Josephine Baker (  circa June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975)  is arguably one of the best international musical celebrity and a political iconic figure that will never be forgotten by the world till the end of time. She was an American-born French dancer, singer, actress and a spy. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, she sashayed onto a Paris stage during the 1920s with a comic, yet sensual appeal that took Europe by storm.
                                        Josephine Baker in her Wicker Chair

 Famous for barely-there dresses and no-holds-barred dance routines, her exotic beauty generated nicknames "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess." Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals. Baker became a citizen of France in 1937.
                                                          La Baker

Joséphine Baker: The 1st Black Superstar

© Forget About It Film & TV, for BBC Wales. 2006. Narrated 

Baker was the first African American female to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-famous entertainer. She is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (she was offered the unofficial leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968 following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, but she turned it down), for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de guerre.
                               Josephine Baker getting a pedicure in the 1950s.
Humble beginnings
She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906 to washerwoman Carrie McDonald (an adopted child of Little Rock,Arkansas former slaves couple of African and Native American descent, Richard and Elvira McDonald)  and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. A biography written by her foster son Jean-Claude Baker stated:
"… (Josephine Baker's) father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw" … I think Josephine's father was white—so did Josephine, so did her family … people in St. Louis say that (Josephine's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). (Carrie) let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along … (but) Josephine knew better."
                                     Josephine Baker as a child

Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin. Their family eventually grew to include a son and two more daughters. When Baker was 8 years old she was sent to clean houses and baby-sit for wealthy white families  who reminded her "be sure not to kiss the baby." One of her white madams abused her by burning her hands when she put too much soap in the laundry.
                                        Awesome Diva La Baker

Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. In her 13th year, she obtained a job as a waitress at The Old Chauffeur's Club. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position in which the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she was unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would not only perform it correctly, but with additional complexity. Baker was then billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville".

On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. 
American born singer and dancer Josephine Baker, surrounded by male dancers at the Folies Bergere. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images). 1926

She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave birth to the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in ethnic forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.
                                Josephine Baker 1933

After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her "… the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). 
                                Josephine Baker, Diva extraordinaire

She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.At this time she also scored her most successful song, "J'ai deux amours" (1931) and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino — a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a count — Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, were transformed.
American singer and dancer Josephine Baker has harnessed an ostrich to pull a racing sulky. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images). Circa 1920

In 1934 she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La créole at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris, which premiered in December of that year for a six month run. In preparation for her performances she went through months of training with a vocal coach. In the words of Shirley Bassey, who has cited Baker as her primary influence, "… she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique' … I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."
                          Entertainer Josephine Baker reflected in dressing room mirror while 
                     having her four-ft. chignon wound up into a three-tiered bun by her 
                     French maid before a show at the Strand theater during her US tour. 

Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. Upon a visit to the United States in 1935-1936, her performances received poor opening reviews for her starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run.

                                         Josephine Baker in flappers,1920`s

Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, who was Jewish, and became a French citizen. They were married in the French town of Crèvecœur-le-Grand. The wedding was presided over by the mayor at the time, Jammy Schmidt. During the ceremony, when she was asked if she was ready to give up her American citizenship, it has been claimed that she renounced it without difficulty.
                             Josephine Baker 1920 
Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Baker's agent's brother approached her about working for the French government as an "honorable correspondent"; if she happened to hear any gossip at parties that might be of use to her adopted country, she could report it. Baker immediately agreed, since she was against the Nazi stand on race, not only because she was black but because her husband was Jewish.
                                         Josephine Baker the Spy

 Her café society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in-the-know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and report back what she heard. She attended parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gathered information. She helped in the war effort in other ways, such as by sending Christmas presents to French soldiers. 

