Top 25 interesting facts about Josephine Baker


 

*Originally published by Molli on October 2019 and Updated by Vanessa R in October 2022 and Updated by Vanessa R in September 2023 and Updated by Vanessa R in January 2024

Josephine Baker was a superstar in the 1920s. An American who made France her home, she was also the first black woman to achieve international fame. She went by various nicknames, which included the “Black Pearl” and the “Bronze Venus.”

Ms. Baker was practically worshipped by her fans, and rightfully so! She was independent, a flapper, a symbol of the Jazz Age, a civil rights activist and a spy during World War II.

Josephine Baker lived a very interesting life, and there are a lot of interesting facts to learn about her! Keep reading for my top 25 favourite facts about Josephine Baker.

1. France was Josephine Baker’s second home

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergère, Paris in 1926 by Walery – WikiCommons

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri. There’s actually quite a bit of mystery surrounding her birth and the identity of her father. Officially, her father was a drummer named Eddie Carson. But, Baker’s mother gave birth in an almost exclusively white hospital in St. Louis. She was also allowed to stay in the hospital for several days after the birth.

In the early 20th century, the United States was extremely segregated, and St. Louis was no exception. If Baker’s mother gained entry into the hospital and was allowed to stay for so long after giving birth, it was likely because a white man (assumedly Baker’s real father) was able to pull some strings. This theory was never proved, but it makes a lot of sense!

The segregation in the United States is what led Baker to France. She had already moved from St. Louis to Harlem, New York, where she found greater acceptance, but it was hard to work as a black entertainer in the early 20th century.

In 1925, she moved to Paris and began working. She was a hit, and was instantly loved by the Parisian public!

2. Josephine Baker is most famous for her “banana dance”

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker, posing in her famous banana costume in Paris in 1927 by Reannon Muth – Flickr

When Baker arrived in Paris and began working as a dancer, she was well-loved by the public. Her signature dance was dubbed the “banana dance!” This was thanks to the risqué outfit Baker wore when dancing. Well, by outfit, I mean a bra and a skirt made from plastic bananas that didn’t leave much to the imagination!

Her shows were definitely on the erotic side, which helped to attract fans. Baker wasn’t afraid to be bold. While there was definitely some racism in Paris in the 1920s, it was the lesser of two evils in comparison to the United States. Baker was not only accepted in Paris, she was adored!

Over the course of her career, she starred in shows at the famous Folies Bergère, a cabaret in Paris. Her “banana dance” was officially called the “danse sauvage,” which translates as the wild dance.

Baker’s banana dance also coincided with the emergence of the Art Deco art movement. The movement showcased African art in addition to other non-Western types of art. Baker was definitely in the right place at the right time, as her dancing fit the bill for those interested in Art Deco.

3. Josephine Baker was a spy

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker in 1940 by Studio Harcourt – WikiCommons

Josephine Baker was so much more than a performer. She was also a spy for the Allied forces during World War II! She was the first ever American woman awarded the Croix de Guerre (a French military award for heroism), and she was also awarded the Medal of Resistance in 1946.

When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, Baker initially supported the move. This gave the Axis powers the misconception that Baker was on their side. She took advantage of this and began working with the Allies.

She often traveled on tour, and she began to smuggle documents with her. She always had sheet music with her, making the perfect place for the military to write secret messages in invisible ink. Thanks to her fame, immigration officials were too busy admiring the superstar to really go through her things!

Reportedly, Baker also smuggled some secret photographs of German military equipment in her underwear!

4. Josephine Baker was a civil rights activist

MLK

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. – WikiCommons

Baker knew first hand how demeaning racial segregation and racism were. In fact, the major reason why she left America in the first place was to escape this discrimination! So, it should come as no surprise that Josephine Baker was a civil rights activist.

After returning to America in the 1950s, Baker fought for civil rights in many different ways. She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, wrote articles bashing the continued racism in the States and gave speeches on the problem of racism.

Baker was adored in France and was practically never discriminated against. But, when she arrived in New York City in the 1950s, she and her husband were met with racism head-on. They were refused accommodation, were barred from certain restaurants and diners and she began to receive threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan.

