Still only fifteen years old, Josephine won a role in the 1921 all-Black production “Shuffle Along.” She played comedy clown at the end of a chorus line who couldn’t keep up, stumbling around out of time, and making a hilarious mess, but she ended the routine with skillful dancing.
She performed in New York City for four years as her skill continued to grow. Then, at age nineteen, she moved to Paris, France.
She became a nearly instant sensation. Billed as having come from an African tribe, she could dance like no other, taking what she had learned on the streets of Saint Luis including things like popping and locking, which she was doing decades ahead of time, to the stages of Paris.
Some have said that she’s the founder of much modern dance including hip-hop. Reviewers at the time called her style ‘uninhibited.’ Beyonce, among other modern celebrities have attributed some of their skills to Josephine’s influence.
It didn’t hurt that she was an exceptionally beautiful Black woman, a rarity in France. Furthermore, it didn’t hurt that she danced nearly naked, something that was somewhat common in Paris at the time. Did I say ‘nearly naked?’ She was absolutely topless other than some necklaces, and had invented a skirt made of sixteen rubber bananas that were hung from a belt and swayed back and forth in such a way that the audience could see everything. She was obviously not afraid to be seen in her entirety. According to some reports, she sometimes performed 100% naked.
Two years later, Josephine Baker became the ‘Toast of Paris.’
Great opportunities came her way. She was the the first black star in a major motion picture, Siren of the Tropics, a silent film released in 1927. Later she starred in “Zuzu” in 1934, and “Princes TamTam” in 1935.
One of her trademarks was a spit curl, a little lock of hair that was pasted to her forehead, Betty Boop style. In fact Betty Boop, who came along in 1930, may have been inspired by Josephine Baker. Josephine started selling the paste she used for that spit curl, calling it BakerFix, and made a literal fortune with her acting plus that product.
Another trademark, besides nudity in performing and the spit curl, was that she seldom if ever wore high heels, preferring flats. That was probably influenced by her dancing.
While many people have a housecat or a dog, Josephine fell in love with Chikita, a cheetah, giving her kitty a diamond collar that matched Josephine’s diamond bracelet. Josephine were sometimes spotted around Paris in her white convertible Rolls Royce, with Chikita by her side. She often performed with Chikita on stage. Sometimes the cat would wander down to the orchestra pit, scaring the musicians, which added to the show.
She fell in love with Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a former stone mason from Sicily. Unlike her father and now estranged second husband, Pepito actually worked. He became her agent. She couldn’t marry him because she was still technically married to William.
Already on a spectacular projectory, with Pepito’s management, she became the most successful Black woman in Europe.
With all her success, she still missed America. She pestered Pepito to get her a booking on Broadway. He got her a starring role in the 1936 Zigfield Follies. However, this was America. She couldn’t drink from ‘white’ drinking fountains, couldn’t use ‘white’ bathrooms, or eat in ‘white’ restaurants. She had to use the service entrance of the very theater in which she was performing.
As you can imagine, she went back to France as soon as the Zigfield gig was done.
In time, she could have married Pepito, but he died of stomach cancer when she was 30 years old.
She counted among her friends Jean Cocteau, who is described in Wikipedia as “French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic.”
Ernest Hemingway called her the ‘most sensational woman anyone ever saw.’
Picasso featured her in art.
So what about her sex life? When asked, she would say she believed sex was a good workout, it was fun.
She had many affairs with men, sometimes picking up random guys in nightclubs. Women too. She had an affair with Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who was the other famous Black woman in Paris at the time. Ada was a singer, dancer, and owned a nightclub in Paris.
Ada “Bricktop” Smith
According to a Wikipedia article, Josephine also had lesbian affairs with French novelist Colette, and possibly Frida Kahlo.
Time went on. She continued in her success. In 1937 she married Jewish French industrialist, Jean Lion. For a year, they had a wonderful time, riding horseback, flying in private planes, going fox hunting, and wining and dining with the biggest of celebrities. She left Jean after fourteen months, at least in part because of her many affairs with both men and women.
Along came World War II. She hated the Nazis. They were like prejudiced white people in America, but they tormented Jews instead of Black people. Josephine also loved France so much, the country where she was invited to dine with white people for the first time in her life, the country where everyone adored her for who she was rather than shun her just for her skin color, that she signed up as a spy with the French Resistance.
She also performed for the troops. She never charged any money for these performances. At the same time, being the celebrity that she was, she could wine and dine with many influential people, including Nazi dignitaries. She was able to get next to them – in bed one would assume, listen to their secrets, and pass them on to the French military intelligence and eventually President Charles deGaul.
At one point, she was asked to set up an army entertainment camp in Morocco. She did entertain the troops, but it was really a cover for her continuing spying activity. While in Morocco, she nearly died from the last in a series of miscarriages, probably brought on by improper abortions. This one was so bad that she developed peritonitis and a blood infection. Her uterus was removed.
