“Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”—Josephine Baker.
Often referred to as the Beyoncé of the 1920s, Josephine Baker lived a dozen lives in her one lifetime. The African-American singer made France her home, rising to stardom for her legendary dance moves, sultry voice, and original sense of vaudeville humor. But why doesn’t history talk more about the “Black Pearl” of Paris? What was the deal with her many marriages? Did men literally tear each other apart for her favor? Which big names in art and history did she rub elbows—and other things—with? Dance to these 42 catchy facts about Josephine Baker, the singer, spy and activist who took the 20th century by storm.
42. Thanks for the Green Card
Baker obtained French citizenship from her third marriage to Jean Lion in 1937. While the marriage died out—they separated after just three years—she kept her new nationality.
41. I Could Use More Bling
Josephine Baker became the first American woman ever to be award the Croix de Guerre. In 1946, she was also honored with the Medal of the Resistance.
40. Smash Bros
It feels like a tale of medieval chivalry, but it’s true: two men dueled over Baker’s honor in 1928. While staying in Budapest, Baker was ogled and accosted by Andrew Czlovoydi, a Hungarian Calvary Captain. Baker’s manager, Count Pepito di Albertini, would not tolerate such ignoble behavior towards his Josephine, so he challenged Czlovoydi to a duel by sword.
Baker cheered on from her seat atop a tombstone as the suitors sparred in a local cemetery for 10 straight minutes. She did, however, put an end to the fight as soon as Albertini took a shoulder injury. In the name of their beloved lady, the men agreed to wrap things up.
39. Room for 12 More
Beating the likes of Brangelina by decades, Josephine Baker adopted 12 foster kids of many ethnicities and nationalities. She called her family “The Rainbow Tribe.”
38. Best Stars Forever
Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker were close buddies. Together since 1951, the friendship began after Kelly defended Baker from racist servers at the famous Stork Club, who had refused to serve the black entertainer. The white actress angrily walked out of the club in a show of solidarity for Baker and vowed to never patronize the Stork Club again.
Although Kelly did return five years later with her future husband, the Prince of Monaco.
37. A Real Friend Has Real Estate
After Baker and her Rainbow Tribe of kids fells on hard financial times, her close friend Grace Kelly did her best to smooth things over with the creditors. While Baker did end up losing her château, Kelly refused to let her dear friend starve: Princess Grace of Monaco arranged for Baker to have a villa right in Kelly’s adopted country.
36. Spot the Difference
Baker had a pet cheetah named Chiquita, who actually had a role in the singer’s act. When they weren’t in the spotlight, Baker spoiled Chiquita by letting her ride in the car and sleep in her bed. Chiquita was truly living our dream lives.
35. A Ram of a Roommate
Many of Baker’s eccentric pets had a place in her professional life. For one, her pet goat named Toutoute lived right the dressing room of her nightclub. We hope those gowns were insured…
34. Hog Heaven Renovations
Albert, Baker’s beloved pet pig, survived on food scraps from her nightclub’s kitchen. It turned out to be a robust diet… so robust, that Albert got so fat that the kitchen door had to be broken down in order to let the singer’s prized pig roam freely. Aren’t you happy for modern health codes?
33. The Sweet Smell of Swine
Baker always looked her best—why should her pets be exceptions? The entertainer liked to dress her pet pig Albert up in fine perfumes that would put our humble collections of Bath & Body Works products to shame.
32. A Dame of Many Names
Josephine Baker collected colorful nicknames over her life. Throughout her long career, she was called “La Baker,” “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl,” and even the “Creole Goddess.”
31. There Can Only Be Four
It’s said that Josephine Baker received more than 1,500 proposals from men over the course of her life. That makes it all the more impressive that she got married only four times.
30. Playing for Both Teams
Baker’s bisexuality was an open secret. She entertained several female lovers—notably during her years in the United States, where segregation laws forced her into boarding houses instead of the hotels where she built her fame.
Odes to her “roommates” came in the form of songs like “J’ai Deux Amours” (“I Have Two Loves”). For years, this song has been interpreted as “Oh, she’s talking about her love for both America and France.” But as time went on, people like Jean-Claude Baker, her biographer and adopted son, saw the subtext (and sexuality) for what it was.