When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France, where she had Belgian refugees living with her and others who were eager to help the Free French effort led from England by Charles de Gaulle. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, and returning to France. Baker assisted the French Resistance by smuggling secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music.
                           Josephine Baker in her French military uniform,1945

She helped mount a production in Marseille to give herself and her like-minded friends a reason for being there. She helped quite a lot of people who were in danger from the Nazis get visas and passports to leave France. Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa; the stated reason was Baker's health (since she really was recovering from another case of pneumonia) but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. 
Josephine Baker, the American singer and dancer, entertains the troops at a London victory party. (Photo by Jack Esten/Getty Images). 1945

From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain and pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search) and made friends with the Pasha of Marrakesh, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several) and emergency hysterectomy she had to go through in 1942. After her recovery, she started touring to entertain Allied soldiers in North Africa. She even persuaded Egypt's King Farouk to make a public appearance at one of her concerts, a subtle indication of which side his officially neutral country leaned toward. Later, she would perform at Buchenwald for the liberated inmates who were too frail to be moved.

After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
In January 1966, she was invited by Fidel Castro to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba. Her spectacular show in April of that year led to record-breaking attendance. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje. In 1973, she opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation, and in 1974, she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium.
                            La Baker takes her pet,Cheetah "Chiquita" for a walk,1931

Her Role in American Civil Right Activities
                    “Surely the day will come 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.” - Josephine Baker

Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. She protested in her own way against racism, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, whom she called the "Rainbow Tribe." In addition, she refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate shows in Las Vegas, Nevada.
                            Josephine baker, the civil right activist

In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in Manhattan, where she alleged that she'd been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after the incident. Testament to this was made evident when Baker was near bankruptcy and was offered a villa and financial assistance by Kelly (who by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco). (However, during his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Josephine Baker's sons. Having read a Blumenthal-written story about Leonard Bernstein's FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother's FBI file and, using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.)
Winchell's venomous views on Josephine can be found in this quote from Remembering Josephine.

Josephine Baker at the March on Washington, 1963

From Josephine's speech at the March on Washington in 1963 (full text here):

And when I got to New York way back then, I had other blows—when they would not let me check into the good hotels because I was colored, or eat in certain restaurants. And then I went to Atlanta, and it was a horror to me. And I said to myself, My God, I am Josephine, and if they do this to me, what do they do to the other people in America? 
You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.
Here's a sound clip of a news report discussing Josephine's citizen's arrest against a racist in Los Angeles! 
Baker worked with the NAACP. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Baker was the only official female speaker and while wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur she introduced the "Negro Women for Civil Rights." Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates were among those she acknowledged and both gave brief speeches. After King's assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in Holland to ask if she would take her husband's place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were "too young to lose their mother." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts. 
Singer, dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, wearing a dress decorated with feathers. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images). 1930

Her Religious Belief
She mentions religion briefly in a poem she wrote in 1930:
At the age of eight I was already working to calm the hunger of my family.
I have suffered: hunger, cold.
I have a family
They said I was homely
That I danced like an ape
Then I was less homely - Cosmetics
I was hooted
Then I was applauded - the crowd
I continued to dance - I loved jazz
I continued to sing - I loved sadness; my soul is sick
I had an opportunity - Destiny
I had a mascot - a panther - Ancestral superstition
I made a tour of the world - In third class and in Pullman
I am moral
They said I was the reverse
I do not smoke - I have white teeth
I do not drink - I am an American
I have a religion
I adore children
I love flowers
I aid the poor - I have suffered much
I love the animals - they are the sincerest
I sing and dance still - Perseverance
I earn much money - I do not love money
I save my money - for the time when I am no longer an attraction.
But this is a religion.  Maybe her religion.
Josephine Baker Files Suit Against
Walter Winchell - Jet Magazine January 3, 1952
She invokes God frequently in a homecoming speech in St Louis (February 3, 1952).  She had just returned to America.  But I wonder about the libel suit she filed against Walter Winchell a mere month or so before, stating that she certainly was not a Communist.   Was this just strategy? I have yet to read her son's biography about her.  I don't want to unjustly put words into her mouth or thoughts into her mind.

