Wednesday, 3 November 2010

La Vénus Noire: The Unconventional life of Josephine Baker


"I wasn't really naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on."

Josephine Baker, Paris - 1929
Photograph by George Hoyningen-Huene
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On a spring day in April, 1975, there traversed through the streets of Paris a funeral procession fit for a statesman. By government decree, the deceased person in question received a 21-gun military salute and it is estimated that 20,000 people lined the streets to watch the cortege pass and pay their final respects. But the honours were not for a statesman; they were for a Black, American-born woman from Missouri. In fact, she was the first American woman buried in France to ever be accorded such French military honours. She was more than just a renowned entertainer; she was a decorated war heroine and, more importantly, a civil rights activist. She was Josephine Baker - the Jazz Cleopatra, the Creole goddess, and the Black Venus of her time.

The compelling thing about Josephine Baker's story is the path that this woman's life took, beginning as it did in complete obscurity in East St. Louis, Missouri, and ending with full French honours.   

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in Missouri on June 3, 1906, to a washerwoman, Carrie McDonald and a vaudeville performer, by the name of Eddie Carson. Shortly after Freda's birth, her father left her mother, who soon remarried what turned out to be an abusive man, Arthur Martin. Freda later dropped her first name and retained retained her second; she also took the name of her husband, a railway porter by the name of Willie Baker, whom she married at the age of fifteen. (Sources:, 2010;, 2005)

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At the age of about eight, Josephine went to work as a maid for a wealthy family, where she slept in a coal cellar with the family dog. By most accounts, the woman of the house was abusive towards the young Freda Josephine who, at thirteen, ran away and found employment at the Old Chauffeur's Club as a waitress. During that time, she was married, very briefly, to Willie Wells. (In time, Josephine married and divorced three additional times: another 'Willie,' Willie Baker (whose surname she kept for the rest of her life) in 1921; a Frenchman, Jean Lion in 1937 ; and lastly, Jo Bouillon, an orchestra leader, in 1947 with whom she adopted and raise twelve children. (Source:, 2005)

Sketch of Josephine

Somehow, by the time she was seventeen, Josephine managed to join herself to The Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers, with whom she toured the United States performing vaudevillian comic skits. Once the troupes disbanded, she joined two chorus lines as a chorus-girl, in August of 1922: Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies - the first all-Black Broadway musicals produced in New York. Josephine, with her sense of comedic timing and lithe body, was loved by the audience. But as a Black woman living in the stifling era of Jim Crow laws (the racial caste system prevalent in the States at that time), Josephine's new career as a stage performer was limited; the 19-year-old Josephine, therefore, decided upon a new venture: Paris. Her 'introduction card' to the City of Light with its sophisticated society came in the form of a Revue.

Le Tumulte Noir, 1927 - by Paul Colin
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It was in Paris that the young Baker joined La Revue Negre - a defining moment in her career. She and her dance partner, Joe Alex, performed a Danse Sauvage, which captivated Parisian audiences and catapulted Josephine into instant stardom. Bare-breasted and dressed only in  a feather skirt, she simultaneously shocked and titillated  her audiences with the exoticism of her dusky skin and provocative, sensual movements, which had decidedly sexual suggestiveness to them. It was also on her arrival in Paris that Josephine met and became friends with the famed nightclub impresario, Bricktop. It was Bricktop who instructed Baker, unaccustomed to the refinement of haute couture, how to wear the exquisite designer gowns  she now began to don. (Source:, 2005) 

Bal Negre, 1927 - Paul Colin
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No sooner had La Revue Negre closed, then she starred in La Folie du Jour at the Folies Bergere where she set the world on fire when she appeared on stage in her infamous 'banana skirt.' It was during her time with La Folie that established her status as a bona fide celebrity - she went from being the highest paid girl in vaudeville to being one of the highest paid performers in the world. To add to her fame, by 1927, she was also the most photographed woman in Europe. She came to personify the hedonism and exuberant abandon of the Jazz Age. (Sources:, 2010;, 2005)