29. Set Up From the Beginning
Josephine “La Baker” Baker was actually born “Freda Josephine McDonald” in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1906. Most peculiar for African-American babies at the time, she was born in a hospital—not at home by midwife—where her mother, Carrie, stayed for several weeks after her birth. This has led her biographers to suggest that an unnamed benefactor—who might have been her father—footed the bill for Carrie’s stay.
28. Papa, Can You Hear Me?
The identity of Baker’s natural father remains a mystery. On paper, her father was listed as Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer. For various reasons, her biographers hold this status as highly doubtful.
27. The Dancing Dynasty
Baker descended from a musical family. Both her mother and legal father were performers; they once made their living as a dance-and-song act, where baby Josephine landed her first appearance when she was barely a year old.
26. Early Bloomer
Baker made her first marriage when she was only 13 years old. The groom’s name was Willie Wells, but the marriage lasted for barely a year. The teenager rebounded from her divorce by joining the Jones Family Band and remarrying just two years later.
25. Who Needs Alimony?
At the age of 15, Josephine married her second husband Willie Baker. Although they divorced just four years later, she would keep Willie’s last name for the rest of her professional life.
24. Hard to Please
Teen years can be tough on mothers and daughters, but the tensions between Baker and her mother Carrie was exaggerated by (1) Baker’s two divorces before the age of 20 and (2) Carrie’s disapproval of Baker’s entertainment career.
Carrie hoped that her daughter would settle down and pay more attention to her second husband, Willie. Instead, Baker focused on her booming career. While the daughter would always return home from tours with gifts and money for her mom and little sister, she couldn’t buy Carrie’s approval. The harsh relationship was a deciding factor in Baker’s move to Paris.
23. Step by Step
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Baker was a regular Broadway performer. In fact, she was billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville” for her notorious act, where she would pretend not to know her moves as a member of the chorus line. Later, in the encore, she would perform the steps accurately and with super-complexity.
22. Name Dropping
In Paris, Baker rubbed elbows with the biggest names in modernist art. And she made an impression: writer Ernest Hemingway declared her to be “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” and Pablo Picasso jumped at the chance to paint her beauty. The French director Jean Cocteau also got to work promoting her to stardom, although her film success was limited to silent pictures in Europe.
21. Going Bananas
Josephine Baker is probably most associated with her banana-skirted dance, the “Danse Sauvage.” Beyond the fashion statement, the act revolutionized how dancers thought about movement itself. To quote one scholar, “Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms. Most shocking to dance purists, she used her backside, shaking it, as one of her biographers says, as though it were an instrument.”
20. In Business and In Bed
Baker’s manager, Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, passed himself off as a count but was really a former stonemason from Sicily. He was also in love with her. While he proposed marriage, Baker was still married to her second husband at the time and wouldn’t leave him; the two did, however, embark on an affair.
19. Not an Overseas Sensation
Under Abatino’s management, Baker’s career and public image truly took off in Europe. In her home country of America, however, people were less receptive and even threatened by her challenging act. Time magazine outright called her racists names and a “wench,” and others said her voice was “too-thin” to fill real venues like the Winter Garden Theater. Is it any wonder she became a legal French citizen?
18. The Show Must Go On
In 1941, Baker suffered a miscarriage that ended in a complete hysterectomy and treatment for various infections. Rising above her brutalized health, the singer managed to pull herself together to go immediately touring across North Africa—and continue her espionage work.
17. The Queen Returns
Baker’s 1951 homecoming to Harlem was the biggest event of the decade. Her show was sold-out and got rave reviews, reaching its apex with a parade in her honor that was attended by 100,000 people. To no one’s surprise, she won that year’s NAACP “Woman of the Year” award.
16. Smell You Later
The singer’s return to the US was cut short due to a mix of racism, anti-Communism, and bad hospitality. Baker turned against journalist Walter Winchell, an ally who failed to support Baker’s criticisms against the Stork Club’s policy of limiting black customers.
In return, Winchell accused Baker of being a Communist sympathizer. This claim was serious enough that Baker’s work visa was revoked and she was forced back to France. She was denied return to the US for almost ten years.
