Josephine Baker: The Bronze Venus - Part 2
By Len "Muddy" Mardeusz
Roving Reporter at- large
After having received negative reviews for her performances on Broadway in 1937, Josephine
Baker was distraught. She renounced her American citizenship and returned to Paris, France.
Josephine decided to become a French citizen, she also married French industrialist Jean Lion.
In 1939, France declared war on Germany in response to their invasion of Poland. The French Government placed great faith against a German attack because of their Maginot Line. An impressive series of bunker emplacements and tank traps stretching from the French border to Switzerland. Cut deep into rock, they were designed to stop tank movement across their border. The bunkers were highly reinforced and would not be destroyed by air bombardment. It was a supposed impregnable line of defense.
The French government recruited Josephine Baker as an “honorable military intelligent correspondent”. Secretly, Josephine was able to gather German troop locations from various Officials she met at parties. Josephine specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries charming important people as she had always done, while picking up valuable troop information. Her cafe-society fame and beauty enabled Josephine to rub shoulders with those
in the know. She used her womanly ploys on high-ranking Japanese officials, Italian bureaucrats and even visiting German industrialists. Josephine used the Italian Embassy as a base. She would report what she heard to the French military. She attended these gatherings collecting information without raising any suspicion. On June 10, Germany invade France, German tanks outflanked the impregnable Maginot Line and entered Paris unopposed on June 14,1940. Prior to that Josephine Baker left Paris and went to her Chateau home in southern France. She housed people
who eager to help the Free French cause led by General Charles de Gaulle. As an entertainer, Josephine had an excuse for traveling to neutral countries such as Switzerland, Portugal, as well as some in South America.
In 1941, Josephine traveled to the French Colonies in North Africa under the guise of having health issues but the real reason was to continue helping the French Resistance. During this time she suffered the last of of several miscarriages. She developed a severe infection that required hysterectomy.The infection spread and developed into peritonitis and then septicemia. She was forced to quell her war resistance in order to recover, which took a long time. While recuperating in Egypt, King Farouk asked her to sing; she refused because Egypt had not recognized
the Free French resistance. Finally on August 24 and 25, 1944, Paris was liberated from The German oppressors. After the war Josephine Baker received the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) Rosette de la Resistance (Medal of Liberation) and a special medal Legion of Honor presented by General de Gaulle.
Josephine’s last marriage to French composer Jo Bouillion, ended as she adopted 10th child. After the divorce her Southern chateau was foreclosed and she was removed from the property. So in 1949, after the war years was forced to reinvent herself. Bolstered by recognition of her wartime efforts Josephine returned to the Follies Bergere unafraid to take on new music and serious subject matter, the engagement was a rousing success. The plunge back reestablished Josephine Baker as a world wide preeminent entertainer. In 1951, she was invited back to the U.S.
to perform at a prominent Miami nightclub? Josephine insisted that segregation not be allowed to the club’s audience. Josephine Baker followed up her sold-out performances with a national tour. She was awarded the NAACP’s Woman of the Year. Six months of bookings lay ahead her future looked bright again.
Her appearance at New York’s Stork Club was stymied. Josephine refused to appear when learning the club’s unwritten policy of discouraging black patrons. She blasted the club for their silent but damning policy against black people. She even scolded her old ally, famous columnist Walter Winchell, for not supporting her boycott. Instead, Winchell responded with a series of harsh rebukes, including accusing Josephine of Communist sympathies. The publicity resulted in termination of her work visa, her engagements cancelled and forced a return to France. In 1968, she commented, “Nobody wants me, they have forgotten me. Josephine Baker was facing financial problems. Then
in 1973, she was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. Following her performance she received a long standing ovation from the audience.
The following year Josephine appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, and then at the Monacan Red Cross Gala, celebrating her 50 years in French show business. But advancing years and exhaustion began to take their toll. Over all the years, even while in France, Josephine Baker supported the Civil Rights Movement. She always refused to perform before segregated audiences. Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate live entertainment shows in Las Vegas, Nevada. After that episode she began receiving phone calls from people claiming to be from the KKK. She spoke at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wearing her Free French uniform saying.
“I have walked into palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And
much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that
made me mad. And when I get mad, you know I open my big mouth and then look out,
‘cause when Josephine Baker opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world...”
Josephine Baker had adopted children forming a family as she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe”. Josephine believed when taught “children of different ethnics and religion could be brothers and sisters”. She raised two French born girls and 8 sons from Korea, Japan, Colombia, Finland, Israel, France, Algeria and Venezuela. On April 8, 1975 Josephine Baker starred in a retrospective revue of her years in show business. Truly, many celebrities were in attendance such as Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Shirley Bassey, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Liza Minnelli and many more
In her last year’s Josephine Baker converted to Roman Catholicism. Josephine was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her last performance. She was in a coma and taken to a French hospital. Josephine Baker passed, at age 68 on April 12th, 1975. She received a full Roman Catholic funeral. Josephine is the only American born woman to have received full French Military Honors. She was laid to rest in Monaco.