Bal Negre, 1927 - Paul Colin

Adulation for La Baker, as the French referred to her, came from all sides. Duke Ellington, for instance, described her as the consummate performer. "There isn't anything about the stage she doesn't know," he said. Ellington, who met her in the spring of 1933 during his band's first glorious trip to Paris, was so taken with her beauty and stage presence he immediately labeled her "one of the greatest entertainers of all time." Langston Hughes, who first encountered Baker when she was but a 17-year-old chorus girl drawing applause with her funny grimaces and contortions, was smitten with her from the start. "There was something about her rhythm, her warmth, her smile, and her impudent grace that made her stand out," he would recall many years later.  (Source:, 2010)

A talented mimic, Baker was shrewd enough to develop some of her artistic style by observing other performers, and one Black performer in particular.  Mabel Mercer was a singer who was making a name for herself at Bricktop's nightclub with her precise diction and meticulous attention to lyrics, and whose phrasing and interpretation Baker would emulate when she, too, ventured into realm of song.
(Source:, 2010)

Josephine in 1927

In 1936, Josephine, now an international superstar by any standard, returned to the States to co-star with Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies. If she thought that her fame would have immunized her against racial bigotry and made her more palatable to (White) American audiences, she was soon to find out how mistaken she was - and how still racially divided the United States were. American audiences absolutely rejected the notion of a cosmopolitan, wealthy Black woman as sophisticated as they were.
(Source:, 2005) 

Josephine Baker by Zig
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Josephine Baker by J. Chassaing
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Josephine ca. 1930
Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Poster for the Casino de Paris

World War II had a sobering effect on most people of that time, especially in Europe, and saw the maturing of Josephine from a frivolous entertainer to an active Resistance fighter. After the German invasion of her adopted country, France, in 1940, she joined the Resistance Movement and relayed secret underground intelligence - written on her music sheets, no less - to the Allies. She also served as a Red Cross nurse, assisting with the influx of newly dislocated and frightened refugees. Additionally, she worked as a sub-Lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. (Sources:, 2005;, 2010)

At the end of the war, though awarded the Médaille de la Résistance and decorated a Chevalier de La Légion d'Honneur by the French government in recognition of her tireless efforts and courage during the occupation, she received no such  honours or recognitions  from her  native country, the U.S., for her contributions during the war - her entertainment of the U.S. and Allied troops at the front lines and raising their morale during the North African invasion were ignored. Later, she challenged racism in the U.S., and attempted to demonstrate to the world the meaning of brotherhood by adopting twelve orphans of different races and nationalities. In between, there were two more marriages, countless affairs, financial woes and several showbiz comebacks - some more successful than others. (Source:, 2010)

Joephine's Rainbow Tribe
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Josephine, husband Jo Bouillon, and their adopted family 
Le Chateau des Milandes, France, in 1956

Decades before contemporary mega-celebrities began adopting orphaned children, Josephine pioneered the cause and began to gather round her an adoptive family - her famous Rainbow Tribe, as she affectionately called them - plucked from diverse ethnicities, colours, cultures and religions. Her family grew to twelve children in total. The purpose of her culturally diverse family was, for a 'coloured' woman who was at once celebrated and victim of racial bigotry, to prove that children of divergent colours and ethnicities could live harmoniously together under one roof - a sort of Utopian ideal of what humanity should be; what humankind could achieve.

But as with any celebrity, Josephine experienced a career down slope - her brand of entertainment was no longer relevant and found herself increasingly idle, and for longer periods of time, in between jobs -  eventually, she also found herself $400,000 dollars in debt, the result of extravagant spending, maintaining a certain lifestyle, unwise business ventures, and the cost of raising twelve children. Due to her financial troubles, and even though she would have liked to retire, she was forced to to continue performing wherever and whenever she could; she often took the children along with her on tours. At the lowest point of her difficulties, Josephine found herself evicted from her home, a place where she hoped to raise her Tribe, Le Chateau des Milandes. (, 2005)

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Josephine in 1969, upon eviction from her home - Le Chateau des Milandes
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Video courtesy of: idtvdocs - 

It was Sidney Williams, who first met Josephine during World War II when he was serving as Red Cross director of special activities for Black American soldiers stationed in England and North Africa, who coaxed Baker back on to the stage after tracking her down in Marrakesh. She was in Morocco recuperating either from bronchitis, a botched poisoning at the hands of the Nazis (whom she'd fled in France), the birth of a stillborn child, or peritonitis. (No one knows exactly what was the cause of this near-fatal illness which caused her to lose most of her hair.) (Source:, 2010)

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Josephine Baker returned to the United States during the 1950s and '60s with the intent to fight racism. Unbeknown to her, in 1951, she was about to become embroiled in a media firestorm.

