Monday, August 1, 2011

The extraordinary life of Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

Last week, as I was discussing our European summer travels with a girlfriend, she asked: "What was your favorite part of the trip?" What a difficult question to answer. We covered so much ground, saw so many people, had so many adventures... Then I reflected a bit longer, and a special moment came to mind; the day I finally got to visit Josephine Baker's former home, le Château des Milandes, in the Périgord where we spent a few days on our way to Spain.

To many in the United States, Josephine Baker's name is familiar, but they can't quite place her. Quel dommage

In France, 36 years after her death, "La Baker" [La Bah-kair] has not been forgotten.

She was born Freda Josephine Mc Donald, a poor black child from St Louis, MO. She survived the 1917 racial riots but they made a strong impression on her. Finally, at age thirteen, Josephine ran away from home. She liked dancing, and a few months later, she became a Vaudeville performer at the Plantation Club in Harlem. These were exciting times (the "Harlem Renaissance") in this predominantly-black neighborhood of New York city. Young Josephine later joined popular Broadway revues where she quickly drew attention and positive reviews for her dancing skills, enthusiasm and her comedic talent. 

Josephine wanted more. 

In October 1925, she arrived in Paris where once again, her energy, unique personality and infectious enthusiasm got attention. Her big breakthrough came with a part in "La Revue Nègre," a jazz show. Josephine performed several acts including "La Danse Sauvage" (the Wild Dance). She was exotic, sensual, and performed half-naked in a feathered skirt. These were the Roaring Twenties, and the integrated Paris society loved her. The famous cabaret Les Folies Bergère became her step stone to fame. She starred in a new act where she performed naked (in her iconic costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt.) By the late 1920s, she had become a major celebrity all over Europe where she was the highest-grossing (and most photographed) artist. In the early 1930s, she was the first African American female to star in major motion pictures. Along the way, Josephine worked hard at developing her considerable talents. Her singing voice, stage and public persona evolved over time as she became one of the 20th century most revered entertainers.

The Jazz Age: Energetic and goofy performances in the early years

Her Parisian breakthrough show

Josephine, in the iconic "banana skirt"

A stylish star

"Toast of Paris"

"La Baker"- a true star!

Josephine never forgot her humble beginnings but by the mid-1930s, she was a very wealthy woman, and she spent lavishly, on clothes, jewelry and, as an animal lover, on pets. She visited and fell in love with a run-down property in the heart of the Périgord region of France, les Milandes. One can only imagine what the place meant to the poor, illegitimate street child who had left the slums of St Louis so many years ago. 

Les Milandes, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle

One of Josephine's greatest disappointments came in 1935-1936 when she visited the United States and starred in the Ziegfield Follies. American audiences were not receptive to the idea of a black woman with so much wealth and power. The show drew negative reviews and Josephine was replaced after a few performances. The New York time called her: "the Negro Wench." Devastated, Josephine returned to Europe, where she married a Frenchman (her third husband) and became a French citizen.

"It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose, if one was held back by one's color? 
No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises."
-- Josephine Baker

Josephine was determined to give back to France, her adopted country. She detested Hitler and his ideology (she was black; her husband was Jewish.) After World War II started and part of the country was occupied by German troops, she volunteered to help the Free French Forces (led by General Charles de Gaulle from London) and took enormous risks throughout the war. She worked as a Red Cross nurse; raised money; entertained troops in North Africa. She hid Jewish refugees and weapons in her castle. She also worked as a spy and an underground courrier for the French Resistance (hiding secret messages in her band's music sheets.) After the war, she was awarded several distinctions including the prestigious Legion of Honor. 

Immortalized by the Harcourt photo studio

Josephine lived to defend causes she believed in. She fought against racism all her life. She married her fourth husband, Joe Bouillon, at Les Milandes after the war. Together, they started adopting orphan children from all over the world (Josephine was never able to have children of her own and gave birth to a stillborn child during the war.) Overtime, the family grew to include ten boys and two girls. Josephine loved her "Tribu arc-en-ciel" (Rainbow Tribe) and was a devoted mom to her children. She showcased her family at les Milandes to advocate tolerance and brotherly love. Thanks to her considerable fortune, Josephine created a theme park around the castle, complete with a nightclub (where she performed on occasion,) a hotel, a J-shaped pool, an experimental farm, and the replica of an African village. She named her magic kingdom: "Le Village du Monde" (the World's Village.)

Move over, Angelina Jolie!
Josephine and her "Rainbow Tribe"

A devoted mom to her 12 children

Happiness at "Les Milandes"

Josephine's World Village was the Perigord's leading tourist attraction for many years. 

When Josephine left Les Milandes and ventured in the outside world to finance her project, she could see that racism was rampant. In the 1950s, she took another trip to the United States, and had a much-publicized altercation with the owner of the Stork Club in New York city where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly was there that night and she was outraged. She immediately left the club with her entourage, in support of Josephine. The incident (in spite of negative press articles later accusing her of communism and fascist sympathies) gave Josephine a lifelong friend, who would stay by her side until the end. In the next few months, Josephine launched in a crusade for racial equality and for the rest of her long career, refused to perform in clubs or theaters that were not fully integrated. 

