Born as Freda Josephine McDonald on 3 June 1906 in St Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker spent most of her childhood in poverty.Her mother was adopted by former slaves of Native American and African descent, but Josephine never knew the true identity of her father. She was the daughter of Carrie McDonald, but her listed father, drummer Eddie Carson, seems to have merely played along with the role. She and everyone around her suspected, her father was a white man, but her mother never divulged the truth and took that information to her grave. However, it is said that she had worked for a German family right before she got pregnant and was admitted to an all-white female hospital for six weeks and gave birth to Josephine there.
Josephine spent her early life in a racially mixed low-income neighbourhood near Union Station, consisting mainly of cheap multi-tenant houses, brothels and apartments without indoor plumbing. As a child, Josephine was always poorly dressed and hungry and developed street smarts playing in the railroad yards of the Union Station. She had little formal education, attended Lincoln Elementary School only through the fifth grade and had dropped out by the age of 12. When she was only 8, Josephine began working as a live-in domestic for the white families in St. Louis and one occasion, one woman abused her, burning her hands when she put too much soap in the laundry. At 13 she joined at the Old Chauffeur's Club as a waitress, where she met Willie Wells and married him the same year. However, the marriage lasted less than a year. Following her divorce, she found work with a street performance group called the Jones Family Band and married Willie Baker in 1921 at 15.However, her mother did not like the idea of her becoming a professional entertainer and reproached her for not tending to her husband, Willie Baker. Josephine soon became disgusted with her mother’s relentless scolding and divorced her second husband, when her vaudeville troupe was booked into a New York City venue in 1925.
In New York, she performed in ‘Chocolate Dandies’ and in the floor show of the Plantation Club, Florence Mills’ old stomping ground, along with Ethel Waters, where she quickly became a crowd favourite. During the same year, she traveled to Paris to perform in ‘La Revue Negre’ at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 2 October 1925 and made an immediate impression on the French audiences, when she performed the ‘Danse Sauvage’ with her dance partner Joe Alex, wearing only a feather skirt. However, in the next year her career took a significant turn, when she performed in a show, called ‘La Folie du Jour’ at the Folies Bergère music hall and danced wearing a costume, look-alike a skirt made of sixteen artificial bananas attached to a string.
The show was wildly popular with the Parisian audiences and it made Baker one of the most sought after and highest-paid performers in Europe. In addition to that, she earned the valued admiration of the famous cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, along with nicknames like the Black Venus and the Black Pearl.
Cushioned on her onstage success, Josephine Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, landed film roles as a singer several years later and purchased an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the southwest of France. She named her estate Les Milandes and made necessary arrangements to move her family there from St Louis. In fact, within a short time, Josephine earned a fortune to match her fame. She acquired a gold piano, the bed of Marie Antoinette and even a diamond-collared cheetah. From her famous hairstyles to her flamboyant dresses, she was celebrated for her style. However, outside France, her skimpy outfits and sensual dancing were seen as a danger to moral decency and during her European tour, some of her shows were derailed. In Zagreb, her show had to be scrapped, as the protestors targeted the theatre, while in Vienna, the church opposite the venue started to ring its bells before and during the concert to refrain the spectators from committing the sin of watching her immoral performance.
Nevertheless, with the hope to establish herself as a performer in her home country, Josephine returned to the United States in 1936, to perform in the ‘Ziegfield Follies’. However, she was completely crestfallen, as she had to face unexpected hostile and racist reaction. She returned to France immediately, married French industrialist Jean Lion and as she obtained her citizenship from the country, which she had embraced her own, she renounced her US citizenship.
The year before the Nazis invaded Paris, in 1939, the most famous woman in Europe received an unexpected visitor, when Jacques Abtey, a captain in the Deuxième Bureau, the French intelligence agency, entered Josephine’s castle on the Dordogne River begrudgingly and offered her to work as a spy against the Nazi Germany. She agreed and the most famous sex symbol in Europe joined the Maquis, a group of guerilla freedom fighters, who reportedly trained her to shoot in the sewers under Paris. Every night after her show, she used to go to a nearby homeless shelter on Rue du Chevaleret to make beds, bathe old people and comfort the new arrivals.
In the summer of 1940, as the Nazis occupied the French capital, Josephine was given a far more dangerous and risky role to play. She was entrusted with the duty to act as a seductress who would entice the diplomats and the generals to confide in her and to pass on the important information to be forwarded to the envoy who would carry the concealed notes to Gen Charles de Gaulle’s agents in Lisbon.
Her performances as a famous entertainer provided her with the perfect excuse for travelling across Europe and as a glamorous star she was invited to the embassy parties. At those parties, Josephine was supposed to eavesdrop and flirt with the important persons to gather information about the locations of the German troop and airfields from the high-ranking Italian, Japanese, and Nazi officials. She used to write the information on her music sheets in invisible ink or on pieces of paper pinned to her underwear, with the hope that due to her reputation, nobody would dare strip her for a body search. She used to carry those papers across borders under the auspices of touring with Jacques Abtey, a fellow secret agent masquerading as her escort. Following the same method, she even smuggled secret photos of German military installations out of enemy territory.
In 1941, Josephine Baker and her escort travelled to the French colonies in North Africa, on the pretext of recuperation, as she was recovering from pneumonia. However, her actual intention was to establish a permanent liaison and transmission centre with the British intelligence in Casablanca and help to set up a network, making Spanish Moroccan passports available for the East European Jews, so that they may escape to South America.
All through the years of the Great War Josephine Baker lived in constant danger and was nearly arrested several times, including the day, when the Nazis came to search her castle. She captivated them with her alluring smile and flirtatious chatter, making them forget all about the basement, where several members of the Resistance were hiding. Had she been caught, she would have been sent to a concentration camp or face a firing squad. She took all the risk, despite the fact that she converted to Judaism, when she married Jean Lion, her third husband and she was aware that as a black woman and a Jew, her safety was vulnerable.
In addition to her work as a spy, Josephine volunteered for the Red Cross as a nurse and as a pilot, delivering supplies in her private plane and willingly took the responsibility of entertaining the French, British, and American troops throughout the war, to help them to boost up their morale and refused payment for her performances. In recognition of her service, Josephine Baker was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force and when the war was over, she was awarded with the Croix de Guerre, a military decoration of France and the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit for the military and the civil merits. Apart from that, General De Gaulle presented her the gold Cross of Lorraine.
In her later years, Josephine Baker became a prominent civil rights activist and in the 50s became an important supporter of Martin Luther King’s (Jr) Civil Rights Movement. In 1951, she went on tour around the United States, in an effort to help fight segregation and actively refused to perform for segregated audiences. On 8 April 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, financed notably by Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and others. The opening night was graced by the presence of Sophia Loren, Diana Ross, Mike Jagger and other important celebrities. Just four days later, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68. Joséphine Baker received a full military funeral in Paris on 15 April 1975.