Baker also began working with the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The association recognized her efforts by naming May 20, 1951 “Josephine Baker Day.” She was also given membership for life, and in 1963 she stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington.

When Baker was refused service at the Stork’s Club in Manhattan, she made charges of racism against the club. The famous actress Grace Kelly was in the club at the time, and she stood up for Baker. She refused to return to the club thereafter. This was just the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the pair, but more on that later!

5. Josephine Baker was married 4 times

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker in 1954 by Daan Noske – WikiCommons

I was a little shocked when I learned about Josephine Baker’s marriage track record, but it’s important to put the time period into perspective. It wasn’t rare that people began marrying at very young ages in the early 20th century, as it could mean financial security, among other things.

Baker was married for the first time when she was 13 years old to a man named Willie Wells, but it was reportedly an unhappy marriage. The pair split up just a few years later, and Baker was then married for a second time at age 15 to Willie Baker. This marriage didn’t last either, but the last name stuck, as Josephine Baker never changed her name even after her divorce.

In 1937, Baker married Frenchman Jean Lion, and it was through this marriage that she obtained French citizenship. This relationship didn’t last for long either, ending in divorce in 1940. Although the relationship had ended, Baker was able to maintain her French citizenship.

Baker’s longest marriage was to a French composer named Jo Bouillon. They were married in 1947 and divorced in 1961.

6. Josephine Baker was bisexual

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo – WikiCommons

Although Baker was married 4 times, she was known as being bisexual and enjoyed several relationships with different women. Baker never publicly spoke about her sexuality, but her relationships with women were confirmed after her death by one of her sons. He went so far as to say one of her most famous songs, originally thought to have been about America and France, “J’ai Deux Amours,” (“I Have Two Loves”) was actually about loving both men and women.

Notable female partners include Blues singer Clara Smith, and although it was never confirmed, Frida Kahlo. It was revealed in a film on Kahlo’s life that the 2 artists met in a club where she was performing in 1939.

7. Josephine Baker was barred entry to the United States for 10 years

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker in 1961 by Jack de Nijs – WikiCommons

When Baker returned to the United States in the 1950s, she dove headfirst into the battle for equal rights. After the drama that ensued at the Stork’s Club in Manhattan (reread number 4 if you’ve forgotten!), a journalist named Walter Winchell turned against Baker.

The betrayal was deep. Baker was unhappy that Winchell didn’t defend her in the midst of the Stork’s Club scandal, and she quickly ended their friendship. Winchell struck back in a very serous way: he accused Baker as being a Communist sympathizer.

If you know anything about the United States during the 1950s, you’ll remember it as a time of the “Red Scare” and the McCarthy hysteria. It was not a good time to be pinned as a Communist in the States.

Winchell went so far as to get Baker’s visa revoked (you’ll remember that at this time Baker was a French citizen, not American), and she was barred from the country for 10 years. She did not return until 1963.

8. Josephine Baker loved animals

cheetah

An advertisement for Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris in 1930 by Louis Gaudin – WikiCommons

A woman after my own heart, Josephine Baker adored animals. She had a cheetah named Chiquita that was originally part of her dance performance, that she ended up adopting and caring for once her show was finished.

She also adopted a pig named Albert that she would dress up and spray perfume on, and a goat named Toutoute that she would keep in her dressing room. Albert in particular grew so big that in order to get him out of her kitchen, Baker had to remove the door frame!

Other pets included a chimpanzee, a snake and several dogs.

9. Josephine Baker adopted 12 children

children

Josephine Baker with 10 of her children in 1964 by Hugo van Gelderen – WikiCommons

Ms. Baker wasn’t only an animal lover. She also loved children and adopted 12 in total. Baker was a firm believer in the fact that children of different races and from various backgrounds could grow up together in harmony.

Baker felt that she was doing her part to combat racism by adopting children from all of the world. She dubbed her clan the “Rainbow Tribe.” Today, we’re used to seeing celebrities that adopt multiple children, but in the 20th century, it was far from the norm. Baker pushed criticisms aside and did what she thought was right, and set an example for people around the world.

When Baker was having difficulties paying her rent for the castle where she was living with her children in France, someone very special to her came to her rescue. Keep reading to learn more about Josephine Baker’s close relationship with the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly!