Josephine Baker continues to inspire celebrities. Angelina Jolie cited her as “a model for multiracial families through adoption”. In 2006, Beyoncé performed Baker’s famous “Banana Dance”. In 2015 Josephine Baker was inducted into the Legacy Walk in Chicago, Illinois.
Hourra pour vous, Josephine Baker!
Retro Entertainment Roving Reporter-At-Large
Josephine’s mother Carrie was adopted in 1886, the adopting couple were former slaves of African and a Native American descent. The records of the city of St.Louis claim that (Joséphine Baker’s mother) Carrie was admitted to the exclusive white hospital. Why?
“Josephine Baker: The Bronze Venus - Part 1
Especially for a black woman (of that time) who ordinarily have had their baby at home. The father was simply identified as “ Edward”. It was claimed Josephine’s father was white. People in St.Louis say Carrie worked for a wealthy German family (around the time she became pregnant.) The mystery of Joséphine Baker’s real father remains unknown. Carrie let people think it was Eddie Carson was the father and he played along. Carrie and Eddie Carson had a song and dance act. Joséphine traveled with them. She was further exposed to show business
as vaudeville theaters doubled as home.
Joséphine lived her early life in the Mill Creek Valley area of St.Louis a racially mixed low-income neighborhood consisting mostly of rooming houses, brothels and apartments with no plumbing. She developed street smarts playing in the rail road yards. Joséphine had little formal education only attending school through the fifth grade. Josephine’s mother married a man usually unemployed, Arthur Martin, with whom she had three children. In Joséphine Baker’s teen years she struggled to have a good relationship with her mother Carrie. Carrie scolded Josephine for wanting to be an entertainer and not tending to her husband, Willie, whom she married in 1921at the age of 15.Josephine joined a vaudeville troupe booked for New York. She divorced Willie Baker in 1925, as she began to see a significant career ahead. She used Willie’s last name professionally for the rest
of her life.
Josephine Baker Hit New York during the “ Harlem Renaissance”, she performed at the Plantation Club in the chorus lines. Josephine performed as the last dancer on the end of a chorus line. This is where she performed in a comic manner, supposedly unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it correctly but with additional complex steps. Young Josephine Baker was billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”. At the same time her career began with blackface comedy at local clubs, at which her mother vehently disapproved.
However, these performances landed a huge opportunity to tour in Paris, France. Josephine Baker sailed for Paris, for a new adventure on October 1925 at the age of 19.
Josephine Baker once said,”I didn’t get my big break on Broadway. I was only a ‘Shuffle Along’ chorus girl. I became famous in the ‘20’s in France. I was one of the first (colored) Americans to move to Paris. Oh yes, Bricktop was there as well.” In Paris, Josephine, young and beautiful, became an instant success for her erotic dancing and appealing almost nude on stage. She also performed throughout Europe to full theaters. She returned to Paris to star at the famous Follies Berger’s, setting the standard for future acts. Josephine devised dances using French titles like “Danes
Savage” (Savage Dance) appearing on stage wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of bananas. Her success and various costumes gave birth to the term “Art Deco” in1925. Josephine Baker was interested in non-Western forms of art and dancing, including African.
Josephine’s performances constantly changed. In many of her shows she was accompanied on stage with her pet cheetah, she called the animal “Chiquita, adorned with a diamond collar. On occasion the cheetah escaped into the orchestra pit terrorizing the musicians, adding an element of excitement to the shows. At Josephine’s command the cheetah returned to the stage. She became the most famous and successful American entertainer working in France. Writer Ernest Hemingway called her, “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. The author spent hours
talking with Josephine in Paris bars. Picasso painted her alluring beauty. By all means, Josephine Baker had Paris, indeed all of France in the palm of her hand. She also took a lover, Giuseppe Abatino, but claimed he was her manager.
In1934, she took the lead in a revival of Offenbach’s opera “La Creole”. It premiered at the famed Theatre on the Champs-Elysees of Paris. Shirlee Bassey, who witnessed the performance said, “I swear, she went from a demure decent voice to a grande diva. In my life I have never seen such a spectacular singer and marvelous performer”. In 1936, she returned to New York to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. But Broadway generated low box office
numbers and the critics, as one Time critic wrote,”She is a Negro wench, whose singing and dancing leaves much to
be desired”, another wrote “Her voice is thin and almost dwarf-like. Josephine Baker broken hearted returned to Paris giving up her American citizenship. In 1937, She married French Industrialist Jean Lion and became
a French citizen. In 1939, France declared war on Germany in response to their invasion of Poland.
End of Part 1 - Josephine Baker
Retro Entertainment Reporter-At-Large
By Len "Muddy" Mardeusz
Roving Reporter at- large