Born on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker grew up in an impoverished household in St Louis, Missouri. As a child, it’s reported that she would dig through trash cans to find old, beat-up dolls that she would repair for her sisters.
To help raise money to support her family, Josephine Baker would perform on the streets. Life was rough, but she never once gave up on pursuing her dreams. In time, she joined the vaudeville circuit.
Fast forward two decades later in Paris, France. Baker became one of Europe’s most prominent black stars while little girls everywhere were playing with dolls of her.
In order to get there, however, she first built up her career during the Harlem Renaissance. Once she had made her way to Paris, she thrived as a civil rights activist, multi-talented performer, and even a French spy during the Second World War.
Baker made a name for herself as a dancer, singer, and actress. France allowed her to reach for the stars without the constraints of the systemic racism that she grew up in.
In the early days of her career, Josephine Baker headlined the revues of the Folies Bergere. Her famed ‘banana dance’ titillated Paris and brought her international attention.
She was also the first black woman to star in a major motion picture when she appeared in the 1927 Mario Nalpas and Henri Elievant directed silent film Siren of the Tropics.
Clearly, Baker was in a league of her own. Her story of clawing her way up the ladder, going from being a lowly street performer to becoming one of the most successful black women of her time is downright inspirational.
She had this kind of raw, unabated sex appeal and wasn’t afraid to flaunt it. Join Facts Verse as we explore how Josephine Baker shocked the world with her sexual conquests while winning over a legion of adoring fans, overcoming stereotypes, and knocking down walls in the process.
Baker’s Childhood And Teen Years
As we mentioned in the intro, Josephine Baker grew up in abject poverty. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, an adoptee of a formerly enslaved couple, while her father’s identity is disputed. Records list him as being a drummer named Eddie Carson, but there’s no way to be sure if he’s her actual biological father.
In her early years, she danced on the streets of St. Louis to take care of her sisters. When she was 13, she got a job as a waitress at the Old Chauffeurs Club while also housekeeping for affluent white families on the side.
That was the same year that she married her first husband, Willie Wells. That marriage annulled less than a year later, but she married again when she’s 15 to a man named William Howard Baker. Once again, she eventually divorced him, but by that time, she was working as a traveling vaudeville performer.
Dropping her original surname, McDonald, Josephine adopted Baker’s last name even despite the fact that their marriage hadn’t worked out.
In 1919, Josephine began performing with a black vaudeville group that called themselves the Dixie Steppers. She then toured with a musical called Shuffle Along. While touring with this production, she lightened her skin to conform to the day’s racist beauty standards.
At first, Baker served as comedic relief in dance numbers as a chorus girl at the end of the line. She struggled to get the dance steps down, but by the end of the show, she had figured out the steps better than the rest of her troupe.
In 1923, Baker made her way to New York City just in time to take part in the beginning years of the famed Harlem Renaissance. She then appeared in the Broadway incarnations of Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies.
After appearing in these shows for a year, she earned her own billing thanks to her distinct dance style and undeniable talent. At that point, people started referring to her as the highest-paid chorus girl in the world. Not too shabby for a poor little Black girl from St. Louis.
A New Life In Paris
Baker first arrived in Paris, France, in the autumn of 1925 with the cast of La Revue Negre and producer Caroline Reagan. Despite being a wealthy white socialite, La Revue Negre was Reagan’s attempt at bringing authentic Black American culture to Europe.
Baker performed with her dance partner Joe Alex the ‘Dance Savage’. During that number, she wore a costume consisting of a skirt made of faux bananas. This iconic look became a symbol of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.
She had no qualms about going on stage nearly nude, which led to her becoming a popular entertainer in Paris. Baker’s energy, enthusiasm, and unrestrained dance style was unlike anything that the predominately white audience had ever seen before.
In France, Baker experienced freedom on a level she never knew possible. Not only was she free to perform as she pleased, but couples could kiss in the street, and women could show their nude bodies in theaters. The culture shock was intense, but Baker took to her newfound freedom quickly. She was only 19 when she arrived in Europe, but she knew that Paris was where she belonged.
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Her Sexual Conquests Were Legendary
As her famous song ‘J’ai Deux Amours’ suggests, Baker was bisexual and uninhibited when it came to sex. She was once quoted while on a controversial tour of Germany as saying that she wasn’t immoral, rather she was just ‘natural’.
