Bisexual Civil Rights Champion Josephine Baker

on

Long before Angelina Jolie began adopting children from around the world and representing human rights as a UN Special Envoy and Goodwill Ambassador, another bisexual woman filled a similar role, this time as an entertainment icon, a fixture on the Paris arts scene, a spy against the Nazis, and a champion of civil rights. That woman was Josephine Baker, and certainly among history’s most interesting and flamboyant figures, Baker deserves a place. Keeping in mind that she herself would have rejected any sort of LGBT affiliation, she nevertheless is a champion of civil rights worthy of commemoration.

The Highest Paid Performer in Europe

Baker was born Freda J. McDonald in 1906 to an African American washerwoman and, per Baker’s foster son Jean-Claude, probably the patriarch of the German family for which her mother worked, making Baker mixed race at a time the United States was still fiercely and actively racist. Baker’s family was poor, and at age eight Baker began working as a live-in servant for white families in St. Louis, Missouri. At age 13, in 1919, she joined an all-black traveling vaudeville troupe as a dresser for the female dancers. Shortly thereafter, she got her first opportunity on stage and began wooing audiences around the U.S. with her novel, lively and comedic performance style. In 1921, she married her second husband, Willie Baker, whose last name she kept for the rest of her life.

Smitten with the idea of performing on Broadway, she headed to New York City in 1924, which was then in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance (1918 to the mid-1930s). It was in New York that Baker’s career took off. She appeared in two Broadway revues and was billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” In 1925, at age 19, she was spotted performing at New York City’s famous Plantation Club and recruited to join a troupe traveling to Paris to perform La Revue Nègre. In Paris, Baker helped introduce “le jazz hot,” a style characterized by jazz and exotic nudity (Baker appeared almost naked on stage except for a feather, later banana, skirt as part of the Danse Sauvage, which played into Europe’s fantasy of the “African” as sexually libidinous and “uncivilized”). Baker quickly became the darling of famous artists and intellectuals living in Europe such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, and the revue toured Europe to massive acclaim. Hemingway, like many others who would encounter her through the years, called Baker “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw. Or ever will.”

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Over the next several years, Baker opened her own club (it closed a year later), performed on stage with her pet cheetah, recorded songs, starred in three movies, and toured Europe and South America. Baker was not just the most successful American entertainer working in France, she was one of the top three most photographed women in the world, and by 1927, two years after first setting foot in Paris, she was earning more than any entertainer in Europe.

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

In 1935, still only 29 years old, Baker returned to America with the goal of translating her success in France to the U.S. Her new revue was an abject failure, however. As Baker’s fourth husband later explained: “Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl.” White American audiences accustomed to seeing blacks in stereotypical “Negro” roles rejected Baker and her signature style. Baker returned to Europe and by 1936 was one of the highest paid performers in the world. In 1937, she gave up her American citizenship in favor of French citizenship through marriage.

Singer, Dancer…Spy

Baker was an entertainment industry success story: a woman who came from poor roots in segregated America and went on to become one of the top performers in the world. Her singing and dancing, as well as her larger than life personality, made her the Beyonce of the 1930s. She was much more than just a performer, however. In 1939, when France declared war on Germany, Baker became a Red Cross nurse to help refugees from the German-occupied European countries. She was then recruited by French military intelligence. Baker collected information about German troop locations from officials she met at parties at embassies and ministries. Her fame put her in contact with everyone from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats. When Germany invaded France, Baker continued to use her natural access as an entertainer to move around neutral Europe, carrying information for transmission to England about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in France. Her notes were written in invisible ink on her voluminous sheet music. She even hid refugees and weapons at her estate, the Château des Milandes.

Baker was forced to move temporarily to Morocco in 1941 to escape German scrutiny, from whence she nevertheless continued to make trips to Spain, pinning intelligence notes in her underwear on the correct assumption that as a celebrity she would not be strip-searched. Beginning in 1942, she arranged and participated in morale boosting performances for French, British, and American troops in North Africa. In 1944, she was made a sublieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force (she had a pilot’s license). After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance and made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor (the Legion of Honor is France’s highest order for civil and military merits).

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Civil Rights Activist in the U.S.

Baker returned to the U.S. again in 1948, but was no more successful professionally than in 1936. This time, however, she insisted on nondiscrimination clauses in her contracts and integrated audiences at her performances. Returning to the Château des Milandes and feeling the need to do more to fight racism, she decided to raise a group of ethnically and religiously mixed children that she dubbed her “Rainbow Tribe.” By 1962, she had adopted 12 children—ten boys and two girls—from Morocco, Venezuela, Finland, France, Korea, Colombia, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Japan, and Belgium. (If this sounds familiar, Jolie has acknowledged that Baker was her inspiration.) Although ultimately unsuccessful at combating racism, her manufactured family was intended to represent a utopian racial narrative to educate the world about how life could be in a world free of discrimination (a French boy was renamed Moises and raised Jewish, for example, while an Algerian boy was renamed Brahim and raised Muslim).

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Baker supported the American civil rights movement from France, and when she visited the U.S. again in the 1950s and 60s, she pushed even harder against racism. She worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and demanded that she be allowed to stay at the best hotels and play to integrated audiences. Baker once was refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black and in response she wrote articles about segregation in the U.S. In 1963, Baker, now 57, was invited to the March on Washington, where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Baker was the only official female speaker at the event. She spoke wearing her Free French uniform and Legion of Honor medal. After King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in the Netherlands to ask if she would take over as leader of the civil rights movement, but Baker declined, citing concerns about how assassination would impact her adopted children.

Bisexual Ambivalence

Baker was married four times, but is most commonly described as bisexual, having had relationships with women including, per the movie “Frida,” the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. According to Jean-Claude, as early as 1920, when she was 14, she had already had same-sex relationships with other vaudeville performers. Jean-Claude lists six of her female lovers by name, all of whom she met on the black performing circuit during her early years in the United States, as well as fellow American black expatriate vaudeville performer Ada “Bricktop” Smith and the French novelist Colette. Although Baker in her later years was rumored to have enjoyed the company of many young women, she was also rabidly homophobic, and once kicked her adopted son out when she found out he was gay.

Baker died in 1975, at the age of 69. Even though she lived in some of Europe’s most libertine places and, as a performer, would have cavorted regularly with gay people, she almost certainly came from a background in which public homosexuality was condemned. How might she have embraced her sexual orientation had she lived in a slightly later time, or been raised in a less homophobic setting? Perhaps, like Angelina Jolie, she would have embraced her same-sex affairs and championed LGBT causes, too, given her passion for confronting discrimination. Whatever the case, she remains a performance icon and a civil rights hero.

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

More you may like