In fact, nobody ever could do such a thing.  Josephine was always her own woman and even if she had a religion it was her religion. Even if she had a god then it was her god and nobody else could tell her otherwise.  I believe she was a freethinker in the broadest sense and she's a hero of mine.(

Nettie Hancock Washington, granddaugher of Booker T Washington, with Josephine Baker, Nettie (Honey) Washington Douglass (gt-granddaugter of Booker T Washington and gt-gt-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass). August 1941
Nettie Hancock Washington, granddaugher of Booker T Washington, with Josephine Baker, Nettie (Honey) Washington Douglass (gt-granddaugter of Booker T Washington and gt-gt-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass). August 1941

Personal Life

Baker had 12 children through adoption, forming a family which she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe."  She bore only one child herself, stillborn in 1941, an incident which precipitated an emergency hysterectomy.
                   La Baker and her Rainbow Tribe

 Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. Josephine wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." For some time, Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château de Milandes, in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband Jo Bouillon (a French conductor).  Tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe" were.
                   Josephine Baker and her Rainbow Tribe at the beach

Josephine Baker was married four times. Her first marriage was to pullman Willie Wells in 1918 when she was just 13, and which was reportedly a very unhappy marriage. It was short lived and they divorced a short time later. She married Willie Baker in 1921 but that marriage also was short lived. She retained that last name simply because her career began taking off during that time and that is the last name with which she became best known.
                  Josephine Baker (L) receiving congratulatory kiss on the nose from her husband, orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, after her show at the Strand theater during her US tour. March 10, 1951 Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt

 In 1937 she married Frenchman Jean Lion, during which time she received French citizenship and became a permanent expatriate. She and Lion separated before he passed away. In 1947 she married French Composer Jo Bouillon. They also divorced. She was later involved for a time with artist Joe Brady, but they never married.

American born dancer and singer Josephine Baker arrives with her husband, orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in Buenos Aires. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images). 19th June 1947

Her Sexuality

Baker was bisexual. Her son Jean-Claude Baker and co-author Chris Chase stated in Josephine: The Hungry Heart that she was involved in numerous lesbian affairs, both while she was single and married, and mention six of her female lovers by name. Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all African-American women whom she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career. She was also reportedly involved intimately with French writer Colette. Not mentioned, but confirmed since, was her affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Jean-Claude Baker, who interviewed over 2,000 people while writing his book, wrote that affairs with women were not uncommon for his mother throughout her lifetime.
      Vintage La Baker,Ernest Hemingway called her "… the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."

He was quoted in one interview as saying:
"She was what today you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also a historian. You have to put her back into the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, Chorus Girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading men if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together, and the girls would develop lady lover friendships, do you understand my English? But wait wait...If one of the girls by preference was gay, she'd be called a bull dyke by the whole cast. So you see, discrimination is everywhere."
                              Pretty Diva, Josephine Baker

On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. She was 68 years old. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.

Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on April 12, 1975. Her funeral was held at L'Église de la Madeleine. More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with full military honors. Baker locked up the streets of Paris one last time. She was interred at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo.


Place Joséphine Baker in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor. She has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and the Hall of Famous Missourians. Her name has also been incorporated at Paris Plage, a man-made beach along the river Seine "Piscine Joséphine Baker".
Two of Baker's sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York, which celebrates Baker's life and works.

Jospehine Baker Statue Credit: Discover Paris

Château des Milandes, a castle near Sarlat in the Dordogne, was Josephine Baker's home where she raised her 13 children. It is open to the public and displays her stage outfits including her banana skirt (of which there are apparently several). It also displays many family photographs and documents as well as her Legion of Honour medal. Most rooms are open for the public to walk through including bedrooms with little cots in where her children slept, a huge kitchen and a dining room where she often entertained large groups. The bathrooms are made in art deco style but most rooms retained the French chateau style.

josephine baker

Star: Josephine Baker accepting a Hill City membership card from Leslie Powell, with George Fairley holding police badges honouring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Howard McKinney. Unknown man in background, c 1951

Adopting the WorldJosephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe

Long before Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Madonna made headlines with their adoptive families, 1920s star Josephine Baker tried to combat racism by adopting 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds from around the world. Today the members of her "rainbow tribe" are still searching for their identity.
Josephine Baker
                       Josephine Baker, the timeless legend

He is trying to describe what it was like to grow up here, to trace the vestiges of his childhood, but not much of that remains in this chateau that was once his home.

