'La Grande Diva Magnifique'
Dancing is hard, but sometimes it pays.
Josephine Baker was born in a Missouri slum. As a baby, her parents included her in their song-and-dance act whenever they could get work performing in a segregated Midwest. But they never made it, and an eight-year-old Josephine was employed as a maid for a white family, which she hated, preferring to practice her street-corner dancing. She dropped out of school, lived by her wits and scavenged for food.
At the age of 13 she got married, then divorced, and by 15 was married a second time, to Willie Baker – who’s name she used for the rest of her life, despite leaving him promptly to tour with a vaudeville troupe.
In New York Josephine hit her stride with the Harlem Renaissance, beating a quick-step in the chorus lines of Broadway bestsellers. She worked dramatics into her acts, frequently performing blackface comedy (although her mother disapproved). Still, these capers won her passage to Paris.
Contracted for a huge sum to dance at La Revue Nègre, Josephine spearheaded an African American Jazz obsession in France, exciting Parisian minds with her brand of semi-nudity and slapstick. At only 19, Josephine became top of the bill at the Folies-Bergére and the name on everybody’s lips. She was Picasso’s dream and Hemingway’s ‘sensational woman’.
Her Charleston was so fast you’d barely see her legs except for the flashing of her diamond ankle-bracelets as she went by, topless jiving and crossing her eyes. But her signature dance, Danse Sauvage, was performed wearing a skirt strung with bananas (and almost nothing else). She sent wicked Paris into ecstasies.
When WWII started, Baker threw herself in. She volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, then became a spy for the French Military Intelligence, collecting information at embassy parties. Working for the French Resistance whilst touring, she’d transmit information across borders by writing notes in invisible ink on her sheet music or pinning photos ‘inside her underwear’.
Following her wartime heroics – which earnt her several medals – she joined the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine went on tour in America in the 1950s and refused point-blank to perform to segregated audiences, a move that forced many venues to integrate or forfeit enormous profits. By the 1960s she was a well-known crusader, even speaking at marches beside Martin Luther King.
Determined to show a broken world her vision of utopia, Josephine adopted 12 children of different races and raised them with different religious beliefs. Named the ‘Rainbow Tribe’, they lived together in a storybook castle called Chateau des Milandes. The public could visit the children living in supposed diverse harmony. Of all Josephine’s adventures, this was perhaps the only obvious failure. Her faux-family construct made her an iffy mother at best, a puppet-master at worst.
In 1975 Josephine died peacefully, after appearing in a comeback show to celebrate 50 years in the business. Superstar, goofball, activist: Josephine was the first international African American celebrity and the only American-born woman buried in France with full military honours.
Want more Josephine?
Watch Josephine's original Charleston from the 1920s here
Another amazing clip of Josephine's moves, set to Cuban music here
Or read about her wild escapades with her pet cheetah here
Many books have been penned about the diva, but The Hungry Heart is a sensitive, stand-out autobiography.
The author was one of Josephine's adopted children in the 'Rainbow Tribe', who spent over 20 years
meticulously researching her.