Grace and Josephine, lifelong friends:
 the later years
Even though she was attached to France, she also worked with the NAACP and openly supported the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, during the famed March on Washington, she was the only woman invited to speak at the rally next to Martin Luther King. That day, she proudly wore her Free French uniform and decorations.

March on Washington, 1963
Salt and pepper. Just what it should be.
-- Josephine Baker, looking over the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington

Josephine's tumultuous life, excesses and extravagant spending started to take a toll on her health and her finances. "The World's Village", her children's education and other humanitarian projects would soon bring her to financial ruin. Joe Bouillon, her husband, finally left her in 1964 but they remained friends. Her creditors were relentless. In her 60s, Josephine went back to the stage to try and save Les Milandes and her family. At sixty-two, she looked phenomenal and her voice was as powerful as ever. Her fans still remember her moving 1968 performances at the iconic Olympia theater in Paris. Unfortunately, students' riots put an end to the show and it proved a financial disaster. In the following clip, she interprets "Quand je pense à ça," (When I Think About That). On some videos, you can see tears running down her face as she sings.

Her many friends attempted to help. In April 1964, French actress and icon Brigitte Bardot, at the peak of her career, made a TV appearance to ask the French to help save Josephine and her family. They had never met. It took a lot for the famously reclusive French star to step out and speak on public television.

Brigitte Bardot, 1964 TV interview
In 1969, Les Milandes estate was sold for a fraction of its value. Josephine had lost. After sending her children away, she was evicted, but she refused to leave the castle. The pictures of an older, exhausted Josephine, sitting on her kitchen steps, surrounded by a few belongings,  are heartbreaking. 

The end of Josephine's dream
An indomitable spirit, Josephine regrouped. She was saved by her friend and patron, Princess Grace, who gave her a place to live and financed a come-back tour in 1975, "Joséphine à Bobino" (Josephine in Bobino.) The shows were sold out months in advance. "La Baker" was finally back in Paris, her beloved city, to commemorate her 50 years in show business. All of Josephine's friends showed up on opening night. There were many étoiles (stars) in the audience, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Josephine was the brightest of them all. As always, she delighted audiences, singing classics:"J'ai Deux Amours" (I Have Two Loves), "Dans Mon Village" (In My Village), "Hello Dolly" and more. On opening night, the public gave Josephine a fifteen minute standing ovation.

The great comeback she deserved

Josephine was back at the top, where she belonged. In 1973, she was overjoyed when her comeback performance at New York's Carnegie Hall was a success. For the first time since her humble beginnings in Harlem so many years ago, she felt welcome in her native land. The final curtain was about to fall. In April 1975, four days after her first Bobino performance in Paris, Josephine died in her sleep of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. She was 68. I like to think that her big, generous heart finally went to rest. On the day of her funeral, thousands of people showed up to follow the hearse carrying her body through the streets of Paris, paralyzing traffic for hours. She was given full French military honors (the first American woman to ever receive them) and the ceremony was broadcast live on French television. Heads of state, celebrities, and anonymous fans joined her family and the entire "Rainbow Tribe". In the days that followed, Princess Grace organized a funeral service in Monaco, where Josephine was finally laid to rest. That day, her sister declared:

"There were three things that Josephine clearly loved. 
She loved her children first of all; she loved the theater; and she loved France."

The French have not forgotten "La Baker." They flock to "Les Milandes" every year to discover Josephine's former home, as I did last month. In Paris, many walking tours highlight "La Place Joséphine Baker" (Josephine Baker's square) in the 14th Arrondissement. On the blue street sign, she is identified as a "Music hall artist; Sub-lieutenant of the Free French Forces; Philanthropist." In the summer, Parisians take a swim in the beautiful Josephine Baker pool, by the Seine river.

Some of Josephine's gorgeous dresses are displayed
at Les Milandes
Place Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker pool, Paris
It seems "La Baker" is still around, smiling that great big smile of hers. I envy those who knew her, and I will let Al Stewart wrap up this story for us:
"I was born too late to see Josephine Baker
Dancing in a Paris cabaret
Born too late to see Josephine Baker
She must have been great in her heyday."
-- A bientôt.