Today Akio Bouillon, a slight, affable man of Japanese origin, can only serve as a guide through an exhibit that pays tribute to his dead mother. In the former living room, a dozen of her robes are now displayed on headless mannequins, and in the study lies a semi-nude wax figure of Bouillon's mother, with a string of flowers draped around the neck. The "banana skirt" that made her famous hangs in a glass case; strips of gold material in the shape of bananas are attached to a narrow belt. His mother was the singer and entertainer Josephine Baker.
                      In this 1959 photo, Josephine Baker holds in her arms her 10th adopted child, 
                      a boy from Venezuela, as another of her adopted children looks on.

Bouillon, her oldest adopted son, turned 57 in July. He walks across creaking floorboards and into Baker's bathroom, with its black tiles and Dior bottles, and then into a series of rooms filled with photos, posters and her jewelry. Somewhere in this labyrinth is the small room where Bouillon slept as a child. Today, the bed is cordoned off from the hallway with a velvet rope, and a sign admonishes visitors not to touch anything.

He stands in front of the bed, smiles faintly and says that it was a nice childhood, for him and his 11 siblings.
                                             Josephine Baker 1949
Bouillon points to a poster on the wall, made from an old, black-and-white photo. It depicts little Akio, age 6, smiling at the camera, holding a white cat on his arm.
It is the only image visitors see of Baker's 12 adopted children, and Bouillon is the only one of them who still travels, once a year, to Château des Milandes in France's southwestern Périgord region. One of his brothers has already died, and the other 10 siblings avoid the chateau, which was purchased by strangers long ago. They don't want their photos to be exhibited here. They are tired of being put on display.
Vision of a Better Life
Jarry Baker, the third adopted son, hasn't been to the chateau in two decades. Now 55, he is a short, blonde man of Finnish descent with reddish cheeks. He moved far away, to New York, because it was the place where he could be himself.
    Josephine Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon are seen with their adopted family at tea at their  home, the Chateau des Milandes in France, in this 1956 photo.

Every day at noon, he takes the train from New Jersey to the Port Authority station in Manhattan, and walks a few blocks to "Chez Josephine" on 42nd Street, where he works as a waiter. The restaurant pays tribute to his dead mother, with pictures, photos and posters on its walls. The restaurant is near Broadway, and many of its customers are artists and gays.
Jarry Baker, who is also gay, likes the place. He was the opposite of what his adoptive mother had expected, and that was his undoing.
Misfortune often begins with visions, and Josephine Baker had her own vision. She did something that many celebrities would later emulate: She adopted children from poor countries to give them the opportunity of a better life.
                                         La Baker in her dressing room
Adoption is supposed to be an opportunity for children like Maddox, a boy that actress Angelina Jolie adopted in Cambodia, and Mercy, a girl from Malawi the singer Madonna recently adopted after the country's highest court approved the contested adoption -- even though Mercy still has a father in her native village. Madonna told the court that she could offer Mercy a better life -- a common argument. The stars want to set an example and use their celebrity status to do good. Sometimes it's about big ideas, promoting understanding among nations or putting an end to racism.
Looking for a Way Out
Perhaps Josephine Baker began adopting children as a way to compensate for her own unhappy childhood. Her life offered her many reasons to yearn for fame and family. Her mother, a black laundress from St. Louis, Missouri, was impregnated by a white man, and she kept his identity a secret. In the United States in 1906, a relationship, let alone marriage, with Josephine's father would have been unthinkable.
American singer and exotic dancer Josephine Baker, of the Parisian Folies Bergere, poses in one of her many elaborate costumes. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Circa 1930

The mother had three more children and raised them on her own. From the age of eight, Josephine had to work, for example in kitchens where she cleaned and washed dishes. At 11, she witnessed race riots directed against African-Americans in which dozens of people were murdered, the sort of thing that was not uncommon in the southern United States at the time. When she was 13, her mother found her a husband so that she would be taken care of.
But Josephine wanted a way out of her life in St. Louis. She had taught herself to dance and sing as a child, and she wanted to be on stage.