Even as she was still recovering from that, she continued not only her spy work, but also, along with a entourage, she entertained the troops, charging no money, and allowing no civilians in the audience.
When the German men spilled the beans, ‘mansplained’ as one biographer called it, she wrote notes that she folded into her panties. She had no problem passing through customs as she went from country to country. No one was going to strip search the famous Josephine Baker. Instead, customs officials asked for her autograph.
Another bold trick she used to smuggle information was to write in invisible ink on her sheet music. Of course she’d always be carrying sheet music in her business.
When she was forced to leave France, she took out as many Jewish refugees as she could fit in her Rolls Royce.
The war ended. Time went on. The little girl who grew up abused and in abject poverty remained one of the biggest and wealthiest stars in Europe.
In 1947 at the age of 41, Josephine married orchestra leader, Jo Bouillon. Jo Baker and Jo Bouillon.
By the age 45, she could sing in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Yiddish.
May 20, 1951 was declared Josephine Baker day by the NAACP.
Even though she could perform at the world-renowned Stork Club, she evidently couldn’t sit in the audience. When the management tried to expel her, Grace Kelly, later to become Princess Grace of Monaco, held her arm and walked out with her, including Grace’s entire entourage. They became close friends.
Also in 1951, while performing at the Stork Club, she complained about their policy of discouraging black audience members. Her friend Walter Winchell did not come to her defense, she she got mad at him. He retaliated by calling her a Communist in his newspaper column. That, among other complications, resulted in the government canceling her visa. Once again, she had to return to France.
She came back a few times to the United States, where she was also a celebrity, but not on the same scale as in France. In the US, she was still a ‘Negro’ and relegated to only designated restaurants, bathrooms and hotels. At one point, she was turned down by 36 hotels because she was black. People were still so fucked up about race in America that her magnificent performance in the follies earned her bad reviews.
Here’s a Time Magazine review:
“Josephine Baker is a Saint Louis washwoman’s daughter who stepped out of a negro burlesque show and into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris during the booming 1920s. In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has a head start. The particular tawny tint of tall and stringy Josephine Baker’s bare skin stirred French pulses, but to Manhattan theater-goers last week, she was just a slightly buck-toothed young negro woman who’s figure might be matched in any nightclub show, who’s dancing and singing could be topped practically anywhere outside France.”
Shortly after the war, and possibly starting before, she began executing a brilliant idea, one many years ahead of its time. In 1936 she had purchased Château des Milandes, a chateau with a village that she hoped to turn into something like Dollywood, with peacocks, a J-shaped swimming pool, hotel, rides, and much more.
She also started adopting children, but not just any children. She wanted variety for a very special reason. She initially wanted a white child, a black child, a yellow child and a red child. She did manage to adopt White, Black and Asian children, but never managed to find a ‘red’ – American Indian child.
In total, she had twelve kids, ten boys and two girls, that she called her Rainbow Tribe. The kids she selected came from varied backgrounds, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim. She was intent on proving that people of different backgrounds can get along just fine. She said, “They will serve as an example of true democracy and be living proof that if people are left in peace, nature takes care of the rest.”
Most of her kids grew up to become successful, although one did commit suicide as an adult.
One of her children, Finnish-born Jarry, came out as gay at the age of 15. Uncharacteristically, Josephine, herself a practicing bisexual, threw him out, forcing him to live with his adoptive father, Jo Bouillion, by then in Argentina. This must have been due to what she figured would be negative publicity for her Rainbow Tribe. But still! Right?
How was Josephine as a person? People say she was sweet and kind, but also could act like a demanding brat, in the way that rapid wealth can spoil people.
When in America, she was a big civil rights advocate, being the only female speaker in the 1963 March on Washington.
When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, his wife, Coretta Scott King, asked Josephine to lead the civil rights movement, but she turned it down out of consideration for the safety of her children.
The Château des Milandes experiment never quite worked out. If you’ve ever owned a village with a chateau, then you know they can absorb a lot of money. In fact, Château des Milandes ate up all of Josephine’s fortune. By 1968, she was flat broke, and was evicted from the villa. Leaving her home of 32 years was not easy for her. She had to be removed bodily.
Fortunately, her friend actress Grace Kelly, gave her an apartment in which she could stay and live in style for the rest of her life.
In 1975, at the age of 68, Josephine Baker was still a very well-regarded celebrity. A sold-out show celebrating Josephine’s fifty years in entertainment was arranged at Carnegie Hall. She performed brilliantly. The show was attended by Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, Jackie Onasis, among others.
Four days later, she died peacefully in her bed, surrounded by newspapers all with glowing reviews of her performance.
20,000 people attended Josephine Baker’s funeral.
One thought on “Josephine Baker”
A perfect tale of “rags to riches.” Proof that hard work and perseverance pays off. The Time review sounds like it was written by a racist.