Josephine Baker enters
by Geoff Dunlop
Voltaire had an eye for the ladies and enjoyed a good party. His rival Rousseau raised the Noble Savage to the status of hero. Even so, would the prejudices and assumptions of these early arrivers at Le Pantheon in Paris allow them to welcome the elevation of Josephine Baker into France's monument to the great and the good. They (and their numerous admirers) considered themselves to be giants of the European tradition, masters of thought, guardians of high values. Josephine Baker was a woman of African-American heritage, the granddaughter of slaves, who first found fame as a dancer, gyrating in public, wearing a skirt of rubber bananas and little else. And what would the Nobel prizewinner Marie Curie make of being joined by such a person? She was the first woman to be honoured with a place in the Pantheon for her scientific advances. Would she not consider Josephine Baker rather lightweight to share such august and prestigious surroundings?
But President Macron did not decide, in 2021, to elevate Josephine Baker to these heights simply because she was sizzlingly sexy, a total original and locked into the hearts of the French. It was also because she shared a distinction with two of the other five women who are now memorialised in the Pantheon. Germaine Tillion, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Josephine Baker were all three members of the French Resistance during World War II. Of the three, only Josephine was born into poverty in St Louis, Missouri, a city in which segregation and racist violence were the norm. And only she chose to become a French citizen by rejecting a hostile United States of America. In later life, when she had put away her banana skirts, she stood alongside Martin Luther King during the campaigns for civil rights in the1960s, where she said:
"You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you 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.
“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
The French government statement announcing Josephine Baker's symbolic installation in the Pantheon (her bodily remains stay in Monaco, where she died) praise her as a “resistance fighter and indefatigable anti-racist. She was in all the struggles which joined together people of goodwill in France and throughout the world”.
Yet it is not only her courage and her lifelong fight for justice that made Josephine Baker great. What you can see below is the magical quality that made her one of the most arresting and liberating artists of the twentieth century. She was someone who generated gigawatts of positive energy, to lighten up even the darkest of times, in a century that was so often plunged into darkness. She helped to make sex and the body and the colour of her skin things to be celebrated, not to be buried beneath layers of fabric and deceit.
PRINCESSE TAM TAM (1935) Director Edmond T Greville
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in1906, to Carrie McDonald, a domestic servant and - when the opportunities arose - a travelling entertainer in the racially-divided venues of the Mid-West. Officially, Josephine's father was a musician, Eddie Carson. But, as an adult, she often said that her blood father was in fact white, probably her mother's German employer.
As a child, Josephine listened to her maternal grandmother's descriptions of life as a slave, and experienced a harsh childhood of her own. Occasionally she would be on the road, and even on stage, with Carrie and Eddie, but most of the time it was early to work in the master's house, then on to odd jobs around St Louis and earning extra cash by dancing in the streets. Her formal education was, at best, intermittent.
Josephine's feelings about the hardships of growing up in St Louis would never mellow. At the age of 11 she witnessed the East St Louis riots, in which a white mob turned on a relatively wealthy black community. Up to 200 black citizens were murdered, under the acquiescent gaze of the police. More than 6,000 people were displaced from their homes...many of them permanently, as they feared to return.
“When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away. Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France... It was like a fairyland place.
"The hate directed against the coloured people ... in St. Louis has always given me a sad feeling … How can you expect the world to believe in you and respect your preaching of democracy when you yourself treat your coloured brothers as you do?”
Eddie Carson had disappeared early from Josephine's life, and Carrie remarried. At 13 Josephine got a job as a waitress - and a husband of her own. That marriage lasted only a matter of weeks. But she was now independent enough to join the Jones Family Band, street entertainers from whom she could learn how to stand out in the crowd. She was a natural for the role of the "pony", the odd one out at the end of the chorus line, who acts the fool and looks like she doesn't know how to dance. Then, of course, she suddenly dances with spectacular skill. This was a trick she would perfect on stage and on tour. It would continue to work well for her when she later arrived in Paris.
Even in Paris, in the late 1920s, she kept some of the mugging and eye-rolling that she had learned on the streets. And, in those classic Baker performances, there is something of the streets on show. Their freedom as well as their hardship. The body unbound. A quality that would eventually come to characterise the USA itself.
Her biographer, Phylliss Rose, describes her dance:
“She was a revelation of possibilities in human nature... The animal inside of every human being wasn’t dark, tormented, savage. It was good-natured, lively, sexy rather than sensual, above all funny.”
Some people (myself included) find the funny faces and other tropes of the minstrel tradition, along with the racial stereotyping they imply, troublesome. Yet there is no sense of servility or ingratiation in Josephine Baker's performance. She uses humour and even ugliness as means of disrupting the dominant European tradition of what dance should look like. She plays with the idea of primitivism and subverts it, making it a source of strength and independence rather than subjugation. She is having a good time.
