The Black Pearl
To say that Josephine Baker was ahead of her time is a grand understatement. Her success as a dancer and singer- as an entertainer, electrified Europe in the 1920s. There, she became the queen of the stage, the most photographed woman in the world. However, critical and public response in her homeland, the United States, was far less enthusiastic.
Mired in racial prejudice, both overt and covert, American society could not tolerate the concept of a strong, sophisticated black woman commanding so much attention. In a review, following a particularly sensual performance with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936, the venerable New York Times called Josephine Baker a “negro wench.” Sadly, it would be many more decades before she would find any acceptance in her native country.
But, in Europe, her career flourished. She was a great star. In addition, she lived a life of intrigue and espionage during World War II. She aided the French Resistance by carrying secret messages written on her sheet music, as she traveled on singing tours across Europe. For this she received several medals and awards from the French government.
Beyond that, Josephine Baker was an independent woman, who never felt compelled to rely upon a man for financial support. Though married and divorced four times, and despite countless other, more transitory relationships, she raised twelve adopted children, whom she referred to as her “Rainbow Tribe.” They were children of different races and ethnicities, whom she was determined to prove could live together in harmonious kinship.
“Surely the day will come,” she once said, “when color 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.” To that end, Josephine Baker dedicated her life.
Freda Josephine Carson was born in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3rd, 1906, to Carrie McDonald who worked as a washerwoman, and Eddie Carson, who was a drummer in vaudeville shows. Shortly after Freda was born, Carson deserted the family, leaving them in abject poverty. Little Freda grew up rummaging for coal behind Union Station and scavenging for food in the trash bins outside Soulard Market in St. Louis.
Eventually, Carrie McDonald married Arthur Martin, who became Freda’s stepfather. Within a few years, Freda had a younger brother, Richard and two sisters, Margaret and Willie Mae. But, despite the improvement in Freda’s fortunes, her family remained severely impoverished. For that reason, young Freda’s early education was sporadic at best.
By the age of eight, in order to help her family make ends meet, Freda, whose nickname was “Tumpy,” frequently found employment, working for wealthy white families as a house keeper and babysitter. She later recalled that her employers would often caution her to “be sure not to kiss the baby.” She would carry with her those early scars of racial prejudice throughout the rest of her life.
Young Freda officially quit school and left home at the age of thirteen. She was able to secure a job as a waitress at the Old Chauffeurs Club on Pine Street in St. Louis, where she met Willie Wells. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple was married for a short time. However, stubbornly self-sufficient, even at her youthful age, Freda did not hesitate to seek a quick divorce once she discovered Wells’ propensity for physical abuse.
Flamboyant and humorous, with a skill for dancing, Freda joined the Jones Family Band minstrel show in 1919. The group leader Dyer Jones, taught the girl to play the trombone. Freda also danced and performed in comedy routines, quickly learning to mug and joke for appreciative audiences. She had her stage debut at the Booker T. Washington Theater, a St. Louis vaudeville house. She toured with the Jones Family Band through the following year.
In late 1920 she married again, to blues singer/guitarist Willie Baker, whose last name she took- becoming Freda Baker. The following year, while touring with the Bob Russell troupe, she became the protégé of the legendary blues singer Clara Smith (known as “the Queen of the Moaners”). Clara gave Freda a job as her hair dresser.
At the same time Clara taught the impressionable teenager the nuances of the vocal craft. Smith convinced Freda to use the stage name Josephine Baker. It is also rumored that the two had a brief affair. Even at the tender age of fifteen, Josephine Baker was no stranger to controversy nor to free-spirited rebelliousness. This aspect in her personality, too, would become woven as an integral thread in the tapestry of her life.
Auditioning for the Dixie Steppers dance company in 1922, Josephine attempted to gain a position as a chorus girl in an Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake production, the all-black Broadway revue, Shuffle Along. However, judged as “too skinny and too dark,” Josephine was not initially selected as a dancer. Instead, she was given a position as a wardrobe assistant.
