Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was a Parisian dancer and singer, the most famous American expatriate in France.
Josephine Baker was born in a poor, Black slum in East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 3, 1906, to 21-year-old Carrie MacDonald. Her mother hoped to be a music hall dancer; meanwhile, she was forced to take in laundry. She was of mixed ethnic background: Indian/Negro (as they would say in 1906) or Native American/African American (as we would say today). She descended from Apalachee Indians and Black slaves in South Carolina. Olive-skinned Eddie Carson, her father, was a vaudeville drummer and was not seen much by his daughter.
At the age of eight Josephine was hired out to a white woman as a maid; she was forced to sleep in the coal cellar with a pet dog and was scalded on the hands when she used too much soap in the laundry. At the age of ten she returned, thankfully, to school. "There is no Santa Claus," she said. "I'm Santa Claus." Josephine witnessed the cruel East St. Louis race riot of 1917. She moved from the St. Louis area at the age of 13 and emigrated out of the United States at 19. "That such a childhood produced an expatriate is not surprising," Phyllis Rose, one of her biographers, commented.
"Because I was born in a cold city, because I felt cold throughout my childhood … I always wanted to dance on the stage," Josephine offered as explanation of why she was determined to be a dancer (in the first of her five autobiographies). From watching the dancers in a local vaudeville house she "graduated" to dancing in a touring show based in Philadelphia (where her grandmother lived) at age 16. She had already been married twice: to Willie Wells (for a few weeks in 1919) and to Will Baker (for a short time in 1921). She took her second husband's name as her own— Josephine Baker.
It is hard to discover true biographical facts, especially when it comes to show people. We know that Josephine joined the chorus line of the touring show of Shuffle Along in Boston in August 1922. The comedy was produced in Manhattan by a renowned African American songwriting team, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake; it was the first all-Black Broadway musical. Subsequently, Josephine was in New York for the Chocolate Dandies (at the Cotton Club) and the floor show at the Plantation Club in Harlem (with Ethel Waters). She drew the attention of the audience (at the end of the chorus line) by clowning, mugging, and improvising. With her long legs, slim figure, and comic interludes, her special style as an entertainer evolved.
Baker Goes to Paris
African American performers were established in France already in the 1920s. "Bricktop" (Ada Smith, with her signature red hair) had moved from Harlem to Paris, where she owned a locally famous nightclub on the rue Pigalle. Bricktop claimed to have taught Josephine personal grooming, clothes-sense, and even writing—everything— from the moment the younger woman's arrived in Paris in October 1925. This is an exaggeration. Josephine went to Paris for a top salary ($250 a week; more than twice what she was paid in New York) to gyrate at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées as a variety dancer in La Revue N're. With other African Americans, including jazz star Sidney Bechet, she introduced le jazz hot and went on to international fame on the wave of French intoxication for American jazz and exotic nudity.
The Parisian cultural scene was ready for things African in the 1920s. African American music had penetrated to such European classical composers as Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky since at least 1908. But Parisians became aware of jazz only in the 1920s (the first jazz band in Paris played in 1917). African art and sculpture was one of the influences on the Cubist movement and Art Deco. Josephine's oval head, resembling a temple sculpture, and lithe body, her "geometry" (according to Dance Magazine) was perfect for anything Cubist or in the Art Deco style.
She was the favorite of artists and left-intellectuals such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, e.e. cummings, Jean Cocteau, Aleksander Wat, and Ernest Hemingway (who thought she was "the most beautiful woman there is, there ever was, or ever will be," in hyperbole). But Josephine had not been to Africa and she knew nothing of the culture there, at that time. She had a relatively small repertoire of dance steps ("Charleston knock-knees for eight counts, camel-walk eight counts") and a small vocal repertoire, too (her keynote song, "J'ai deux amours," was repeated over and over again in various contexts); but the core materials were absolutely perfect with her body style and fitted to the era.
Josephine endured a breach-of-contract lawsuit about her abandoning Le Revue N're for a star billing at the Folies-Berg'ere in 1926. (The legal case was one of many in her life.) She was 20 when she was a sensation in the "jungle" banana dance: naked but for a string of rubber bananas around her waist. Soon banana-clad Josephine dolls were selling like hot cakes! Feet stomping, elbows flapping, knees bent, she would bump and grind a Charleston, puffing out her cheeks and crossing her eyes and always having a perpetual grin on her face (as stated by American Heritage). She was likened to a snake, a giraffe, and a hummingbird. Also, in 1926, she recorded her throaty voice for the first time. Magazine covers and posters added to her fame.
