I’ve had Josephine in the Drafts for so freakin’ long now because I was trying to collect as many facts, photos, videos, and everything that makes each Human Hall OF Fame Inductee great. That, and the fact I have been writing my face off and spending nights researching #LateNightHistory Facts up the ying-yang. However I digress, Josephine was a world renown Jazz symbol in Europe, was often seen wearing scantily clad skirts during performances including her famous banana skirt (bottom left) that not even Beyoncé could pull off, served as a spy for the French Resistance during WWII, adopted more children than Angelina Jolie, and formed a small exotic pet army of cheetahs, goats, pigs, and other critters who she found along the way.
Josephine was far beyond any fictional character you’d ever dream up in a film. Her story is something film narrators would voice-over, “A great tale of how a flamboyant independent woman fought against social injustice, marveled in the spotlight, and still lived a life of secrecy few would think was possible.”
Earnest Hemingway described her as “The most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. How did Josephine earn such high praise from a historical legend? Let’s start at the beginning…
Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, to her mother Carrie and father Eddie (there is much speculation of who the biological father truly was). Eddie soon abandoned Josephine and her mother along with any ounce of pride he attached to the McDonald family name. At only the age of eight years old, Josephine began work as a maid and babysitting rich white families’ children. By 13, she was married to her first husband Willie Wells, but because Josephine relies on no man, she quickly divorced and joined an all-black vaudeville group.
Josephine toured the U.S. performing various comical skits with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers. When the bands split up, Josephine approached a production company with a show called Shuffle Along and pleaded that she was perfect for the job. Because of the times, she was denied over reasons being she was “too skinny and too dark”, but her relentless pursuit eventually earned her a spot when a dancer fell out.
She quickly became the star of the show when she intentionally acted silly rolling her eyes on stage. Her electric performance, show-stopping ability to capture the audiences intrigue, and comedic spirit brought in crowds for sold out shows.
She remarried an American named Willie Baker in 1921 at age of just 15, in which she decided to keep his name despite remarrying several more times. With her latest popularity in New York City and family troubles at home with her mother, she traveled to France as the people were more welcoming and less concerned about the color of her skin.
“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black,” she said. “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.”
Like in The Empire State, her fame skyrocketed as her erotic performances combined with untraditional fashion, the inclusion of non-western forms of art, and her newly adopted cheetah “Chiquita” at guard close by. Even so, at times Chiquita escaped the orchestra pit and would scatter musicians and dancers across the stage. This added to the fun, even for the performers who may have needed a new pair of pants.
When not appealing to vast audiences in-person she was busy starring in four films on the silver-screen: the silent film Siren of the Topics (1927), Zouzou (1934), Princess Tam Tam (1935), and Fausse Alerte (1940). She continued this path of European domination with no signs of slowing down. In 1931, her song “J’ai deuxs amours” became her most successful as she exhibited a delicacy that conveyed she was truly ahead of her time.
Josephine’s hit song J’ai deuxs amours
Throughout the 1930’s Josephine came under new management selling out theaters in Paris night after night. She met her next future husband Jean Lion, a French Industrialist who helped her gain her citizenship. Despite her icon status in Europe, her critics in the U.S. never relented – TIME Magazine referred to her as a, “Negro wench whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris”. Pundits described her voice as “too-thin” and “dwarf-like” unable to fill the theaters in New York.
In 1937, France declared war on Nazi Germany for their role in invading Poland. As her counterparts in the U.S. would learn a few years later, careers stalled and goals shifted towards winning the Second World War. Josephine was recruited to join the Deuxième Bureau (French Military Intelligence) because of her innate ability to mingle with high-ranking government officials while surrounded by Italian bureaucrats and Japanese Officers.
At cocktail parties she would swoon the attendees while keeping an open ear to any intelligence information she could muster. Operating within ministries and embassies was second-nature and not out of place for someone with her star power. When Germany invaded France, she fled to the South and bounced between neutral European nations. To avoid suspicion, she wrote in invisible ink on her sheets of music as she relayed the locations of Nazi targets; harbors, airfields, troop positions, and points of interest in transmissions to England.
In 1941 Josephine flew with her entourage to North Africa for undercover missions in the French Colonies near Morocco. She blamed her health for the trip, but the real reason was to gather intelligence where she often hid it in her underwater to avoid detection.
She traveled to British, French, and American bases to entertain the soldiers who occupied them. The Free French didn’t have an entertainment network like the USO Tours of today, so Josephine made the best with what she could.
After the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance for her heroic service. General Charles de Gaulle made her Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur – solidifying her a newly appointed Knight.
Josephine was invited to return to the United States in 1951 to perform for a nightclub in Miami. As segregation was in the decline, Josephine was honored with a 100,000-attendee parade in Harlem along with the title of NAACP’s “Women of the Year”. She pushed the barrier and made it a goal to change social injustices seen in years past.
Her role in Civil Rights Activism working for the NAACP led to a lifetime membership in the group, despite her often controversial positions where many blacks shunned her stances. On Sunday, May 20th, 1951, the day became the official “Josephine Baker Day”.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Josephine began adopting children she often referred to as her Rainbow Tribe citing “children of different ethnicities and religions can still be brothers”, further putting Angelina Jolie to shame. She had two daughters; Marianne (French) and Stellina (Moroccan); and 10 sons; Janot (Korean), Akio (Japanese), Luis (Colombian), Jari (Finnish), Koffi (Ivorian), Jean-Claude (French), Noel (Israeli), Brahim (Algerian), and Mara (Venezuelan-born).
Throughout the 60’s and early 70’s she performed lightly with stars in the United States like Mick Jagger and Diana Ross. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and going into a coma, she died on April 12, 1975.
She left a legacy where many will marvel at for generations. She was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, the Hall of Famous Missourians in 1995. Jokes aside, Angelina Jolie cited her as a model for “multiracial and multinational families”. Her radical notions of defying racism, performing against social norms, fighting for justice, and living the epitome of not giving a crap to inflict the most positive change on the global stage is the very definition of the legacy she leaves behind today.
On April 6, 2018 THE Human Hall OF Fame OFFICIALLY Inducts Josephine Baker into the prestigious group of humans who changed the world. She joins the likes of Food Wizards, Space Travelers, War Heroes, Guardian Angels we humans refer to as Humanitarians, Film Icons, and so many more – Human HOF