American-born dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images). 1928

She joined a vaudeville troupe at 14, and at 15 she married her second husband, William Baker, the son of a Philadelphia restaurant owner.
She would later keep his name, because she wanted to be known as Josephine Baker. She worked hard, danced on Broadway and was determined to become a star.
American born dancer, jazz singer and entertainer Josephine Baker. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images). Circa 1925

Part 2: The Lust for Pleasure

In 1926, she bent over in her banana skirt, practically nude, in a revue at the Folies-Bergère in Paris. The audience was ecstatic. It was the roaring 20s, and in Europe's cities, where people celebrated with abandon, Josephine Baker, as a nude, exotic woman, satisfied their lust for pleasure.

Baker was a sex symbol, a role she relished, sleeping with men and women -- thousands, as she would later say. But none of this love-making gave her what she wanted most. She married a third time, but she still couldn't get pregnant. She was infertile.

Le Vian Sonore en colaboración con Joséphine Baker: "Ton héro"

She threw herself into her work, discovering a new passion in World War II. She supported the French resistance movement, and was given a uniform and awarded many decorations. By then, Baker was rich and famous, and yet there was still a gaping hole in her life.

The war ended. Baker, now in her 40s, was no longer a sex symbol. She needed a new role. Like Madonna decades later, she felt the need to constantly reinvent herself.
In 1947, Baker married her fourth husband, French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon. She bought a Renaissance castle in Périgord, the Château des Milandes, with more than 30 rooms, surrounded by 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of land.
American dancer and singer Josephine Baker poses with a model of an elephant. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images). 1925

"A violinist had a violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself. I was the instrument that I must care for.” - Josephine Baker
"A violinist had a violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself. I was the instrument that I must care for.” - Josephine Baker

Fighting Racism
She was practically royalty by then, but she was still black. When she visited the United States, she could only enter some hotels through a back entrance.
She was determined to fight this racism. And now she owned a chateau. A plan began to take shape in Baker's mind.
In early 1954, she gave a talk in Copenhagen. She wanted to make a gesture of humanity, she said, explaining that she wanted to "adopt five little boys" -- one from each continent.
When Baker traveled to Japan in the spring to pick up her first child, Akio had been in an orphanage for 18 months. He had been abandoned in Yokohama shortly after birth, on a rainy day in September 1952. A woman had walked into a small shop carrying a bundle in her arms and asked if she could leave the baby there for a moment so that she could get an umbrella.
Baker adopted Akio and another baby and took them to Château des Milandes, where more than 100 employees were hired to transform the estate into a center of brotherliness, and a place where celebrities and weekend guests could meet. The main attraction would be Baker's new family, in its splendid array of skin colors. Baker called the family her "Rainbow Tribe." It was front-page news.
In that same year, she adopted her third child, a 12-year-old Finnish boy from Helsinki with pale skin and light-blonde hair. His name was Jari, but he would later call himself Jarry after she rejected him.
Child number four was a black baby from Columbia. Child number five: a white baby from France.
Growing Family
Baker's husband, Jo Bouillon, managed her affairs at Les Milandes and struggled to raise the children. His wife was constantly on tour, bringing home a new child from practically every trip. But she was only interested in adopting boys, fearing that romantic attachments could develop between the children.
Then, in 1956, came the sixth and seventh children: a male baby and the first female infant, both from Algeria.
   Baker gives copies of her children's book "The Rainbow Children" to refugee children in Hamburg in 1957. The singer and dancer had a vision of a multi-cultural family.