If you would like to know more about Josephine, YouTube has many excellent videos of her performances. Here are some favorites: - Brigitte Bardot's call for help on French television (1964) Rare images of Josephine and her family seen at the end. In French, with the inimitable Bardot voice! Josephine's moving interview during the Bobino comeback show (1975). In French (she spoke it fluently.) A 68-year old Josephine talks about her love for her growing children who could not attend the show.  - One of her last  performances in London (1974), in "Sourire" (Smiling, always Smiling.) Ah, that voice; those costumes, the feathers! See how 67-year old Josephine works them! Move over, Lady Gaga! - A 1950s version of her hit "J'ai Deux Amours" (I Have Two Loves). My favorite version is on Le Château des Milandes website. Click on the British flag and the song starts playing while you browse the site. I could listen to her voice for hours! - A very interesting documentary about Josephine, and the life of African Americans in the 1920s. Chasing a Rainbow (in English.) - Josephine sings Hello Dolly, at the Olympia, Paris (1968.) She is trying to raise enough money to save her home, les Milandes - Josephine sings "Vous Faîtes Partie de Moi" (Cole Porter's "I've Got you Under my Skin".) Early recording.
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  1. Words cannot describe how much I love Josephine Baker. And words cannot describe how much I love this post. :)

    What a wonderful, thorough biography! Thank you so much. I am a fan of hers (seen a few films) and always admired her. But I honestly didn't know all there was to know. Now I do!

  2. Merci Jennifer. So glad you enjoyed this story. Words can't describe how much fun I had doing research on Josephine; visiting les Milandes this summer; and finally spinning this little tale... V.

  3. Dearest Véronique,

    This has been one of the most enjoyable and eye-opening posts I've read in a LONG time! It took me a while to listen to all the interviews and watch the videos but it was worth while!
    La Baker was indeed a True STAR! So refreshing to read, see and hear something like that at this time and age. She was smart; speaking indeed fluently French and her performance was extraordinary.
    Like you write: 'Move over, Angelina Jolie!' And what a noble person compared witth the emotion-centered aproach of Ophrah Winfrey who was only greedy!
    It also spoke volumes about Grace Kelly and even La B.B.! By the way, B.B. impressed me with her natural speech, off the top of her head without a teleprompter as our B.O. is using!
    And what an honor for being recognized by the French military for all her accomplishments; some very heroic.
    A grande dame indeed.
    Thanks for sharing this with us. Those that don't stop by to read this post miss out big.

    Lots of love,


  4. Merci beaucoup Mariette! So happy you liked reading about Josephine's life-- and what a life it was. I am sure she was not easy to live with. In fact, she was well known for being hot tempered. Still, she was trying so hard to be a decent human being. Surely, in this day and age, this counts for something. A bientôt! V.

  5. What an amazing post Veronique. The depth of detail is quite remarkable. I was aware of JB and her loving relationship with France, but to in the detail you provided. Many thanks for the fun and educational post.

  6. Wonderful post Veronique ! An excellent article, which will surely encourage some to dig even deeper to learn more about JB and her life... but already you have given us plenty of food for thought and appreciation...

  7. Wonderful story about Josephine Baker, what a fascinating woman. To her imitators - move over! When Steve and I were in New York city some years ago, we went to the restaurant "Josephine's" which is operated by one of her sons. It was very fun, energetic and lively place, never forget it. Continue your great posts!

  8. -- Craig. Merci. Your former French home was not that far from Les Milandes. You and Josephine were practically neighbors! ;-)
    -- Owen. Many thanks. What are you doing online? I thought you were on vacation ;-)
    --Cherie. Merci, as always, for the support and encouragement. I certainly hope you have added "Les Milandes" to your list of places to see while visiting le Perigord this fall!

  9. I always felt that Josephine Baker was a star that cannot be emulated, in any detail or aspect. The most impressive of her images is when she is wearing the banana skirt. Thank you for the wonderful and informative post.

  10. What a wonderful post! This is the first time I have read your blog, but not the last...

    I have always known about Josephine Baker, but you have really opened my eyes - I learned so much from you today! I am at work, so cannot see the videos, but I will come back tonight on my home computer.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful informative writing!

  11. -- Olga. Merci my friend. I love the banana skirt too. There are a lot of pictures of Josephine wearing it out there. I even saw pics of Beyonce "imitating" Josephine in a banana skirt of her own!
    -- Bisbee. Welcome to my blog and thank you for leaving some feedback. I am glad you enjoyed reading about Josephine's life. Come back anytime!

  12. v-i cannot believe my computer did not let me see this post until last night...i had a very slight knowledge of La Baker- but was ALWAYS curious .... and as owen put it, i will begin the gathering and reading quest, as i find stories such as her's quite rewarding -in that there is this indomitable spirit...difficult to live with, bien sur...spirit and difficulty often walk hand in hand. my girl has always been edith piaf-love her, love her story and love her music. maybe someday you will do a post about i have said before the methodology of your presetation/education is simply BEYOND excellent! so glad i finally got to visit and talk. as always looking forward to the next one....stay well -g

  13. -- g-- I have missed you this week, but assumed you were on the coast, chillin' ;-) Thank you for stopping by. Ah, Edith Piaf... You may have inspired another story... Did you notice I just added a category named "Les Grands/Great Ones"? This one has Edith's name all over it! A bientot!

  14. A great piece on the incredible Josephine Baker. As you know she is buried in the cemetery in Monaco and you'll find a photo if you go to

  15. Thank you, Jilly. One day I may visit the Great Josephine in Monaco. Veronique

  16. Wonderful post! Thanks so much...I am inspired.


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle