Josephine Baker: War Hero, Stage and Screen Star and Mother
In honor of both Mother’s Day and the 76th Anniversary of The End of World War Two in Europe, here is the remarkable story of Josephine Baker, a war hero and mother to 12 (yes, twelve) adopted children…
American-born Josephine Baker became a famous Broadway singer and dancer in the U.S. in the 1920’s. She would eventually end up moving to France to become a movie star in 1925. In 1937, she opened her own night club the Chez Josephine, in Paris. After the fall of France to the Germans in 1940, Ms. Baker became a member of the French Resistance Movement. Her status as a renowned entertainer and night club owner allowed her to smuggle both people and top- secret information in and out of France. Ms. Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle, the highest military awards for The Nation of France in 1945 after the wars end. Ms. Baker adopted twelve orphaned children, after the war which she called her Rainbow Tribe; they all came from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, and Baker described them as a ‘symbol of true brotherhood’: regardless of their race, they composed a unit, a family. Ms. Baker and her family lived in a Castle in the South of France.
Her Own Famous Words:
“All my life, I have maintained that the people of the world can learn to live together in peace if they are not brought up in prejudice.”
And, Her Story:
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of 15, she headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance to perform at the Plantation Club. She joined the chorus lines of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). To further her career, Baker then sailed to Paris for a new venture, and opened in La Revue Nègre on October 2nd, 1925 at the age of 19 years old and at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Ms. Baker was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris and she became an instant success. At that time, Josephine was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Acclaimed artist, Picasso drew paintings depicting her alluring beauty and Jean Cocteau, the famed French Film Maker, became friendly with her and helped vault her to international stardom. Baker starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film, Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940. Eventually, Ms. Baker became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist, Jean Lion, in 1937.
In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Ms. Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, the French military intelligence. Ms. Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, while gathering information. Her fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she heard. She attended parties and gathered information at embassy parties without raising suspicion.. She housed people who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and even supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, Josephine had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carried information for transmission to England about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. Notes were written in invisible ink on Baker’s sheet music. After the war, Baker received the “Croix de Guerre” and the “Rosette de la Résistance” awards and she was honored by being made a “Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur” by General Charles de Gaulle.
In 1949, Josephine returned in triumph to the Folies Bergere in Paris. Bolstered by recognition of her wartime heroics, Baker, the performer, assumed a new gravitas, unafraid to take on serious music or subject matter. Her engagement in Paris was a rousing success and reestablished Baker as one of Paris’ preeminent entertainers. In 1951, Baker was invited back to the United States for a nightclub engagement in Miami. But, unfounded accusations of Communist sympathies resulted in the termination of Baker’s work visa, forcing her to cancel all her engagements and return to France. It was almost a decade later before U.S. officials allowed her back into the country. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Josephine Baker was the only official female speaker there. Ms. Baker wore her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d’honneur.
Later in life, Josephine became a mother, when she adopted 12 children, forming a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe”. Baker wanted to prove, in her words, that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” Ms. Baker’s children were nearly metaphors for life or living examples of what humanity should look like. In many ways, her diverse children were a strong statement against racism. She created dramatic backstories for her children, picking with clear intent in mind. At one point, she wanted and planned to get a Jewish baby, but settled for a French one instead. She also raised them as different religions to further her model for the world, taking two children from Algeria and raising one Muslim and the other Catholic. Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and 10 sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in a Castle in Dordogne, France with her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon.
On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, “Joséphine à Bobino 1975″, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed notably by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance, but in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on April 12, 1975.
At her death in 1975, Josephine became the first American woman to be buried with full military honors in France, with a 21-gun salute – a fitting tribute to her relationship with the country in which she had built most of her career and life. Baker is, to this day, remembered as a remarkable woman, who had a lasting impact on culture and society.
For other articles about black American heroes by TFP writer, Peter Crowell Anderson, see https://thefoundingproject.com/alice-augusta-ball-american-chemist/ and https://thefoundingproject.com/hero-pearl-harbor/ and many others found by searching his name under the “Writers” drop down menu on the TFP website.
Atwood, Kathryn (2011). Women Heroes of World War II.
“Chez Josephine”. Jean-Claude Baker. 2009.
About Josephine Baker: Biography”. Official Josephine Baker website. The Josephine Baker Estate. 2008. Archived from the original on 9 November 2007. Retrieved 12 January 2009