Enough, Bouillon told his wife. Who is going to raise them all? he asked.
A rotating assortment of nannies looked after the children until Baker fired them. She would occasionally storm around the estate, furiously ordering gardeners to replant shrubs, only to slap them afterwards for having done so. She redecorated the chateau, hosted wild parties and took off again.
Child number eight, a white boy from France, arrived in 1957. Baker told the press that he was from Israel. She had been missing a Jew in her tribe.
Demanding Affection
In photos taken at the time, the chateau looks more like an orphanage than a real home. The children slept in a room in the attic, in eight small beds lined up in a row. Whenever Baker returned home, even if it happened to be at 3 a.m., she would wake the children and demand affection.
Jari, the Finn, was a quiet boy, but Akio, the eldest, was the quietest of them all, not speaking at all until he was four.
Today, he knows quite a lot about the trauma of adopted children, and about the special care they need, especially if they are from faraway countries. They are doubly homeless from the beginning, not knowing where they belong, and some crumble under the strain. They are more susceptible to addiction and emotional disorders than children who grow up with their biological parents.
Every adopted child needs the full attention of his or her new parents. By this time, Baker had eight children, and there were more to come.
The ninth child, a black baby from the Ivory Coast, came in 1958.

Part 3: A Dream Childhood?

On the surface, the children seemed to have a dream childhood. They were living in a castle, like children in a fairy tale. They played with knights' armor tucked into nooks along the spiral steps to the tower, romped in the gardens, built tree houses and frolicked with the dogs. Akio remembers that he and his brothers often caught flying beetles and tied them to strings to keep them from flying away. The children carried them around like balloons.
Every year at Christmas, the presents were piled high to the ceiling in the castle. Monstrous, says Jarry. It was Baker's way of showing affection for the children. Their duty, in return, was to allow themselves to be shown off to the public.

On the occasional Sunday when she was there, Baker would dress the children in white and have them line up in the courtyard, where tourists and the press were waiting behind a fence to take pictures. Jarry says that he and the other children sometimes felt like pet monkeys.
Child number 10, a small indigenous boy from Venezuela, came in 1959. The global mother needed to complete her collection.
Financial Ruin
Today there are regulations governing international adoptions. Before a child is given up for adoption, authorities must verify that all options to keep the child from being removed from the country have been exhausted. This is always seen as the better solution.

The situation was different half a century ago. Besides, Baker was a star. She had influential friends, like Princess Grace of Monaco, and she had money. Not all of her children were orphans. In some cases, she simply bought babies from their destitute parents. For example, to adopt blonde Jari, the diminutive Finn, she simply paid his parents in Helsinki a few thousand dollars and the deal was sealed.
In 1960, she got child number 11: a white infant from France.
It had all become too much for Baker's husband. After years of her escapades and their arguments, Bouillon left the chateau, and in 1963 he moved to Buenos Aires. Without him and his business acumen, the estate was doomed to financial ruin. The children lost their father figure, the only person who had given them some structure in Baker's chaotic world.
In 1964, child number 12, the last child, was acquired: a little girl from Morocco.
Vacations with Castro
Baker traveled the world with the children. They met the pope and vacationed with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The situation at the chateau spun out of control. All the employees, private tutors, monkeys and other animals she had acquired were eating up Baker's fortune. She managed to fend off bankruptcy for a few more years, stubbornly living her dream, an aging regent who tolerated no back talk and treated the children like subjects.
She wrote reports about them, described their characters in detail and drafted plans for their future. Akio was to become a diplomat, Jari a hotelier. Another child was supposed to be a doctor. But none of them were to be artists. She even banned music instruction. After they had received their education and training, the children were to return to the countries where they had come from and make themselves useful there, as Baker's envoys and as the loyal executors of her ideas.
None of the children stuck to the plan.
Teenage Rebellion
They rebelled when they reached puberty. Baker had acquired 10 sons, with only seven years separating the youngest and the oldest, and they turned into a horde of hyperactive teenagers -- going out at night, falling in love, staying away for days at a time, rattling around the neighborhood on their mopeds, getting drunk, taking drugs, stealing and wearing hippy clothes that their mother didn't like. But her slaps no longer intimidated them. They were as wild and unruly as a pack of young wolves, and Baker had little experience as a mother.
Josephine Baker getting married in 1947
Josephine Baker getting married in 1947

She lost the chateau in 1969, and when she refused to leave she was carried out against her will. She sat on the steps in the rain for two days, covered with only a plaid wool blanket. The photo quickly appeared in newspapers around the world.
43-year-old Josephine Baker being served prosciutto & melon in Venice in 1949. Photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images.
43-year-old Josephine Baker being served prosciutto & melon in Venice in 1949. Photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images.