10. Princess Grace Kelly was one of Josephine Baker’s best friends

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly in 1956 by Metro Goldwyn Mayer – WikiCommons

When Baker was refused service at the Stork’s Club in Manhattan, American actress Grace Kelly stormed out in solidarity with the dancer. This was just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

In later years, when Baker faced financial hardships, the now Princess Grace rushed to her aid. The actress had married the Prince of Monaco, Prince Rainer III, and had earned the title of Princess thanks to the marriage. When Baker faced eviction from the French château where she was living with her children, Kelly offered her accommodation in Monaco.

Baker went on to live in a villa in Monaco with her large family, thanks to the charity of her close friend.

11. She made her public appearance as a baby

Soon after Josephine Baker was born, her alleged father abandoned the household. Soon after, her mother was hitched to a nice man, with whom she had three more kids. However, Baker’s stepfather struggled to find or keep work, and his persistent unemployment drove the family further into poverty.

When she was eight years old, Baker helped out by doing her mother’s laundry and working as a live-in domestic and nanny for white families, who frequently warned the black kid not to “kiss the baby.” She occasionally worked for abusive people, like the one who burned Josephine’s hands for using too much soap in the wash.

12. She overcame extreme poverty

interesting facts about Josephine Baker

Baker Harcourt by Studio Harcourt from Wikimedia Commons

The young girl’s schooling was inconsistent because of her upbringing, and her education was neglected. Baker eventually had to leave school altogether at the age of 12, having only made it to the fifth grade.

She spent some time in the slums of St. Louis as a street child, sleeping in cardboard boxes, stealing food from garbage cans, and occasionally making some money by dancing on corners. When she began working as a full-time waitress at age 13, things started to improve. She met and married Willie Wells while waiting tables, but their marriage swiftly fell apart, and she obtained a divorce.

13. She rose to fame quickly in Paris

interesting facts about Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker by Hugo van Gelderen from Wikimedia Commons

Although Josephine Baker did rather well in New York City, the 1920s in America were not particularly favourable for black people who wanted to reach their full potential.

After growing weary of the racism-related “glass ceiling” that limited her employment options, Baker made the self-bet decision to leave the United States in quest of better opportunities elsewhere. At the age of 19, she travelled to Paris and launched La Revue Negre. She immediately became popular in the City of Light for her semi-naked sexy dance.

14. She had to stop her studies and go out on the streets

The young girl’s education suffered as a result of her upbringing under such circumstances, and it was neglected. At age 12, Baker was eventually forced to quit school altogether after only reaching the fifth grade. She spent some time living on the streets in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard boxes, scavenging food from garbage cans, and even dancing on street corners to get some money.

When she started working as a full-time waitress at age 13, things began to normalize a little. She met and wed Willie Wells while tending tables, but their relationship rapidly turned bad, and she filed for divorce.

15. She and her mother had a contentious relationship

Baker and her mother had a tense relationship. After trying her hand at show business and encountering its hardships and seediness, as well as ending up in extreme poverty, Carrie McDonald concluded that nothing positive could come of it.

She continuously nagged and chastised her daughter for attempting to pursue an entertainment career. She also reprimanded Baker for ignoring Willie Baker, her second husband, whom she had married in 1921 at the age of 15. When Baker left her husband to go on tour, things between mother and daughter got worse. She later divorced her husband in 1925. It got worse when Baker’s profession flourished and she proved her mother wrong.

16. Baker got started as a professional entertainer

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Pierre Payen (1902-1944), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Baker began performing as a full-time performer in 1919, travelling with the Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers while putting on a variety of amusing sketches. She auditioned with The Dixie Steppers for a chorus girl role in a production of Shuffle Along after the troupes split, but she was turned down because she was “too tiny and too dark.” Despite her setbacks, Baker continued working as a dresser and spent her leisure time studying the chorus girls’ routine.

Baker was the obvious replacement when a dancer abruptly quit, and she made the most of her chance. She purposefully acted awkwardly and rolled her eyes onstage to add a humorous twist to her performance, and the audience loved it. Over the duration of the programme, Baker established himself as a staple and a top draw at the box office.