She had just finished a performance at The Roxy where she was appearing to favourable acclaim, and had arrived with a few friends at New York's swanky hot-spot, the Stork Club, for a meal on the night of October 16, 1951. They were seated, by club owner Sherman Billingsley in the VIP Cub Room. The group ordered drinks - which came shortly - and they ordered steak and crab salad dinners - which, while everyone else's orders at the table were served forthwith, an hour later, Josephine's order had still not arrived. (Source:, 2009)

Baker took this personally because the Stork Club, like virtually all New York nightspots, had an unwritten policy of discouraging black patrons. When no steak seemed forthcoming, an agitated Baker and her guest, Mr. Rico, headed for a pay phone, where Baker called NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White and furiously reported the club was discriminating against her and her friends. (The next day, NAACP members picketed outside the Club and the New York papers carried the story of Josephine's complaint.)

Also dining at the Stork Club that night was Walter Winchell, the powerfully influential but pro-segregation Daily Mirror columnist. The next morning - as Winchell told the story - he was awakened by a barrage of phone calls asking about this mushrooming story that Josephine Baker had been humiliatingly abused at the Stork Club while Winchell sat by silent. Winchell at first just said he wasn't there when things exploded into an "incident." He also said it was unthinkable that Billingsley, who owed his very good living to celebrities, would disrespect one. (Source:, 2009)

Billingsley issued a statement saying the club catered to "peoples of the world, giving preference naturally to those who have patronized us over the years."

Club defenders said that service slowed down for everyone at rush hour - and in fact, one member of Baker's group that night, Mrs. Rico, said that when Baker got back from her phone call, her steak was on the table, though at that point she stormed out anyhow. (Source:, 2009)

An Al Hirschfeld sketch

The story lingered (with litigations) in the media for a few years until it eventually died. The Stork Club closed in 1965 and its owner, Sherman Billingsly, died bankrupt. The triumph, in the end, was Josephine's, who found a new purpose in the Civil Rights Movement and was as warmly received as almost any of the struggle's heroes when she appeared at the 1963 March on Washington.
(Sources:, 2010;, 2005)

Portrait by Robert Quijada
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Josephine by Gaston Girbal
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Another rendition by Gaston Girbal for a Folies Bergere show

Monte Carlo - 1969

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Performing at the Olympia, Paris, 1959
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Sketch by Peter Ambush
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"I have never 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." 
(Cited from: CBS Interactive, 2010)

Two weeks before her death
Josephine performing at the Bobino Theatre, in Paris
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Video courtesy of: PoekieFientje -

On April the 8th, 1975, the 68-year old Josephine Baker premiered at the Bobino Theatre in Paris. Among the celebrities in the audience were Sophia Loren and her close friend, supporter, and former actress, Princess Grace of Monaco. At her debut, Josephine performed some of her best-loved medleys of her long career; the reviews were glowing. 

A few nights after her premiere, on the night of the 12th, the legendary Josephine Baker who had set Paris (and all of Europe afire) in her youthful days, went to sleep - during the night, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never awoke again. She was laid to rest next to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, at Le Cimetière de Monaco. (Source:, 2005) 

Josephine Baker's funeral, Church of the Madeleine - Paris
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Le Cimetière de Monaco
Josephine Baker lies next to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon

Josephine's headstone at Le Cimetière de Monaco

Recommended readings:

Naked At The Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker (1981), by Lynn Haney: Dodd, Mead

Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker In Her Time (1989), by Phyllis Rose: Doubleday 

Josephine: The Hungry Heart (1993), by Jean-Claude Baker & Chris Chase: Random House

Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre: Paul Colin's Lithographs of Le Tumulte Noir In Paris, 1927 (1998), by Paul Colin, Henry L. Gates & Karen C. C. Dalton: H. N. Abrams 

The Josephine Baker Story (2000), by Ean Wood: Sanctuary

Josephine Baker: Image and Icon (2006), by Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Bennetta J. Rosette & Tyler Stovall:
Reedy Press

Josephine Baker: Entertainer (2006), by Alan Schroeder & Heather L. Wagner: Infobase Publishing

Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image (2007), by Benneta Jules Rosette: University of Illinois Press

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