15. Party Politics
In January 1966, Baker was the guest of honor at the seventh anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Performing at the Teatro Musical de La Habana, her show broke attendance records, as befits a star invited by Fidel Castro himself.
14. She Will Not Be Denied
Despite her huge fame, Baker still had difficulty finding accommodations in 1950s New York due to racial segregation. In fact, she and her husband were turned down at 36 hotels. It’s not like she didn’t have good reason already to be heavily involved in civil rights activism; the singer wrote pro-civil rights articles and gave talks to universities on the subject well into her later career.
13. Live Together or Die Alone
Baker famously refused to perform in racially segregated venues in the US, even turning down $10,000 from a Miami club who asked her to make an exception—the club eventually bent down to her demands. The entire city of Las Vegas began to integrate its audiences at her request. Although the Klu Klux Klan sent Baker death threats for her integrity, Baker refused to be intimidated.
12. Mark Your Calendars
The singer’s reputation as a civil rights activist was so well-esteemed that the NAACP declared 20 May 1961 to be “Josephine Baker Day.”
11. She Turned Down the King’s Crown
Josephine Baker was at Martin Luther King Jr.’s side and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. In the wake of King’s assassination five years later, his widow asked Baker to inherit her late husband’s position as leader of the Civil Rights movement.
Mulling it over, Baker ultimately had to turn the position down—she didn’t want to risk the welfare of her kids. In her words, they were “too young to lose their mother.”
10. All the Ladies
In addition to Clara Smith, Baker has same-sex affairs with performers like Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada Smith, and Mildred Smallwood. According to her son and biographer, relationships between black female performers weren’t super uncommon, as they would have to stick together against systemic abuse from bosses and racist housing policies; “lady lover friendship,” in his words, would ensue from this intimacy.
9. The Art of Romance
Frieda Kahlo is perhaps the most famous of Baker’s (rumored) female lovers. The Mexican artist met Baker on a 1939 visit to Paris. Awkwardly, Kahlo’s husband was traveling with his wife through this European trip.
8. Too Much of a Good Thing?
Baker’s fourth and final marriage was to French composer Jo Bullion. They divorced after 17 years of marriage in 1961, shortly after Baker had adopted the 11th of her 12 children. I guess you can’t have it all…
7. Pay to Play
Why did Baker adopt so many kids? She was out to prove “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” The “Rainbow Tribe,” as she called them, lived on her estate of hotels, farms, and rides. Baker would charge admission to visitors who wanted to come in and watch her children play and sing.
In the skeptical words of her son and biographer Jean-Claude Baker, “she wanted a doll.” A softer take on their “quirky” upbringing comes from her Japanese son, Akio, who described Baker as “a great artist, and she was our mother. Mother makes mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.”
6. Drowning in Praise
In 1975, Baker was discovered comatose from a cerebral hemorrhage in her hotel. She had been found lying in bed and fittingly surrounded by rave reviews of her performance from just four days earlier—the “Joséphine à Bobino 1975,” which celebrated her 50-year career.
5. A Veteran Send-Off
Passing away on April 2, 1975, Baker remains the only American woman to buried with full French military honors for her work with the French Resistance in World War II.
4. A Party ‘Til The End
Towards the end of her life, Baker converted to Roman Catholicism. Accordingly, she was given a full Catholic funeral service at the L’Eglise de la Madeleine. However, she was interred in her BFF Grace Kelly’s adopted home of Monaco.
3. Make Your Own Legacy
Despite her many marriages, Baker had no biological children from any of her four husbands.
2. The Secret Star Package
As a French Resistance spy in World War II, Baker weaponized the trappings of her superstar lifestyle. For one, the large piles of “sheet music” that accompanied her person on tours were actually secretly coded intel. She also pinned secret photographs of Axis military installments inside her underwear—the star-struck immigration officers were always too dazzled by Baker’s presence to really check her stuff.
1. After You, Josephine Baker
In 2003, actress Angelina Jolie admitted that she modeled her own diverse family on Josephine Baker’s. In her words, Baker was “a model for the multiracial, mulit-national family she was beginning to create through adoption.” Now that’s a committed fan.
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