17. Josephine Baker captured the hearts of many celebrities 

Josephine Baker not only conquered Paris but also the hearts of the leaders of the modernist art movement who gathered in the City of Light. She had “legs of paradise,” according to Pablo Picasso, who leapt at the chance to paint her in an effort to depict her enticing beauty. She was referred to be “the most fantastic woman anyone ever saw” by Ernest Hemingway. Although she only had success in silent films in Europe, French director Jean Cocteau also wanted to make her a movie star.

18. A fake count managed her brand for some time

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Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian who introduced himself as a count, met Josephine Baker early in her career in France. He was a former stonemason, not an aristocrat, in reality.

Yet he persuaded her to let him manage her, and he was able to change both her stage and public image. The star and manager finally fell in love as Baker Thrive managed the bookings and business aspects of the show. If Baker had not still been married to Willie Baker, her second husband, they would have married.

19. Two men fought for her

In 1928, while staying in Budapest, Josephine was ogled by a Hungarian cavalry captain named Andrew Czolovoydi, who then made advances towards her. That did not sit well with Josephine’s manager and on-and-off lover, “Count” Pepito di Abatino. So he challenged the Hungarian officer to a sword duel.

The challenge was accepted, and the duo went at each other with swords in a cemetery, while Josephine watched from atop a tombstone. She stopped the fight, however, when her manager took a shoulder wound. Honour thus satisfied, the two men shook hands and quashed their beef.

20. She had a list of famous women as her lovers

The list of famous female partners that Josephine Baker had during her lifetime reads like a who’s who. Actresses Evelyn Sheppard and Mildred Smallwood, jazz singer Clara Smith, politician Bessie Allison, and singers of the blues were among them.

It’s possible that Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was her most well-known lover. She had a great time with Baker after meeting her in Paris in 1939. Uncomfortably, when Frieda Kahlo had her romance with Baker, she was vacationing in Europe with her husband.

21. Josephine bought an estate in southwestern France 

Top 25 interesting facts about Josephine Baker

Golf54, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Josephine Baker purchased a large home and property in the countryside of southwestern France called Les Milandes. She bought Les Milandes in the 1930s after becoming famous and wealthy from her dancing and performing. The estate was like a small village, with houses, a garage, a bakery, shops, hotels, chapels, and farms located on over 300 acres of land. It was very expensive. Josephine turned part of Les Milandes into a park and attraction for tourists to visit.

She also used the estate as a place to rehearse and put on her lavish dance shows in an outdoor theatre. Les Milandes let Josephine and her family live and work privately away from the city while still entertaining crowds of admiring fans. For over 30 years, it was Josephine’s beloved country home and performance space. But later, financial troubles forced Josephine to sell Les Milandes. After she could no longer make the payments, Josephine was even evicted from her estate in the 1960s, many years after originally buying it.

22. She premiered a critically acclaimed comeback show in 1973

Top 25 interesting facts about Josephine Baker

Eric Koch / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1973, Josephine Baker put on a big, popular show that people loved. She was 68 years old. She had been sick and struggling to walk in recent years. Some people thought she would never perform on stage again. But Josephine worked very hard to get ready for the show. She practiced dancing and singing for months. She was able to fit back into some of her famous, flashy costumes. On opening night, the crowd went wild when Josephine came out.

Even with her health problems, she was still an amazing dancer and performer. She moved smoothly, sang sweetly, and had lots of energy. The newspaper and TV critics said very good things about the show. They were shocked that Josephine could still be so awesome on stage at 68. The praise made the comeback a big success. It showed everyone that Josephine still had the talent to impress crowds and critics alike. People called it her comeback because it revived her career again.

23. Josephine Baker was the first American woman buried in France with military honours

When Josephine Baker died in 1975 at the age of 68, she was given a very special funeral in France. The French government said she could have a military funeral, which is normally only for soldiers. Josephine got military honours because she had been a brave helper to France during World War II long ago. She spied on enemy soldiers and smuggled secret messages to help the French fight the Nazis. This was very dangerous.

