Before Beyoncé, there was Josephine Baker. Josephine was a rule breaker, a pioneer and an icon seemingly unrivalled in her cultural significance.
Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, she only attended school until the age of 10. She also began to work at the age of 8, working first as a domestic servant and later as a waitress. At the age of 15, Josephine’s street dancing garnered attention and she was recruited into a vaudeville show in St. Louis and moved to New York shortly after, appearing in Broadway revues Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies. It was at this time that Josephine was billed as the “highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”. Josephine was also at this time doing blackface comedy, with these performances vital to allow her the opportunity to tour Paris which would later become her home.
At the age of 19, La Revue Nègre opened in Paris and Josephine was an instant success in the city due to her erotic dancing. Baker gained further notoriety for the Dance Sauvage, wearing a skirt of stringed artificial bananas and for being accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, adorned in a diamond studded collar. Becoming a star of the silver screen, Josephine starred in European films like Siren of the Tropics, Zouzou and Princesse Tam Tam while also releasing music like J’ai deux amours which was to become her biggest hit.
Josephine was to diversify her career in 1934 when she took the lead in the opera La créole. She trained extensively for the complex singing which the role required, becoming a vocalist of exceptional quality and of legendary status in Europe. Yet her star turn in her native United States, in a revival of the Ziegfeld Follies, was highly criticised by the likes of Time Magazine who referred to Josephine as a “Negro wench”. She was to return to Paris soon afterwards heartbroken, becoming a French citizen soon afterwards.
Josephine was soon to evolve once again into a French war hero in 1939, as World War Two was starting, French military intelligence recruited Josephine. In her role as honourable correspondent, she collected information about German troop locations from officials whom she met at parties, charming high-ranking officials into giving her information to the advantage of the Allied Forces. Later, when Germany invaded France, moving to her Dordogne home, Josephine housed friends of the Free France movement, supplying them with visas. She aroused little suspicion due to her role as a high-profile entertainer, moving around Europe and the world carrying messages on her sheet music in invisible ink. She even pinned notes inside her underwear when travelling to Morocco to avoid detection. Following a bout of severe illness, Josephine then began to travel to entertain Allied troops in North Africa, creating a basic entertainment network for troops as the Free French movement had no organised network of their own. She even charmed King Farouk of Egypt into presiding over a celebration of Free France and Egypt’s relationship even though his country was officially neutral. For her efforts in the war, she received the Croix de Guerre, Rosette de la Résistance and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.
In 1949, Josephine began to work once again at the Folies Bergère, now unafraid to discuss serious issues and soon Josephine was once again one of the preeminent entertainers of Parisian nightlife. In 1951 she worked in Miami, winning a battle for desegregation of the club’s audience in the process. The club run was a roaring success and she then followed this with a US tour, a far cry from her period in the Ziegfield Follies fifteen years later. The tour, much like the Miami club period was a commercial and critical success and Josephine was honoured with the title Woman of the Year by the NAACP. Yet this fortune would be reversed when an incident at the Stork Club regarding race and a public fight with columnist Walter Witchell resulted in the termination of her working visa and she was not allowed into the US again for a period of almost a decade.
She did continue to work in this period, working in Cuba for the 7th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution as well as Yugoslavia, Belgrade and Macedonia. She would return to the US in 1973 to perform at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation, with a performance at the London Palladium for the Royal Variety Performance the following year.
Yet perhaps Josephine’s greatest role was as an activist for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, after being refused reservations at 36 hotels in New York. She began to write articles on racial segregation in the United States, even given a talk at Fisk University on “France, North Africa and The Equality of The Races In France”. She became a target of the Ku Klux Klan, publicly saying she was unafraid in the face of threatening phone calls. Josephine worked actively with the NAACP, to such an extent that she was honoured with Josephine Baker Day on May 20 1951. Yet with her crusading efforts, like the case of Willie McGee, Josephine became increasingly controversial and was shunned by many in the black community. She even spoke at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. by her side, the only female speaker at the event. Her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement was viewed as so great that Coretta Scott King, following the death of her husband Martin Luther King Jr., asked whether Josephine would become leader of the movement. She declined for the sake of her 12 children, the “Rainbow Tribe”.
She died in 1975, not long after a retrospective revue of her career at Bobino in Paris, due to a cerebral haemorrhage. She held a full Roman Catholic funeral at L’Eglise de la Madeleine, the only American-born woman to receive full French military honours at her funeral. Her legacy is one of sexual progression, racial activism and she has undoubtedly left an indelible imprint on international culture.
Yet why is Josephine Baker in a blog post on a blog devoted to LGBT+ history? Quite simply Josephine was a bisexual of note, who had relationships with both men and women including novelist Georges Simenon and artist Frida Kahlo. However, if one is honest, her bisexuality is one of the least fascinating facts about Josephine. She is a prime example of the legacy an LGBT+ person can leave upon society, regardless of sexual preference and she is a true role model for us all.