Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was a French jazz singer and dancer who came from America. She was the Jazz Age made flesh, a shooting star that burned across its sky. Hemingway said she was “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw or ever will.”
She was tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles. So said Picasso.
About 1500 men asked for her hand in marriage. One killed himself at her feet. Two others fought over her with swords among the graves of St Stephen’s in Budapest.
She came to Paris in 1925. She fell in love with the city and called it her country.
Her “Danse sauvage” that year made her famous: wearing little more than some feathers she danced the Charleston to jazz music. She danced wild and free, possessed by the music.
Even though she came from a place as ordinary as St Louis in the middle of America, the daughter of a washerwoman, because she was black the white men of France saw her as more African than American. She was “primitive” and “exotic”.
“White folk’s imaginations are really something when it comes to the Negro,” she said.
She played to this picture of her as a black savage with the “Danse sauvage” and later with her famous banana dance: all she wore were 16 bananas!
From dancing she branched into singing and acting. She travelled the world and wore the most beautiful clothes. She walked her leopard down the streets of Paris.
Now famous in Europe, she returned to America in 1935. But America was not ready for an “uppity coloured girl”, as her husband later put it. When she got back to France she gave up her American citizenship and became French.
In 1940 Paris fell to Hitler. Because she was so famous she could travel freely behind enemy lines with few questions asked. She wrote down enemy secrets for the French Resistance in invisible ink on her sheet music!
In 1942 she sang for the troops in North Africa, raising their spirits in a dark time.
She was not able to have children herself – she nearly died during childbirth – so she adopted 12 children from her world travels:
- Aiko (Korea)
- Luis (Colombia)
- Janot (Japan)
- Jari (Finland)
- Jean-Claude (Canada)
- Moses (French)
- Marianne (France)
- Noel (France)
- Brahim (Arab)
- Mara (Venezuela)
- Koffi (Ivory Coast)
- Stellina (Morocco)
They all lived together at her big, beautiful house in south-western France.
She was a big believer in the brotherhood of man. That is why she spoke at the civil rights march on Washington in 1963 and yet could not support the Black Power movement.
By the 1960s she was deeply in debt and lost her house. The princess of Monaco gave her another, smaller one to live in.
In her last years she sang at Carnegie Hall in New York – accepted at last by America – and made a comeback in Paris. She died in her sleep at age 68, almost 50 years to the day after she came to Paris.