In December 1926 she opened her own nightclub in Pigalle called Chez Joséphine (later moved to rue Francois I, a more fashionable spot). She became a chic, affluent woman with expensive idiosyncracies, like parading her pet leopard down the elegant Champs Elysées. She went on a world tour for two years in 1928-1930, and received thousands of love letters. But back in France she said: "I don't want to live without Paris… It's my country. … I want to be worthy of Paris." In addition she met, in the fall of 1926, Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian "count" who became her lover and manager (until about 1935, when they split up in anger, Abatino still loving her). In 1934 she took a title part in an operetta, a revival of Offenbach's La Créole at the Théâtre Marigny, opening in December for a six-month run. Josephine was in America with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936 when Abatino died. While he was alive, Abatino helped Josephine evolve from a mere eccentric dancer to integrating her songs and speech and dance in performances; from being "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville" to being "one of the high-paid stars in the world," in part by controlling her scripts and the first two volumes of her memoirs. Returning to the Follies in the 1930s, her photographs, 20 feet high, flanked the theater entrance. In France she was called simply "Joséphine" or "La Baker." In 1937 Josephine officially became a French citizen.
A Heroine in World War II
She married Jean Lion, a French industrialist. She had a miscarriage in 1938, and Lion divorced her in 1940, during the early months of World War II. When Germany occupied Belgium, Josephine became a Red Cross nurse, watching over refugees. When Germany finally occupied France itself, she worked for the French Resistance as an underground courier, transmitting information "pinned inside her underwear" to Captain Jacques Abtey. In October 1940 she began complicated journeys from London to Pau in southwestern France, through Spain and Portugal, and to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (where she had theatrical bookings), back to Marseilles. In December 1940 she had the leading role in the Marseilles municipal opera production of La Créole, but she was sued for breach of contract after leaving Algiers, Algeria in 1941. A mysterious near-fatal illness with peritonitis kept her in a Casablanca clinic from June 1941 to December 1942. It left Josephine weak, but not too weak to entertain troops in North Africa and the Middle East as a sublieutenant in the women's auxiliary of the Free French forces. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance.
After the war Josephine returned to her beloved Paris, regularly appearing in the Follies. In June 1947 she married Jo Bouillon, a jazz bandleader; after several miscarriages they separated in 1957. In 1950 at her 300-acre estate in the Dordogne (with a medieval chateau), Les Milandes, she began adopting orphaned babies of all races and religions. She retired to look after the estate and family in 1956, but soon debts amounting to $400,000 were accrued, and she was forced back into show business in 1959, in a musical autobiography called Paris mes Amours, which opened at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in May.
Josephine more than once looked back to her childhood in America disconsolately. She was in a bind which many find themselves in: bound to one country but in love with another. She could never forgive the United States for its racism. But her song (written by Vincent Scotto), J'ai deux amours, was a constant reminder: "I have two loves: my country and Paris." She visited America in the 1930s and 1940s and was disappointed. In 1951 her trip to New York was sullied by a racial incident at the Stork Club, where she was at first refused service. Walter Winchell, a columnist, linked her to communism (the "Communist conspiracy" was in the news, led by Senator J. McCarthy). In 1952 she told a reporter in Buenos Aires, Argentina: "The U.S. is not a free country. … They treat Negroes as though they were dogs." As late as 1955, on her return to the United States, she was questioned by immigration officials about her alleged anti-American sentiments.
President John F. Kennedy made a difference to America. Josephine returned in August 1963 to attend the civil rights march in Washington, D.C. In October of that year she made a trip to Manhattan to sing, dance, and "fight bias" (as The New York Times said). She flaunted her age: she said she was 60 (she was only 57), but she seemed ageless to reporters.
Problems in Her "True" Home
In France there were also problems: she was evicted from her chateau with her adopted family in 1969. Princess Grace Kelly of Monte Carlo (who was also an American expatriate) and her husband, Prince Rainier, offered the Baker family a villa in Monaco. The Rainiers helped to put on the spectacle Joséphine in 1975, in which Josephine, aged 69, had a dozen costume changes and, with tears streaming down from sequined eyelids, "stole the show" once again.
Describing herself, Josephine Baker said "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." (Ebony report of interview in 1975.) More than that, Josephine Baker pulled herself out of poverty and the trauma of humiliation and made herself an international star, principally due to her love of dancing.
She died in her sleep of a stroke on April 12, 1975, after 14 successful performances of Joséphine. The Roman Catholic funeral service was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, which was, after all, her true home.
Further Reading on Josephine Baker
There are five autobiographies of Josephine Baker: Les Mémoires de Josephine Baker, Vol. I (Paris, 1927); Voyages et Aventures de Joséphine Baker (with Marcel Sauvage), Vol. II (Paris, 1931); Une Vie de Toutes Couleurs (memories presented by André Rivollet), Vol. III (Grenoble, 1935); Les Memoires de Josephine Baker (collected and adapted by Marcel Sauvage), Vol. IV (Paris, 1949); and Joséphine (with Jo Bouillon and Jacqueline Cartier), Vol. V (Paris, 1976). Books about Baker include Bricktop (1983) by her friend Bricktop (with Jim Haskins), Josephine Baker (1988) by Bryan Hammond (personal collection) and Patrick O'Connor (theatrical biography), Jazz Cleopatra (1988) by Phyllis Rose, and Josephine: The Hungry Heart (1993) by Jean-Claude Baker (who called Josephine "Mother" although he was never legally adopted) and Chris Chase. Among the best articles are Ebony (June 1991), Dance Magazine (July 1989), American Heritage (November 1989), and New Republic (6 November 1989).