.. circles. Varna produced the show Paris qui Remue, which featured Baker singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes. By the end of the 1930’s, “she ventured outside the music hall into two other professional areas. One was a motion picture .
. . and the other . . .
was light opera.”# Baker starred in two films, Zou-Zou, the story of a laundress who becomes a music hall star, and Princesse Tam-Tam. Jacques Offenbach’s operetta La Creole, a light opera about a Jamaican girl, was Ms. Baker’s most challenging role thus far. It opened at Theatre Marigny in Paris on December 15, 1934, and had a successful run for six months. In 1935, Baker decided she wanted to return to the United States.
It was arranged so that she would perform with the Zeigfeld Follies. The show opened in 1936 after extensive rehearsals. The reviewers did not disguise their disapproval. Jo Bouillon, Baker’s third husband, explained the reasons for her failure in America: “Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl.”# White audiences were used to black performers in “Negro” roles – Mammies and blues singers. Josephine Baker was too refined for the white public in America. Unfortunately, Baker’s personal life was not doing much better than her professional one.
Shortly after opening her American version of “Chez Josephine,” Baker reportedly had an argument with her business manager/lover, Pepito Abatino, which resulted in him taking the first ship back to France. He died in the spring of 1936, just before the Zeigfeld Follies ended. Before returning to France, Baker obtained a divorce from her second husband, Willie Baker, to whom she was still legally married. By 1937, Baker had married again. With this marriage to a French citizen, Jean Lion – a sugar broker, Baker was now a legal citizen of the country she loved. Unhappily, the Baker-Lion marriage was tumultuous and ended in divorce a little more than a year later.
In the fall of 1939, France declared war on Germany as a result of Germany’s invasion into Poland. The French military intelligence, Deuxieme Bureau, recruited Baker as an “honorary correspondent.” Baker spent the years of World War II gathering information, and smuggling documents for the Allies. Ms. Baker used her influence, and charm, to smuggle both intelligence and Jewish people across boarders. “Among many of the brave things she did was carry important messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She also took, as part of her entourage, secret agents who wouldn’t have been able to travel otherwise, and she also helped to smuggle out Jews – knowing her life was in jeopardy if their identities were discovered.”# In May of 1940, “Josephine Baker became a Red Cross volunteer, [and] attended to refugees who were flooding into France.”# But the mood in Europe began to change, and Ms.
Baker found it too dangerous to stay. Reluctantly, Baker moved to Morocco for four years. During that time she experienced several medical problems, which sent her to the hospital each time. In 1942, she was well enough to go on a North African tour, performing for French, British, and American soldiers. From there, she toured the Middle East doing benefit concerts for the Resistance.
“For her efforts on behalf of France, Baker was made a sub lieutenant in the Woman’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force.”# In August of 1944, France was liberated, and Baker returned home. “In 1946 she was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.”# After World War II, Ms. Baker regularly starred at the Follies- Bergeres and appeared on both French and British television. She also recorded several of her “signature” songs, such as “Pretty Little Baby” and “J’ai Deux Amones.” Ms. Baker married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947.
The two of them restored Les Milandes, a 300-acre estate which, eventually, included two hotel, three restaurants, a miniature golf course, a wax museum of the scenes from Josephine Baker’s life, stables, a patisserie, a foie gras factory, a gas station and a post office. Being a friend to animals, Josephine “populated . . . Les Milandes with dogs, cats, monkeys, parakeets, ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys and pheasants.”# Baker expected the proceeds of tourism to help with the expenses of running the massive estate.
The rest of the expenses would be paid through her various performances. Baker returned to the United States in 1948, but, just as in 1936, was not well received. This time, however, she decided to use her influence, limited as it was in America, to take a stand against racism. Ms. Baker insisted on a nondiscrimation clause in her contracts, and integrated audiences at all her performances.
“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared May 20, 1951, Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts to fight racism.”# An example of Ms. Baker’s fight against racism occurred in a segregated Miami nightclub, the Copa City, in 1951. No entertainer had ever played to a non-segregated audience in Miami, and negotiations were taxing. At one point, she turned down $10,000 a week because they refused to guarantee integrated audiences. Ms. Baker did not give up, and finally opened at Copa City to its first integrated audience.
The Philadelphia Inquirer said of Josephine Baker: “Her appearances have been marked by perhaps the most outspoken opposition to racial discrimination and segregation ever shown by a Negro artist, except [Paul] Robeson.”# In 1954, Baker decided to return to France and start a family. It was her intense desire to prove that people of different races could live in harmony. She adopted twelve children – ten boys and two girls – all of various ethnic backgrounds. She called her group her “Rainbow Tribe.” Her adopted children, in order from oldest to youngest, were “Akio (Korean), Louis (Columbian), Jarri (Finnish), Jean Claude (French), Jannot (Japanese), Moses (Israeli), Brahim (Arab), Marianne (French), Mara (Venezuelan Indian), Cokoffi (African), [Stellina (unknown)] and Noel (French). Each child [was] privately tutored with consideration to his or her religious and cultural background.”# Her husband, Jo Bouillon, became increasingly concerned with the expenses incurred by running Les Milandes, caring for the children, and Baker’s unrealistic attitude toward money.
He left in 1960 to live in Argentina. In 1963, a black producer had the idea to bring Josephine Baker to the United States to participate in a historical event in which over 200,000 people converged on Washington, D.C., to protest racism. The reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Later, Baker admitted it was one of her most memorable experiences.
By 1964, Baker’s 300-acre estate was in serious financial trouble. She spent four years performing, scrimping and praying that Les Milandes would, somehow, stay in her possession. In spite of all her hard work, the French government seized the estate in 1968. Although she was evicted, Princess Grace of Monaco, moved by Baker’s predicament, arranged for Josephine and her children to live in a villa near Monte Carlo. Ms. Baker experienced health problems during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, which kept her in and out of hospitals. She was married, for the last time, in 1973, at the age of sixty-nine, to American artist Robert Brady.
The marriage fell apart within a year. “In 1974, the Societe de Bains Mer of Monte Carlo invited Baker to star in their annual benefit for the Monacan Red Cross, the organization that helped subsidize her home near Monte Carlo. The show was called Josephine and told the story of Baker’s life in a series of scenes.”# Four days after the successful opening of the show in Paris, April 12, 1975, Ms. Baker experienced a stroke while she slept, which led to coma and eventually her death. Her lavish funeral was attended by more than 20,000 mourners at the church of the Madeleine in Paris.
The service was broadcast on French national television. Josephine Baker can be given many titles – jazz innovator, civil rights activist, World War II hero, and star – but her most prized title was, probably, that of “loving mother.” Baker’s dream of a world filled with brotherhood was realized with her greatest achievement: her “Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine Baker once said: “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.”# I certainly hope I am alive to experience this wonderful world born from the imagination and initiative of Josephine Baker. Music.