The Many Layers of Josephine Baker Revealed

Courtesy of RAFTWET Jewell (Flickr CC0)

For men and women my age, Josephine Baker is a legend. Unfortunately, you won’t find much about her in our history books. She spent most of her life in France from the 1920s until her death in 1975.

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in the poor, black slums of St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906. Her parents were entertainers, performing throughout the segregated Midwest. She was frequently brought on stage with them. They never became big stars, and young Josephine began working at a very young age, performing odd jobs as needed. At the age of 15, she was noticed by an African American theater troupe. She left St. Louis to travel with the group. It was during this time that she was married, taking the last name of Baker and dropping her first name of Freda. Josephine Baker was born.

She became a well-known dancer in vaudeville and eventually moved to New York to become a part of what is known today as the Harlem Renaissance. This took her to Paris. She found fame almost immediately for her unusual style of dance and what would have been outfits too risqué for American Theater. In 1920’s Paris, she became the most famous woman on stage for her dance and singing. She was often seen walking through the streets of Paris with her pet leopard, Chiquita, who wore a jeweled collar as they paraded through the City of Lights. Josephine was featured in several European films.

In 1939 Adolf Hitler began his conquest of Europe. The leader of France’s military intelligence approached Josephine, seeking her assistance in passing along vital information to Great Britain. The invasion of Paris in 1940 was imminent.

Jacques Abtey commonly sought agents who could move through the country and across borders in a clandestine manner. Josephine was anything but that, and to Abtey, this was a perfect ruse. Her fame and lack of ability to move quietly through the streets and countryside of France would fail to cause suspicion from the Gestapo. With the use of her charm, beauty, and fame, she would be able to obtain secrets from diplomats and others while she attended embassy parties.

Courtesy of National Gallery of Art (Picryl PDM)

What was promised on paper in her home country became a reality in France. She became a loyal and grateful citizen of her adopted nation.

“France made me what I am,” she told Abtey. “The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”

She learned about the collusion between the Axis powers and brazenly wrote the information on her palms and the parts of her arms covered by clothing. “Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy,” Baker said with a laugh when Abtey warned her of the danger.

As Nazi troops neared Paris, she moved her possessions, including a gold piano once owned by Marie Antoinette, to a villa 300 miles Southwest of Paris.

In November 1940, Abtey and Baker worked to smuggle documents to General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French government in exile in London. Under the guise of a South American tour, she smuggled photographs and information about troop movements on sheet music, written with invisible ink, through Spain and eventually reached London.

In 1941, Abtey and Josephine were ordered to Morocco, where they set up a liaison and transmission center. Josephine contracted a severe case of peritonitis, and over the next 18 months, she underwent multiple operations, leaving her weak and in poor health. Her situation was so serious that the Chicago Defender mistakenly wrote her obituary. Langston Hughes wrote that Baker was “as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall today in Africa fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Baker quickly corrected the record. “There has been a slight error, I’m much too busy to die,” she told the Afro-American.

She continued to work for French intelligence and returned to her beloved Paris after its liberation. In 1961, she was given the two highest honors available to a civilian by the Government of France.

A teary-eyed Baker told her countrymen, “I am proud to be French because this is the only place in the world where I can realize my dream.”

“Baker remained on stage late into her life and in 1975 she performed for the last time. The show was sold out and she received a standing ovation. Baker passed away on April 12, 1975.”

By James Turnage, Novelist


National Women’s History Museum: Josephine Baker
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: Josephine Baker’s Leopard, Chiquita; by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
History: Josephine Baker’s Daring Double Life as a World War II Spy; by Christopher Klein

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of RAFTWET Jewell’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image by Carl Van Vechten at National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Courtesy of Picryl – Public Domain License

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