Dear Josephine Baker,
We Mookychick editors admit that we don’t know much about you except that you were a risky dancer in the jazz age and once danced half-naked in a carefree manner that probably set white men’s hearts racing.
But it takes more than that to be a Mooky Icon. You lived your life passionately, having four husbands and driving men to such passion that one killed himself at your feet. A miscarriage meant you couldn’t conceive, but you collected orphans from every country you toured as an entertainer and gathered them into an adopted ‘Rainbow Tribe’ of all cultures, races and religions. You were a proud mother, not ashamed to beg for your children’s food on the streets when times were hard.
You were a huge activist, and in WWII you were so disgusted by Hitler’s segregationist hatemongering you acted as a spy for the French Resistance, never suspected because the nazis were too dazzled by your fame as a dancer.
By the time you died in poverty you had exerted influence over famous people of the age like Grace Kelly and Mussolini, and when you died, twenty thousand people came to your Paris funeral in mourning.
If we’d been alive then? We would have been there, too.
Love, Mookychick xxx
Best Josephine Baker Quotes:
“I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”
“Surely the day will come when colour 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.”
“I improvised, crazed by the music. . . . Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone.”
“The Eiffel Tower looks very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what does that matter? What is the good of having the statue without the liberty?”
“Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest . . . beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”
“I like Frenchmen very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely.”
“The things we truly love stay with us always, locked in our hearts as long as life remains.”
Josephine Baker Best Known For:
Doing a risky burlesque dance onstage wearing nothing but a skirt of feathers.
Josephine Baker Least Known For:
Smuggling messages written in invisible ink on her musical sheets for the French Resistance in WWII, begging on the streets for her 11 adopted children in what should have been the most wealthy and famous years of her life… there is so much to this woman that we may never know all the stories.
Out of this stratosphere. Josephine Baker’s life was beset with struggle, poverty and pain, but she used every tool at her disposal to make her life shine, and worked near-miracles to change the face of the world as we know it today in terms of racial tolerance and sheer damn pizzaz.
Josephine Baker Links:
Josephine Baker: A quick summary
Occupation: African American expatriate dancer, singer, and entertainer. And spy.
* Adopted 11 children of different races, religions, and nationalities.
* Famous for doing the ‘Black Venus’ semi-nude dance in a grass skirt at burlesque clubs in the 1920s.
* Refused to perform in clubs that practiced racial segregation.
* In 1928, her husband/manager dueled a Hungarian calvary officer, over Josephine in St.Stephen’s cemetery in Budapest.
* During World War II, she worked as a spy for the French resistance.
* Once had a rejected (and dejected) suitor kill himself at her feet.
Josephine Baker’s Background:
For many people, Josephine Baker’s name will always evoke a familiar, controversial image: the “black Venus” naked onstage, except for a string of bananas around her waist, dancing to African drums before her white Parisian audiences. It was this image that first made Baker a star, one whose international fame lasted for five decades. But the picture of the exotic dancer does not even begin to capture the complexity of the woman who was one of the first performers of colour to transcend race and appeal to audiences of all colors from around the world – and to take her responsibility as a human being seriously enough to be politically active in all areas of life, from being an ambulance driver during WWII and smuggling secret messages for the French Resistance to adopting 11 children.
Far from the glitter and gaiety that characterized her beloved Paris, Baker’s beginnings were harsh and difficult. Born in the slums of St. Louis, Baker grew up sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans.
At age 13, Baker left her parents’ house and got a job as a waitress. Soon afterwards, she married Willie Wells but divorced him soon after and ended up in a vaudeville house in St. Louis.
By age 18 she’d been discovered in New York and was performing at the infamous Folies-Bergeres, Ziegfeld Follies, and the famed Le Negre Revue in Paris. Her first break came when she was featured in Shuffle Along, Broadway’s first African-American musical, in 1921. Originally rejected from the show for being too young, too thin, and too dark, she eventually won the role of the comic ‘end girl’ in the chorus line – the one too confused to keep up with the moves – and wound up stealing the show. Four years later she was offered the opportunity to go to Paris and perform in La Revue Nègre. By then her teenaged body had fully matured, and her show-stopping finale, “Danse sauvage” – in which she danced the Charleston wearing nothing but a girdle of feathers – made her an overnight sensation. Baker was seen as the living embodiment of everything European audiences found exotic and provocative about women of colour (which is exoticisation and a racist approach, clearly).
Josephine Baker was a perfect match for Paris and its wild jazz culture. She was an entertainer and dancer, known for her contortionist positions, striking features, and expressive, cross-eyed face. As she swang from a trapeze at the Folies-Bergere or tossed flowers to her audience, Baker embodied the pain and emotion of the times.
During the early 30s, Baker toured Europe, recorded songs for Columbia Records, and starred in two films, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. In 1935, La Josephine returned to the United States searching for the success she had in France. However, American audiences weren’t ready for the courage and grace that Baker possessed. Her stage show had evolved by then into a more glamorous, refined act, and white America did not seem ready to see a sophisticated woman of colour hold centre stage.
With the rise of Hitler, Europe became split with hate and intolerance. Baker became an undercover spy for the French Resistance during World War II. She helped the French Resistance by smuggling secret information written in invisible ink on her sheet music. Ironically, Baker’s fame made it possible for her to complete her missions unnoticed. Passport checkers were so starstruck by Baker that they never suspected she was a spy. As she toured Europe, she and her entourage — which included other members of the resistance — were allowed to pass through. She also became sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force.
In 1942 La Baker moved to Morocco and toured the region performing for the resistance. She came back in the States in 1948, where she became an activist for civil rights. A travel-spirited lady, she returned to France in 1954, with the intention of raising a family of ethnically diverse children that she had brought to France from her tours around the world. She called them her “Rainbow Tribe.” Baker was forced to undergo an emergency hysterectomy that almost took her life after the 1942 birth of a stillborn child, and she never had biological children.
The last five years of her life were marked by a mix of public adoration and personal poverty. She was sometimes forced to beg on the streets for her children – unrecognizable without her makeup, wig, and costumes. Her health also began to decline, and she suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. But she continued to perform, and onstage she was as glamorous as ever. A 1973 tour of the United States brought widespread acclaim, although African American audiences were upset by Baker’s condemnation of the Black Power Movement (which she saw as too separatist). She died on April 12, 1975, four days after the opening of Josephine, a show based on her life. Twenty thousand people attended her Paris funeral in a massive show of devotion to an African American performer whose boldness and unconventional style had taken France and the world by storm.
Tagged in: feminist icons