The children went to boarding schools or, like Akio and Jari, moved to Buenos Aires to live with their adoptive father, whose surname most of them have kept. Akio had a falling out with his mother a few months before Baker's sudden death in 1975. His Christmas present had arrived too late, causing an argument that the two would never resolve. Akio was the only child not to attend the funeral in Monaco, which was hosted by Princess Grace.

Part 4: 'Nobody's Perfect'

Akio now lives in an apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, works in a bank, smokes large numbers of cigarillos and likes to watch animated films. He relates information about streets and squares as we walk through the city. He often walks around aimlessly, without any destination in mind, he says.
And he is often alone. He was in a relationship with an alcoholic for 15 years, until she finally left him, and he has been single since then. He knows nothing about his Japanese mother. Baker wanted to make sure that the children would never search for their biological families, and in some cases she even withheld information.

A Japanese journalist who recently investigated Akio's story found the woman who had worked in the small shop in Yokohama where he was left as a baby in 1952. He gave Bouillon the information and suggested that the woman might know something about his biological mother. All he had to do was contact her, perhaps by writing her a letter. Bouillon has been carrying around the address for a year now. He says he doesn't know how to begin the letter.
Did Baker do the right thing? "She was a great artist, and she was our mother," says Akio Bouillon. "Mothers make mistakes. Nobody's perfect."

Bouillon says that his mother proved that people of different skin colors could live together as equals. "I love my brothers and sisters," says Bouillon. They all keep in touch by telephone. He says he feels closest to Jarry, because they were together when their adoptive father died in 1984.
Ordinary Lives
The last time all 12 children were together in one place was in 1976, shortly after the death of their famous mother. Even in the last year of her life, Baker, to earn money, performed on a Paris stage, wearing a sequined dress and a towering feather headdress.
The children never wanted to be celebrities. They live ordinary lives -- working as gardeners, greengrocers or insurance agents. Child number eight died of cancer 10 years ago. Child number 11 became schizophrenic and now lives in an institution. Some of the siblings married and had children, while others remained single.
None of them adopted children.
"We are completely normal people," says Akio Bouillon. He and his siblings want to feel like a family, not a project.

Media Spotlight
Sometimes Bouillon flips through magazines and sees the photos of today's rainbow tribes, of Madonna with her children from Malawi, of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, traveling around the world with their six small children and their nannies, in the glare of the media spotlight. But he doesn't feel taken aback by the images. In fact, they make him feel proud.
"It's great," he says. "These stars are following in my mother's footsteps." Of course, he adds, the paparazzi are a problem, as is their constant quest for pictures of the children. But when Jolie adopts a baby from the Third World, says Bouillon, there is also a higher principle at work. "When these children grow up, they'll understand."
Bouillon feels that his adoptive mother made a great and enduring contribution, and that our impression of Josephine Baker should not be clouded by her weaknesses. She was, as he says, a child of her time, a time when even stricter morals applied. That helps to explain why she and Jari didn't get along, he says.
                                      Josephine Baker

Part 5: The Banished Son

Jarry Baker is sitting in Chez Josephine in New York, talking about his dead mother, a subject that makes him visibly uncomfortable. Although it is still morning and the air-conditioned room is cold, Baker's cheeks are flushed and his hands are trembling.
"She was too possessive," he says. "We weren't allowed to develop the way we wanted to." He knew he was gay by the time he was seven or eight. When Jari was 15, Baker caught him in the bathtub with another boy. She called together the family, reprimanded him in front of everyone else and sent him to live with his father in Buenos Aires. She was afraid that he could infect his brothers.