The leap from the streets of St Louis to Paris was not, of course, direct. The Jones Family and another troupe, the Dixie Steppers, kept Josephine employed, touring
and learning through her teens. At 15 she acquired another husband, Willie Baker, and soon received an offer to join a chorus line in New York. Her husband and mother said no, stay at home. Josephine said yes. She kept Wllie's name for the rest of her life but abandoned the marriage forthwith.
In New York, as you'd expect from an energetic dancer, Josephine landed on her
feet, by getting a place in the line-up of SHUFFLE ALONG, This was the first
all-black musical revue that broke through to the wider New York public. The rich, white public. It was a sensation. Nevertheless, it could not secure a Broadway theatre, so the new audience braved the journey northwards from mid-town Manhattan up to Harlem, just as they did to hear (and dance to) Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.
SHUFFLE ALONG has been credited with giving birth to the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most significant cultural moments in American history, not to say a landmark in the still painfully slow journey towards an equal society. Other artists whose careers were transformed by appearing in SHUFFLE ALONG include
Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall and the revue's composer, Eubie Blake.
In her next production Josephine could bid farewell to scene-stealing from the end of the chorus line. She was given a starring role in LA REVUE NEGRE, another all-black production that wowed New York. But this one transferred to Le Theatre des Champs-Elysse in Paris, and for Josephine Baker there was no turning back. It was1925. She was 19.
“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States… A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore… I felt liberated in Paris.”
“(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 colour? No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises.”
“I like Frenchmen very much because, even when they insult you, they do
it so nicely.”
On the ship to France with Josephine and the other members of the
REVUE NEGRE company was the New Orleans born saxophonist Sidney Bechet. He proved to be - in his way - as significant an export to Europe as she was. The French made him, like her, their own, and he died in Paris, in 1959, as an honorary French cultural treasure, alongside such luminaries as Cocteau and Ravel. His blistering use of the soprano sax as a rival to the trumpet had the same kind of power as Josephine Baker's body in motion. This was jazz as a transformative act, just like her dancing. The French were ready for it. They needed it. They
embraced it. They made love with it.
While French men gazed at Josephine, French women cut their hair into short, shiny bobs and bought clothes that further revealed their body shape and the length of their legs. Some even darkened their skin with walnut oil, encouraged by fashion magazines. At the same time Josephine would use creams to lighten hers.
But it wasn't only the French who fell under her spell. Picasso portrayed her, and praised her "legs of paradise". Ernest Hemingway called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw". George Balanchine, the choreographer, born and trained in St.Petersburg, said this:
"She is like Salome. She has seven veils. If you lift one, there is a second, and what you discover is even more mysterious, and you go to the third, and you still don’t know where you are. Only at the end, if you keep looking faithfully, will you find the true Josephine.”
Josephine appears in the diaries of the Count Harry Kessler, someone who seemed to know everyone in Europe seriously engaged in art, ideas and politics. And he'd party with most of them. Kessler describes how one evening, after a dinner party in his Berlin apartment, Josephine takes off her clothes and dances for him and his guests around a bronze sculpture, La Méditerranée, by Aristide Maillol, a nude more classically proportioned than the dancer:
“She…became preoccupied with it, stared at it, copied the pose, rested against it in bizarre postures…. Maillol’s creation was obviously much more interesting and real to her than we humans standing about her.”
On another occasion he describes a scene that comes straight out of the Weimar Berlin of our imagination:
"At one o’clock, just as my guests were gone, a telephone call from Max Reinhardt. He was at Vollmoeller’s and they wanted me to come over because Josephine Baker was there and the fun was starting. So I drove to Vollmoeller’s harem on the Pariser Platz. Reinhardt and Huldschinsky were surrounded by half a dozen naked girls, Miss Baker was also naked except for a pink muslin apron, and the little Landshoff girl (a niece of Sammy Fischer) was dressed up as a boy in a dinner-jacket."
One thing is certain, Josephine Baker in the 1920s was frequently naked and often consumed by sex. She was a true free spirit, and nobody seemed to object. She had many lovers (some say more than a thousand), male and female. Some of her lovers were surprising, like the aestheticised, uptight architect Le Corbusier. It was obvious to everyone that they were utterly unsuited for each other yet they shared a childlike intensity in their obsession with sex together. Other lovers were just as you'd expect, like the ever-adventurous, gender-fluid author Collette - an older woman no less spirited than Josephine who had herself performed at the Moulin Rouge.
