Top 15 interesting facts about Josephine Baker
*Originally published by Molli on October 2019 and Updated by Vanessa in October 2022
Josephine Baker was a superstar in the 1920s. An American that 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’s a lot of interesting facts to learn about her! Keep reading for my top 15 favourite facts about Josephine Baker.
1. France was Josephine Baker’s second home
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”
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
With her mother, Baker 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 came to the conclusion that nothing positive could come of it.
She so 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.
At age 68, Baker died in from a cerebral hemorrhage. 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 laying 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.
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