Josephine Baker -- the bisexual revue star, darling of gays and drag queens, civil rights activist -- banished her son because he loved men.
When asked whether he has forgiven her, Jarry Baker waves his hand dismissively and says: "Yes, who cares. She didn't want us to grow. Maybe she was afraid that we would out-grow her." At times he seems almost thankful for having been rejected by his mother. "It was like being liberated."
Caught in Baker's Shadow
In New York, restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker gave him a job and a place to stay. Most of all, Jarry was now living somewhere where he could openly kiss his lover on the street. He doesn't mind working in the restaurant, says Baker. In fact, he says, he is pleased that the owner is preserving Josephine's memory.

Jean-Claude Baker, 66, was one of Josephine's companions -- a gay man, like many of her friends. They performed together in the last years of her life. She called him her 13th child; he took on her name. But the two had a falling-out before her death.
He still lives in her world today. He has named his restaurant after her and decorated it with images of her. He has also written the most detailed biography of Baker to date. Like many who were very close to her, he seems caught in her shadow.
Child of a Rainbow Tribe
On a hot Sunday in July in New York, the city's annual Gay Pride Parade slowly makes its way south along Fifth Avenue. At the front of the parade are lesbians on their Harleys, followed by gay police officers, firefighters and doctors, and above it all flies the rainbow flag, the symbol of the gay and lesbian movement.
A wax firgure of burlesque dancer Josephine Baker stands on display at Madame Tussauds
A wax firgure of burlesque dancer Josephine Baker stands on display at Madame Tussauds on December 19, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Jarry Baker, the child of a rainbow tribe, stands on the sidewalk with a flag in his hand. He likes watching the parade -- not every year, as he did at the start, but once in a while. He watches the floats, listens to the music and waves to the hooting, beaming parade-goers as they pass by.
He doesn't know how much longer he will stay in New York. He says he would like to move to Australia or New Zealand and set up a farm. Then he says that he'd like to return to Argentina. And then, later, he says that he feels very comfortable in Finland, where he has family.
A Finnish journalist tracked down Jarry Baker's mother and his siblings and flew with him to Helsinki. It was 14 years ago. Jarry says that they got along marvelously, and that he felt close to them. He has visited them twice since then. Three visits in 14 years.
The last of the floats pass by. "Those people look so happy," says Jarry Baker, as he stands on the sidewalk, looking down the street at the parade, waving his rainbow flag.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan 

Josephine Baker - Black is Beautiful


              Josephine Baker being interviewed by a journalist in her dressing room, circa 1930s.

                        The Diva

        Josephine and her adopted kid

               La Baker-True star

                Truly beautiful,Baker

Josephine Baker and the legendary Russian ballet dancer Serge Lifar on the beach, probably somewhere in France. Very probably in the early 1930s. Photo: Hôtel des Ventes, Genève
Josephine Baker and the legendary Russian ballet dancer Serge Lifar on the beach, probably somewhere in France. Very probably in the early 1930s. Photo: Hôtel des Ventes, Genève

Josephine Baker on a Mediterranean cruise, around 1929. Love that she wearing what looks like a Chanel or Jean Patou outfit.
Josephine Baker on a Mediterranean cruise, around 1929. Love that she wearing what looks like a Chanel or Jean Patou outfit.

Josephine Baker by American photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Vogue (1935)
Josephine Baker by American photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Vogue (1935)



josephine baker

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker


Josephine Baker: The Black Pearl.

Josephine Baker: The Black Pearl.


  1. Great post! Still an icon of fashion to this day!

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. The first time I became familiar with Josephine Baker, was when I got to see the Josephine Baker Story on HBO....many, many years ago. I was fascinated by her then as I am now. What a talented yet flawed woman...I truly feel that the reason she banished her son was because she didn't really want to face her own sexuality...seeing how open her son was only made it that much more difficult for Josephine to be comfortable with her true sexuality. I read somewhere that she had affairs with these equally famous beautiful women and yet when confronted about it, she'd deny it to the point of homophobia. That's how frightened she was. I feel bad for her, She was conflicted. Much like many of us out there who hadn't come to terms with our own sexuality until later on in myself. No matter, I will always regard Josephine Baker as the ultimate entertainer icon that inspired all of those who came after her. Always Imitated, never duplicated.....

  3. She was the Michael Jackson of her day.


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