Josephine soon accumulated the signs of her status as an icon of the times - not least her pet cheetah, Chiquita, complete with a diamond -studded collar for special occasions. She was paraded at home, on the street and in the theatre. A good companion indeed.
Yet Josephine's hedonism could never be mistaken for a lack of professionalism. With her exploding income she could afford to buy whatever she pleased. So she acquired singing lessons, with the intention of transforming her high-pitched siren-like voice into a musical instrument with increasing beauty and depth.
Compare 1927 with 1934 ...
By the mid-thirties, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, the frenzy of the twenties had run out of steam. Times were very hard and danger was in the air. Popular entertainment found a different escape route from high octane hedonism - soft-focus romance and fabulous glamour. Josephine Baker could supply these with ease, although there was always ta good chance that she would explode with energy and humour. But she could never escape from being the exotic outsider, the mysterious other. She was never quite "one of us" for the majority of her public. The gilded cage is not a coincidental destination for her character in the film ZOU ZOU, released in1934.
In 1936 the call came from New York: Come and contribute to a revival of ZIEGFIELD FOLLIES, a lavish entertainment built, in this case, around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin. The original Follies were inspired by the Follies Bergere and ran on Broadway between 1907 and 193, spinning off a number of movies. Perhaps Josephine should have been warned by the fact that she was due to sing just one song, and a rather lacklustre one as well. Unfortunately - no, tragically - she was given a savage review by the New York Times, who described her performance as wooden. Wooden? How could that be? But worst of all, the critic referred to her as a "Negro wench". Did she have a chance? In New York she did't even have a gilded cage. She was back
on the streets.
Worse than worst of all, Josephine was replaced in ZIEGFIELD FOLLIES by
Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrity stripper. She returned to France, her spirit broken. In 1937 she married husband number three, Jean Lion, an industrialist, and used her new marriage as a device for gaining French citizenship - a formal rejection of the United States. She also combined her resources with her husband's to set top home in a fifteenth-century chateau in Novelle-Aquitaine, south-western France - a distraction at least, if not a compensation, for the humiliation she continued to feel for years to come.
Within a few years most people in Europe found themselves in a state of humiliation, as Hitler's forces crossed the borders of Germany in all directions, and took control of their homelands. But the humiliation felt by the French had a bitterness of its own, when they witnessed the Nazi's parade down the Champs-Elysee, and raise their flag over the Arc de Triomph, and all other symbols of French pride.
The obvious thing for Josephine to do was hide in chateau until things improved. But she was never that kind of woman
I now turn to John Henley, the Paris correspondent of The Observer, for
his compelling account of Josephine Baker's role as a member of the French Resistance. (Published to coincide with her instatement at Le Pantheon.)
In November 1940, two passengers boarded a train in Toulouse headed for Madrid, then onward to Lisbon. One was a striking Black woman in expensive furs; the other purportedly her secretary, a blonde Frenchman with moustache and thick glasses.
Josephine Baker, toast of Paris, the world’s first Black female superstar, one of its most photographed women and Europe’s highest-paid entertainer, was travelling, openly and in her habitual style, as herself – but she was playing a brand new role.
Her supposed assistant was Jacques Abtey, a French intelligence officer developing an underground counter-intelligence network to gather strategic information and funnel it to Charles de Gaulle’s London HQ, where the pair hoped to travel after Portugal.
Ostensibly, they were on their way to scout venues for Baker’s planned tour of the Iberian peninsula. In reality, they carried secret details of German troops in western France, including photos of landing craft the Nazis were lining up to invade Britain.
The information was mostly written on the singer’s musical scores in invisible ink, to be revealed with lemon juice. The photographs she had hidden in her underwear. The whole package was handed to British agents at the Lisbon embassy – who informed Abtey and Baker they would be far more valuable assets in France than in London.
So back to occupied France Baker duly went. “She was immensely brave, and utterly committed,” according to Hanna Diamond, a Cardiff university professor, who is researching a book on Baker's wartime exploits.
“There’s a lot we don’t know, and may never know, about exactly what espionage work she did, the secrets she actually transmitted,”
"Much of what is known," said Professor Diamond, "comes from a book Abtey published in 1948. He was a maverick figure – a bit of an operator. He was clearly telling his own story, making his own case, at least as much as he was telling hers. He was not, let’s say, disinterested, and it’s proving hard to track down original source material to verify his account.”
What is sure, though, is that Abtey recruited Baker after meeting her – reluctantly – in late 1939, introduced by a patriotic promoter. Determined to show her gratitude to the country that had made her, and to contribute to the war effort, the star was already performing for Allied troops, and working with refugees for the Red Cross. Later in the war, she would refuse to perform for Germans.