But Josephine was determined to further her career. She learned all the chorus line routines, so that she became the clear choice as a replacement when a dancer eventually left the show. Onstage, her frenzied dancing, and often slapstick comic clowning attracted widespread critical and public interest. Josephine became the star of the show for the remainder of its run.
In 1924 Sissle and Blake gave Josephine an even bigger part in their next Broadway production, Chocolate Dandies. Her performances in that show made her a star. Following the close of Chocolate Dandies, Josephine became the toast of the New York club circuit, regularly performing at the Cotton Club, as well as the Plantation Club.
Josephine traveled to Paris, France in the Summer of 1925, starring in the American production, La Revue Negre. Along with dance partner Joe Alex, they electrified Parisian audiences with their primitively sensual performance in the “Danse Sauvage.” Josephine’s “costume” consisted merely of a skirt made of ostrich feathers. “I improvised, crazed by the music,” she later said. “Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. “
French critic Pierre De Regnier wrote of her opening night performance in La Revue Negre at the Folies Bergere: “Her lips are painted black, her skin is the color of a banana, her hair, already short, is stuck to her head as if made of caviar. Her voice is high-pitched, she shakes continually and her body slithers like a snake. The sound of the orchestra seems to come from her.” Even critics who hated the rest of the show loved Josephine’s performance.
Her unbridled sexuality and the unrestrained abandon of her erotically charged dancing style caused an immediate sensation with the Parisian public, who were neither as prudishly conservative nor as racially discriminatory as their American counterparts. Josephine Baker became the talk of Paris, soon commanding the regal salary of $250 a week.
After the run of La Revue Negre ended, Josephine subsequently starred in a show at the Folies Bergere music hall entitled La Folie Du Jour. In that revue she amazed audiences by performing an aggressive Charleston, the “Banana Dance,” and swinging from a trapeze, dressed in a skirt comprised of sixteen bananas hanging from a G-String. All of Paris fell under Josephine Baker’s exotic spell. Her striking facial features and cross-eyed poses charmed the hearts of the city and the French nation. They called her “La Perle Noire,” “the Black Pearl.”
Paris in the mid-‘20s was alive with the spirit of the Jazz age. Josephine’s stunning performances elicited artwork from Alexander Calder and Georges Roualt among many others. It is said that an original print run poster of Le Revue Negre today commands a price as high as $45,000.
Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and ee Cummings were inspired by Josephine’s beauty and sensuality. Hemingway once referred to Josephine as “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.” Describing her, Pablo Picasso said: “Tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.”
Josephine reveled in her celebrity, but maintained a sense of dignity, saying, “since I personified the savage on stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.” She purchased a castle, Les Milandes, located on six-hundred acres of land, the Dordogne chateau, in Castelnaud-Fayrac, France; and moved her family from St. Louis to the estate. She spent vast sums of money on clothes and exotic pets. She owned a cheetah (named Chiquita, which she frequently walked on a leash), a chimpanzee (Ethel), a snake (Kiki), a baby pig (Albert), a parrot and numerous parakeets, a goat, three cats and seven dogs.
In 1926, she opened her own nightclub, Chez Josephine, on the rue Fontaine. She also began her recording career, cutting a number of sides for a French label. By 1927, she was earning more money than any other entertainer in Europe, rivaling Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson as the most photographed woman in the world. She made her first movie, La Sirene des Tropiques. Josephine Baker was only twenty-one years of age.
She starred in two more movies in the ‘30s, Zou Zou, in which she appeared with beloved French actor Jean Gabin; and Princess Tam Tam. She successfully toured Europe, playing to sold-out houses everywhere she went. In July of 1930 she recorded six songs for Columbia Records. Studio engineers noticed that the normally imperturbable Josephine seemed to freeze in fear when faced with a small, unresponsive audience of producers and technicians in the sterile environment of the recording studio.
