The extraordinary life of Josephine Baker (part 1)

March 20, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Anyone lucky enough to have been in Paris in the 1930s and to have witnessed a performance by Josephine Baker, the African-American expatriate, would inevitably describe the experience in the same terms. It was mesmerizing. Baker had the ability to create a world on stage into which she could draw an audience, and to make everyone there feel as though she was performing solely for that single individual.

Josephine Baker was universally acknowledged to be the best stage performer of her era.

But it was not on stage that Baker gave the best performance of her life. In 1940, after Nazi Germany had successfully invaded France, a Nazi colonel and a column of soldiers showed up at the entrance of Baker’s château in the south of France. He demanded entrance, saying that Baker had been denounced as an active member of the French resistance.

Baker stood in her doorway, and with the entertainment moxie that she regularly displayed in her stage shows, she boldly refused to allow the soldiers to enter her home. She denied being part of the resistance. She denied harboring fugitives in her home.

Instead, she said, the Nazis needed to return to Germany. They had invaded France illegally, and they were acting illegally now.

Taken aback, the Nazi colonel tried a different tact. He asked if he could be invited in to have a cup of coffee.

“We don’t have any coffee in this house,” she said, “and it’s because of you.”

She went on to tell the colonel that if the Nazis would leave France alone and go back to Germany, he could then return to her house, and she would gladly invite him in and serve him a cup of coffee. As a friend, she said, not as an oppressor.

The Nazi colonel was so befuddled by Baker’s performance that he ordered his troops to leave, and the search of her home never took place. Had the Nazis forced their way into her house, they would have discovered that all of the charges made against Baker were true.

Josephine Baker was one of the most famous and recognizable individuals in Europe at the beginning of World War II. Her love of France and the freedoms that it had offered to her, a black American who had been denied so many things by her own country, steeled her determination to fight the German occupation with any of the tools that she possessed. And she possessed a great many.

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906. She was the descendent of African and Native American slaves. She experienced racism from a very early age. She also determined early in her life that she wanted to be a stage performer.

She was married at the age of 13, but that lasted less than a year. She was married again at the age of 15 to a man named William Howard Baker. That marriage too did not last, but it gave her the name that she would use for the rest of her life. 

She caught on as a singer and dancer with a traveling vaudeville troupe, and her talent and ability to project herself to a live audience brought her success and some fame in entertainment circles. She could dance, she could sing, and she could tell jokes. It was the 1920s in New York, and she was making her name known not just in Harlem but also on Broadway.

Her success in New York opened the door for a trip to Paris, where she became an instant success. Her act included an almost nude erotic dance that overwhelmed a city that was becoming addicted to entertainment. Ernest Hemingway described Baker as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” And Hemingway was not the only famous author who was mesmerized by Baker. Everyone talked about her, and everyone saw her show.

Baker achieved not only fame, but also a fortune with ticket sales, movie deals, tours of the major cities in Europe, including Germany, and endorsements of products. She was even the guest star at the start of the Tour de France for four years in the 1930s.

Baker’s work for the French resistance after the German invasion of France put her freedom and her life in danger several times. Because she was a famous star, she was allowed by French and German officials to organize an entertainment tour. That tour included stops in Spain and Portugal.

The French resistance had gathered a great deal of information about how the Nazis planned to conduct their war against Great Britain, but they had no means of getting that information, which included many photographs and high-level documents, out of France and into the hands of the British. Baker’s tour gave them that opportunity. The entourage traveled with a lot of people, equipment, and luggage. They were stopped at many points by French and German officials, but Baker’s ability to draw attention to herself, and away from any of the incriminating information that she carried with her eventually insured the success of the resistance plan. She and her touring group made it to Lisbon, Portugal, where they could turn the information that they had acquired over to the British embassy.

Eventually, however, the Nazis realized much of what Baker was up to, and she had to flee France, and she spent much of the rest of the war entertaining allied troops. 

Next week: Josephine Baker’s post-World War II life.

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