Baker regularly indulged in wild cocaine-fueled orgies in Weimar, Germany, with director Max Reinhardt. It’s also reported that she would often found having sex with an English stage manager in the curve of the curtain between performances at the Casino of Paris.
Baker once said that she had married thousands of times because she felt like every man she ever loved had been her husband.
After a performance in Stockholm for the King of Sweden, Baker won the affection of the Crown Prince Gustaf-Adolf.
The young prince summoned Baker to the palace and led her through a secret entryway to a room with a lavish bed covered in furs.
He then proceeded to cover her naked body with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones.
It’s been said, that a night with Baker could had for 50,000 Belgian Francs or a piece of priceless jewelry. But Baker seemed to have no trouble bedding whoever caught her eye.
Baker’s lighthearted approach to sex and commerce often would shock the prudish. But she couldn’t care less what people thought of her.
Baker’s Unusual Pets
Known for being a bit of an eccentric, Baker reportedly loved letting white mice run around her naked body.
At one point, she’s spotted walking down the streets of Paris with a cheetah named Chiquita while surrounded by thousands of her fans. Chiquita would also often perform with her onstage.
Josephine had a love for both domesticated and exotic animals. In addition to Chiquita, she had dogs, cats, fish, and a pig named Albert.
Josephine The Spy
At the start of the second world war, a secret agent with the French Military Intelligence Service named Jacques Abtey was in search of a spy who was able to travel throughout Europe and Africa without raising suspicion.
One of Abtey’s colleagues suggested that Baker might fit the bill, so he paid her a visit at her mansion, Le Beau Chene.
When he showed up at the property, Josephine emerged from the bushes wearing an old hat that had seen better years with a can of snails in her hand that she had been collecting to feed to her ducks.
It took Baker no time to sign up for the mission. In her eyes, Paris had given her everything and made her who she was. So, she figured it was her duty to give the Parisians her life if need be.
Fueled with patriotism, Baker started attending parties at the Italian and Japanese Embassies. She would jot down notes on her arms and the palms of her hands, documenting all of the things that she would overhear.
Abtey tried to warn her that the job was dangerous, but she insisted that nobody would ever expect that she was a spy.
Abtey and Baker soon became lovers. They then set out on tour together, with Abtey posing as Jospehine’s ballet master. The two smuggled intel for the Allies written in invisible ink on sheets of music.
They ordered to set up a transmission center in Morocco. So, Baker and Abtey made the nation their home base for some time. And, of course, since Baker was the eccentric animal lover she was. She refused to travel without her entourage of monkeys and mice.
Baker would seduce officials and royals in Morocco, including the famed El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakesh. After Baker became gravely ill, rumors abounded that she had been poisoned by El Glaoui’s wives.
During the war, Baker helped numerous European Jews, including one of the Rothschild’s, obtain Moroccan passports. By doing this, she saved countless lives.
While touring Europe and Africa, Baker would pin sensitive information she obtained to her bra. On one evening, while giving a performance for American Soldiers in Algeria, German aircraft began shooting overhead.
Baker remained composed and proceeded to help herself to the buffet while everyone else around her scrambled to take cover. As the attack picked up intensity, she eventually got down on the ground with everybody else. Even on the ground in her 1900 Paris dress surrounded by soldiers, she kept eating her ice cream.
Josephine was awarded with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, in 1961. She began having financial troubles in the late 60s and quit performing in 1968.
She was then offered a home in Monaco by Grace Kelly, who by that time was married to Prince Ranier.
In 1974, she performed at the Monaco summer ball at Princess Grace’s request. That same year, she performed a week’s worth of sold-out shows in New York City.
On April 10, 1975, Baker had a cerebral hemorrhage and went into a coma. She passed away without ever regaining consciousness.
Josephine’s funeral was held in Paris while she buried in Monaco. In November 2021, Baker’s remains were reburied at the Pantheon in Paris, thus becoming the first Black woman to be laid to rest in the secular temple dedicated to the ‘great men’ of France.
Did you know that Josephine Baker served as a spy in World War II and that she had a pet cheetah named Chiquita that often performed with her on stage?
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