In 1936, Josephine made what she hoped would be a triumphant return to the United States, to star in a Zeigfeld Follies production with Fanny Brice and Bob Hope. But the show failed miserably. Josephine was attacked from every front. The conservative American press questioned the moral character of the show and its star; while restaurants and hotels refused to serve her because of her race.
When, due to a Brice illness, the revue was temporarily postponed, Josephine took the opportunity to break her contract; fleeing to Paris, embarrassed, heartbroken and disgraced. Before leaving the United States however, she divorced her estranged husband Willie Baker, with whom she had been married since 1920.
In 1937 she married sugar broker Jean Lion, becoming a naturalized French citizen. However Lion’s standing as a prominent French Jew exposed the couple to further discrimination, especially after the Nazi’s invaded France in 1939. Josephine and Lion divorced late in 1939 after only fourteen months of marriage.
After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Josephine moved to Morocco and joined the French Resistance movement, performing undercover tasks for the Allied front. On several occasions she smuggled important documents with her as she traveled. Some information was written with invisible ink onto her sheet music, transported as she moved freely between borders on singing tours.
Josephine also took as part of her entourage secret agents who otherwise would not have been able to cross international borders. Her resistance activities were restricted, when she became hospitalized in a clinic in Casablanca from June 1941 until December of 1942. This “illness” may have been a ruse, in order to cover up her undercover activities. To this day it remains unclear.
In 1943, she returned her attention to the war effort. She acted as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force and volunteered for the Red Cross to assist Belgian refugees, who were pouring into France. She also performed for troops across North Africa. After the war, in 1946, she was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.
Josephine married for a fourth time, to the noted French bandleader Jo Bouillon in 1947. In a subsequent book, Bouillon said of her: “She’s the only woman I know who reminds me of a waterfall, a bonfire, and a nightingale rolled into one.” In 1948, feeling at last invulnerable to the cruelties of racial prejudice, Josephine returned to the United States, to help fight for the nascent anti-segregation movement.
In 1951 she was refused service at the famed Stork Club in New York City. Incensed that he did not come to her defense after witnessing the altercation, Josephine chastised syndicated columnist Walter Winchell for his inaction. Winchell retaliated by accusing Josephine of communist and fascist sympathies, which further estranged her in her homeland.
But she responded by crusading for racial equality; refusing to entertain at any venue that did not engage in integration. She turned down an offer of $10,000 dollars a week to play the Copa City nightclub in Miami. But the management eventually caved to her demands and Josephine played the first integrated show at the club.
Returning to France in 1954, with the help of Bouillon, Josephine began to adopt the first of twelve ethnically diverse orphans she would refer to as her “Rainbow Tribe.” Though she eventually divorced Bouillon, she continued to nurture “the Tribe” throughout the ‘60s, though the economic strain eventually ruined her financially. In the ‘60s Josephine also participated in the American civil rights movement, speaking at the March on Washington DC in 1963.
In 1973, she performed at Carnegie Hall, receiving, at last, the American public acclaim she had been seeking for over fifty years; the barriers that had once held her back, at last, falling by the wayside. In April of 1975 Josephine premiered a 50-year career retrospective at the Bobino Theater in Paris, with Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco in attendance among the sold-out throng. It was the crowning achievement of Josephine’s career. The newspaper Le Figarosaid, “For the second time in fifty years, Josephine Baker has conquered Paris.”
Only four days later, on April 12th, Josephine Baker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, slipped into a coma and died. More than twenty thousand people crowded the streets of Paris to witness her funeral procession.
Josephine Baker helped to break down racial barriers in the United States, by first becoming a huge star in Europe; courageously fighting against social injustice at every turn. Her monumental success as an entertainer and personality cannot accurately be gauged by today’s standards. She was the first black international superstar and perhaps the most controversial, still. Her legendary status remains undiminished and untarnished, to this very day.