“She had an unconditional love for France. She wanted to do her bit for the patrie,” said Diamond. “She also intuitively understood the dangers of Nazism. She had little formal education, but she associated Nazism with the racism she’d known.”
Abtey was wary of what Baker could offer and sceptical of what a female superstar could realistically do. But she talked him into setting her a test, sending her to the Italian embassy where she extracted sensitive information from an attaché and successfully brought it back.
Abtey, who is widely assumed to have been the singer’s off-and-on lover, became her handler. He trained her in basic spycraft techniques – invisible ink, writing up your arm, reading upside down – but soon saw her real usefulness lay in her magnetic charm, and effortless ability to switch roles. She was a performer, and spying would be her greatest part.
“She subverts our notion of what spying is,” said Diamond. “It’s subterfuge, going under the radar. But here’s this huge star, hiding in plain sight. No one suspects her. And most importantly, she can travel anywhere, and take an entourage with her. For Abtey, that’s priceless. As much as she’s a spy, she’s an espionage facilitator.”
From early 1941 onwards, that is what Baker did. Instructed by London to base themselves in North Africa, she and Abtey went to Morocco. The singer travelled from Casablanca to Lisbon, Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, giving concerts, attending receptions in her honour, flattering attachés, politicians and envoys – and passing handwritten notes, generally pinned to her bra, to British agents.
For some months, she was seriously ill with blood poisoning, possibly after a miscarriage. But even while she was convalescing, her hospital room became a venue for secret meetings, with diplomats, personalities and officials summoned to Baker’s bedside where gossip was exchanged and secrets smuggled out.
With North Africa, following the Allied invasion of 1942, now De Gaulle’s operational and administrative springboard, Baker resumed travelling across the region after her recovery, giving concerts for the troops, fundraising for the resistance – and gathering intelligence as she went. In 1944, she enlisted as a women’s air force auxiliary.
“She absolutely saw herself as a soldier,” Diamond said. “She saw what she did as the best way, the most effective way, for her to fight her war. And while there’s this cloud of uncertainty over what exactly she passed on, she certainly passed on plenty.”
Ultimately, said Diamond, Baker “realised very early that she could use her celebrity for a cause. And she did. She took huge risks. She deserved her Légion d’honneur – and her Croix de Guerre.”
There is a fourth act to this narrative. It is a familiar story of a slow fading of former glory. After the war Josephine continued to perform in France and around the world. She was always a professional and still gifted - her singing got better and better - but she was now burning embers rather than blazing fire.
With her fourth husband, the conductor composer Jo Bouillon, she gathered together and adopted a dozen children from around the world, as a kind of infant United Nations There was perhaps a confusion in her mind between making an emotional and even political gesture against racism and creating an extended family. She even got the children to perform for paying audiences at her chateau. But her maternal skills were not highly developed and the experiment did not end well. Several of her children had nothing to do with her in their later lives.
Josephine's relationship with the United States remained deeply problematic. It seems there was a widespread determination to keep humiliating her. Yet she resisted every act - and there were many - of discrimination. One incident, at The Stork Club, in Manhattan, turned into a major drama, when it became clear that she and her party were not going to be served - on the orders of the owner. After an hour of waiting Josephine called both the NY deputy police commissioner and her lawyer, who happened to be a prominent activist against segregation. The young Hollywood actress Grace Kelly, who was at another table that evening, argued for Josephine to be treated properly. She was ignored, although the two women were to became firm friends.
In subsequent weeks The Stork Club became the scene of more widesprerad protest, and its licence was put in jeopardy. In the end, the establishment remained unscathed and, in what looks very like an act of revenge, the prominent newspaper columnist Walter Winchall campaigned that Josephine Baker should be punished, not the club. Her US visa was revoked for the next ten years.
In 1963 her life of activism in the cause of equal rights reached its culmination, when she joined Dr Martin Luther King Jr on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In French military uniform and full medals, she was the only woman to speak to crowd of 200,000 and, through television, to the world.
Back in France, she continued to perform and appear on chat shows. Marriage four ended, her family scattered and her celebrity friends rallied round - not least Princess Grace of Monaco, formerly the movie star Grace Kelly. She continued to protect Josephine and saved her when she was evicted from her chateau for
non-payment of rent. Josephine lived her final years in Monte Carlo, close
to her friend.
Princess Grace and Jackie Onassis arranged a benefit performance for her, a few days before her death. In the final hours before being struck by a brain hemorrhage she got to read the reviews for this final show. They were a triumph - with no mention of a Negro wench.
In her early years in France, Josephine created her anthem J'ai Deux Amours - I have two loves. In the lyrics of the song the two loves are her country and the great city of Paris. But there is no doubt the double meaning that declares her freedom to behave as she chose, with passion
“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.”
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