5/19/12 – The tweet below exposed me to an aspect of Josephine Baker’s life that my internet research did not uncover. Color me unsurprised.
Since this post attempts, in some small measure, to reveal the totality of her person, I thought such salient information should be included. Notice that I say salient, not salacious. To me, it is especially important in light of the recent conversation about marriage equality. Sexuality in no way defines, limits, or reveals the measure of a man (or woman) regardless of the judgements of others and what we like to believe is “normal”. Whatever it is that we deem normal, at any given point in time ;).
An excerpt from the excellent blog, “Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters” reads:
“Baker was bisexual. Her son Jean-Claude Baker and co-author Chris Chase state in Josephine: The Hungry Heart that she was involved in numerous lesbian affairs, both while she was single and married, and mention six of her female lovers by name. Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all African-American women whom she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career. She was also reportedly involved intimately with French writer Colette. Not mentioned, but confirmed since, was her affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.”
Read the whole post here. Excellent content.
Original post 2/7/12
I’ve had a love thing for Josephine Baker since I was in my early 20’s. She encapsulates so many things that I love, the glitz and glamour of the 1920’s, jazz, goofy humor, unabashed sexuality, freedom and exotic beauty.
She was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her parents were Carrie McDonald and Vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson. Her father left the family shortly after she was born and although her mother remarried, there’s was a poor household. Josephine started working early, cleaning the homes and babysitting for wealthy White families.
At 13, she landed a job at The Old Chaffeur’s Club waiting tables where she met her first husband, Willie Wells. She was married four times, twice to Americans and twice to Frenchmen. Her surname comes from her second husband, Willie Baker, whom she married in 1921. Unlike many women of that time, she was always financially independent and never dependent on her husbands for financial support. During her lifetime, she received over 1,500 marriage proposals. How unbelievable is that? :)
She left the Old Chaffeur’s Club to begin touring the US with the Dixie Steppers and The Jones Family Band in 1919. True to her comedic nature, she performed comedic skits for them. The next show which they performed was Sissle and Blake’s production of Shuffle Along where she was employed as a dresser. She auditioned for the Chorus girl role but was told that she was “too skinny and too dark”. She learned the routines anyway, which allowed her to act as a replacement when someone was out. Her performance was peppered with goofy comedy that engaged the audience and served as box office draw.
A Woman of Firsts
She was a first to break down the walls, becoming the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture and world renowned entertainer.
Her next venture, La Revue Negre, was a turning point in her career as it took her to Paris. She performed a routine called Danse Sauvage where she danced in nothing but a feather skirt. In integrated Paris, her career thrived as she became an overnight sensation. Next, she performed La Folie du Jour at the world renowned Follies-Bergere. Her act included, what is now known as, the Banana Dance where she wore a skirt made of 16 bananas. And thus, a star was born.
In 1927, she rivaled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford for the title of world’s most photographed woman and earned more than any other entertainer in Paris. In the 1930’s she debuted in two films, Princess Tam-Tam and Zou Zou. She also used her wealth to move her family from St. Louis to her estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, France, Les Millandes. She was beloved of many artists, like Piet Mondrian, and served as an inspiration to famous writers like Ernest Hemingway.
She returned to the states in 1936 to perform with the Ziegfield Follies which proved disastrous. She was reviled by the critics and audiences alike. The New York Times called her “a Negro wench.”
Josephine Baker is renowned for the Banana dance but she was more than just a force celebre. Her talent and beauty were the things that drew me to her but I had no idea what a significant part she played in our history and I am awed by her contributions. Like many other notable Black figures throughout history, Josephine’s experiences with racism, were transformative, turning her into a lifelong civil rights activist. She never stopped fighting for justice and racial equality and displayed a passion for civil liberties.
She was awarded the Legion of Honor and given a Medal of Resistance for her work during World War II. Not only did she perform for the French soldiers, she also served as a correspondent for the French Resistance, performing undercover work that included encoding messages on her music sheets, and as a sub-lieutenant in the Woman’s Auxiliary Airforce. She was also the first American woman to receive the Croix du Guerre, a notable French military honor.
She fought diligently against racism and in the 1950’s and 60’s frequently returned to the United States to join the struggle for Civil Rights. When the New York Stork Club famously refused to serve her, she wrote telegrams to President Truman and enlisted the help of the NAACP, resulting in a media brawl highlighting the discriminatory practices of such popular establishments.
She was one of the few Black female speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, introducing “Negro Woman Fighters For Freedom”, including Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. and now Congressman John Lewis were driving forces of that protest. The NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, named May 20th Josephine Baker day in her honor. She is said to have been offered the unofficial leadership of the Civil Rights Movement by Coretta Scott King after King was assassinated but turned it down.
She adopted 12 children of different ethnicities from around the world and dubbed them “The Rainbow Tribe”. She wanted to show that children of different races could be a happy and whole family. Such generosity may be commonplace amongst stars today but it was unique in that time. She was also a lover of animals, owning a famous Cheetah called Chiquita.
She died on April 12, 1975 of a cerebral hemorrhage. 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. She received a 21 gun salute, making her the first Black American female to be buried with military honors in France. It does my heart good to know that she remains, justifiably so, an iconic figure and was so loved.