So at Josephine’s funeral, soldiers carried her casket through the streets while guns fired off. The French president and big army leader gave speeches about her wartime help and called her a hero. They awarded her more medals, too. Having a fancy military funeral was very rare for a woman who wasn’t a soldier. But Josephine Baker did so much for France that they wanted to show her gratitude and honour. She made history as the first American lady to get such respect from France.

24. She refused to perform for segregated audiences

Top 25 interesting facts about Josephine Baker

Rudolf Suroch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Josephine Baker, an early pioneer in the fight against segregation, fought against the practice of segregating audiences in America. She refused to perform for black audiences in the southern United States, despite the risk and cost. She refused to perform for black audiences with worse seats, stating she would only perform for black and white audiences. Years before segregation laws were banned, Baker fought against it independently in the entertainment industry, giving up fame and money to challenge norms. She was not afraid to challenge norms, even alone, and her refusal made her an early pioneer against injustice.

25. Google honoured Josephine Baker with its first-ever homepage doodle image

Google’s homepage logo has been frequently transformed into “doodles” to commemorate notable people, events, holidays, and anniversaries. However, none of these doodles specifically honoured a historic black woman until March 4, 2019.

The 113th birthday doodle animation for Josephine Baker, a talented performer and activist, featured Josephine dancing, wearing famous costumes and banana skirts, and her 1920s bob-style hair. The artist behind the doodle said it took around 100 hours to animate Josephine’s flair, aiming to “get her essence right.” This visually dynamic homepage graphic paid tribute to Josephine’s trailblazing contributions and fascinating life story, marking the first Google Doodle created exclusively for a black woman.

Conclusion

At age 68, Baker died from a cerebral haemorrhage. She had just finished performing in a retrospective revue of her life called Joséphine à Bobino 1975 at the Bobino Theatre. She was found peacefully lying in her bed, surrounded by newspapers that raved about the success of her revue.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and learning about the superstar Josephine Baker! She lived such a full and interesting life, it’s hard not to.

If you want to learn more about France’s most famous, why not join one of our walking tours, led by our fabulous local guides?! Click here to learn more and make your booking.

Best Movies Starring Josephine Baker

1. Zouzou (1934)

This was one of Josephine’s first major movie roles. She plays a laundress who becomes a famous performer like Josephine did in real life. There are lots of scenes focused on Josephine’s singing, dancing, and fashion that made her a huge star across France and beyond. She got to act out her inspiring rise from humble beginnings to fame and luxury. The movie has a light, feel-good tone that captures Josephine’s lively persona and makes people fall in love with her.

2. Princess Tam Tam (1935)

Josephine plays a Tunisian shepherd girl who gets discovered and turned into a glamorous Parisian society lady by a writer, similar to some versions of My Fair Lady. As “Princess Tam Tam,” Josephine gets to show off flashy costumes and dance moves while her character tries to win the heart of her observer-turned-love interest. It has some of her most dazzling musical numbers. The role let Josephine project both her infectious, grinning charm and her exotic allure.

3. Fausse Alerte (1940)

This was Josephine’s last major film before leaving occupied France in WWII. She plays a mysterious, criminal, femme fatale-type character trying to seduce a sweet shopkeeper as part of a robbery plot. It showed Josephine’s talent for embracing a darker, more manipulative character layered with deception but still overflowing with her natural magnetism. This movie marked a shift from her usual song and dance parts to highlight more of her acting talent before her wartime service suspended her career.

4. Carosello Napoletano (1954)

After over a decade focusing on wartime service and activism, Carosello marked Josephine’s return to film in the 1950s in her familiar setting of musical dance numbers. Her two featured scenes have her singing folk songs while showcasing traditional Italian dances in flowing black dresses. Though brief, Josephine’s cameos demonstrate the resilient star power that let her pick right back up in films after such a long break, pursuing far more serious matters during the war and post-war years.

5. Alleluia (1940)

Another older film, Alleluia, features Josephine in a relatively rare part that is non-singing but focuses much more on her acting. She plays a village girl in a lighthearted romance story. It gave Josephine one of her few chances to demonstrate more dramatic acting depth on top of her usual dancing and singing strengths. In a sweet role, she gets to portray emotional vulnerability and sympathy as well as her signature bubbly optimism.

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