How did a little girl from the streets of Missouri become the first black female superstar – and a hero of the French Resistance? We dive into the incredible, trailblazing life of Josephine Baker.
The girl from St. Louis
The woman the world would know as Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. We know her mother, Carrie, was a former music hall dancer of black and Native American heritage, but there’s debate over the identity of her father. Some, including at least one of Baker’s many foster children, believe he was white.
The family struggled to make ends meet. Her mother worked as a wash woman, while eight-year-old Josephine did chores for white families. It was a hard childhood, with Josephine being subjected to casual punishments by some of her employers. She once had her hands burnt because she’d used too much soap doing the laundry.
But she was also headstrong and ambitious, learning to play instruments like the trombone and ukulele, and working on her dance skills despite being ‘famished, empty to the point of breaking in two’. She got married aged just thirteen, but it didn’t last. She married again at fifteen, to William Baker, whose surname she kept even after they eventually divorced.
In the early 1920s, Josephine’s hard work paid off when she landed a role in a travelling musical and then got a part on Broadway. But the real turning point, which changed her life and the course of popular entertainment itself, came when she moved to perform in France.
The Danse Sauvage
Josephine Baker’s signature dancing style – sensuous yet tongue-in-cheek, erotic yet irreverent – made her a sensation in Paris. At the famed Folies Bergère cabaret hall, she dazzled audiences with her ‘danse sauvage’, performing almost nude in a skirt made of dangling rubber bananas.
As a vision of the exotic ‘Other’, arriving at a time of European fascination with black American and African cultures, she both embraced and subverted her own othering. She was sexy one second, clown-like the next, brandishing her near-naked body while pulling silly faces. The whole thing captivated onlookers, like critic Pierre de Régnier, who swooned over her ‘snake-like’ writhing and her ability to raise her ‘rump higher than her head, like a young giraffe’.
She was fetishized by the Modernist artists of the day – Picasso drew her, while Ernest Hemingway called her ‘the most sensational woman anyone ever saw’.
Riding high on her celebrity, she also released her own line of beauty products, including the pomade ‘Bakerfix’, so that women could emulate her signature glossy hairstyle and – in a time when racist attitudes massively prevailed throughout Europe and the States – a skin-darkening lotion called ‘Bakerskin’.
Baker the icon
In 1927, she starred in the silent French film Siren of the Tropics. With a storyline similar to A Star is Born, charting her character’s rise to fame in France, the movie was a cultural milestone since it made Josephine the first black woman to take the lead in a major studio picture.
She went on to star in more films that showcased her incredible talents as a dancer and singer. She even branched out into opera for the Paris stage. Her massive success in so many fields wasn’t replicated in her home country, however. A return to Broadway in 1936 was a flop and given an unashamedly racist write-up in Time magazine.
‘Josephine Baker is a St. Louis wash woman's daughter who stepped out of a N**** burlesque show into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris during the booming 1920s,’ the reviewer sneered. ‘In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a N**** wench always has a head start… But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young N**** woman whose figure might be matched in any night club show.’
Not surprisingly, Josephine fully embraced her European status the following year by becoming a French citizen.
Baker the hero
When the Second World War broke out, Josephine showed yet another side of herself: resistance fighter. She weaponised her fame by hobnobbing with German, Italian and Japanese officials and bureaucrats at clubs and embassies, slyly passing intelligence back to French anti-Nazi forces.
Following Hitler’s invasion of France, she sheltered French Resistance fighters and Jews in her chateau. She also went on tour as an entertainer in neutral countries like Portugal, all the while smuggling out intelligence about German troop movements and airfields. The details were written in invisible ink on sheet music, while she carried photographs of Nazi crafts in her underwear.
Awarded the highest military honours by the French government after the war, Josephine also became a figurehead of the civil rights struggle back in the United States. Working closely with the NAACP civil rights group, she was the only woman to officially speak during the 1963 March on Washington, just before Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
A world-changing legacy
Josephine Baker died in 1975, days after giving a triumphant final performance in front of an audience of A-listers like Mick Jagger and Sophia Loren. Her funeral was a major moment for France, bringing together 20,000 mourners. It was a fitting finale for a woman who smashed the pop cultural glass ceiling for black performers and risked her life to combat Nazism.
In 2021, in recognition of her achievements, she became the first black woman to be inducted into the Paris Pantheon, the great mausoleum of French heroes. As French president, Emmanuel Macron, put it: ‘Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because while you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you.’