Before Marilyn… Before Madonna… There was Josephine.
During the controversially roaring 1920’s, Josephine Baker made her professional debut as she stormed onto the French performance circuit wearing nothing but a skirt made of bananas. Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, she went on to rise above the poverty and racism of her time in St. Louis, Missouri, to become one of the greatest, most iconic Black performers who ever lived, paving the way for later femme fatales to be taken seriously as both performers and businesswomen.
Her style was inimitable, and she was sought after by hundreds of fashion magazines during her time. In 1935, La Baker, the nickname she became known for throughout the world, made her movie debut in Princesse Tam Tam, a French production made possible by her manager-lover, Pepito Abatino, the man credited with moving her career toward the epic greatness she’d later be known for becoming. Under Pepito’s guidance, Josephine conquered the European performing arts scene and then moved on to the Ziegfield Follies in America, a harrowing experience that stifled her career at the time. Shortly after her Follies tour ended, she lost her manager and best friend, Pepito, to cancer.
However, La Baker was nobody’s quitter. She returned to Paris during the same time as Hitler’s invasion of France was well underway. She joined the French resistance when Hitler invaded France during WWII and carried secrets via an underground channel for the army. It was during this time she met her future husband, French musician, Jo Bouillon.
In 1947, Josephine returned to America and once again made history when she demanded that the audiences on her tour dates be desegregated. For six weeks, Josephine along with her husband Jo and his band rode the top of the charts while bursting through racial barriers. That was, until a racially motivated incident at the Stork Club sparked a rival between Miss Baker and the then powerful radio personality, Walter Winchell, a supporter of the NAACP.
As venues across America began pulling out of their tour, Jo and Josephine were forced to return to France where they settled quietly into a life in the French countryside. Over time, the couple adopted 12 kids that became known as the Rainbow Tribe. It was Josephine’s desire to make sure no child in the world had to suffer.
Although her charity toward orphaned children was highly commendable, the multiple adoptions were the main reason she lost her beautiful home, the Chateau Des Milandes seventeen years later. Thankfully, Josephine had influential supporters. Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco took her into her home, claiming she had witnessed the humiliation of Josephine and her friends that night at the Stork Club seventeen years ago.
Never one to be deterred for long, Josephine returned to the stage, performing in a French production of a revue based on her life. Shortly after her second performance in that show, Josephine Baker died quietly in her sleep. Paris came to a standstill on the day of her death, an honor usually reserved for statesmen and high ranking officials in France.
As astounding story, right? I’ve harbored a love for Josephine Baker ever since I first watched the portrayal of her fascinating life in the 1991 movie called the Josephine Baker Story starring Lynn Whitfield. Her courage in the face of opposition and her plight to save homeless children throughout the world have inspired me to follow my dreams with ruthless fervor in the same way. Josephine demonstrates the perfect version of an Agent of Fabulosity.
Now I present to you the subject of this week’s Throwback Thursday post… the magnificent… the untamable… the iconic…
Miss Josephine Baker