Last week, as I was discussing our European summer travels with a girlfriend, she asked: “What was your favorite part of the trip?” What a difficult question to answer. We covered so much ground, saw so many people, had so many adventures. Then I reflected a bit longer, and a special moment came to mind, the day I finally got to visit Josephine Baker‘s former home, le Château des Milandes, in le Périgord where we spent a few days on our way to Spain.
To many in the United States, Josephine Baker‘s name is familiar, but they can’t quite place her. Quel dommage! In France, 36 years after her death, “La Baker” [La Bah-kair] has not been forgotten.
She was born Freda Josephine Mc Donald, a poor black child from St Louis, MO. She survived the 1917 racial riots but they made a strong impression on her. Finally, at age thirteen, Josephine ran away from home. She liked dancing, and a few months later, she became a Vaudeville performer at the Plantation Club in Harlem. These were exciting times (the “Harlem Renaissance”) in this predominantly-black neighborhood of New York city. Young Josephine later joined popular Broadway revues where she quickly drew attention and positive reviews for her dancing skills, enthusiasm and her comedic talent. Josephine wanted more.
In October 1925, she arrived in Paris where once again, her energy, unique personality and infectious enthusiasm got attention. Her big breakthrough came with a part in La Revue Nègre, a jazz show. Josephine performed several acts including La Danse Sauvage (the Wild Dance). She was exotic, sensual, and performed half-naked in a feathered skirt. These were the Roaring Twenties, and the integrated Paris society loved her. The famous cabaret Les Folies Bergère became her step stone to fame. She starred in a new act where she performed naked (in her iconic costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt.) By the late 1920s, she had become a major celebrity all over Europe where she was the highest-grossing (and most photographed) artist. In the early 1930s, she was the first African American female to star in major motion pictures. Along the way, Josephine worked hard at developing her considerable talents. Her singing voice, stage and public persona evolved over time as she became one of the 20th century most revered entertainers.
|The Jazz Age: Energetic and goofy performances in the early years|
|Her Parisian breakthrough show|
|Josephine, in the iconic “banana skirt”|
|A stylish star|
|“Toast of Paris”|
|“La Baker”- a true star!|
Josephine never forgot her humble beginnings but by the mid-1930s, she was a very wealthy woman, and she spent lavishly, on clothes, jewelry and, as an animal lover, on pets. She visited and fell in love with a run-down property in the heart of the Périgord region of France, les Milandes. One can only imagine what the place meant to the poor, illegitimate street child who had left the slums of St Louis so many years ago.
|Les Milandes, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle|
One of Josephine’s greatest disappointments came in 1935-1936 when she visited the United States and starred in the Ziegfield Follies. American audiences were not receptive to the idea of a black woman with so much wealth and power. The show drew negative reviews and Josephine was replaced after a few performances. The New York time called her “the Negro Wench.” Devastated, Josephine returned to Europe where she married a Frenchman (her third husband) and became a French citizen.
“It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose, if one was held back by one’s color? No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises.”
— Josephine Baker
Josephine was determined to give back to France, her adoptive country. She detested Hitler and his ideology (she was black; her husband was Jewish.) After World War II started and part of the country was occupied by German troops, she volunteered to help the Free French Forces (led by General Charles de Gaulle from London) and took enormous risks throughout the war. She worked as a Red Cross nurse, raised money, entertained troops in North Africa. She hid Jewish refugees and weapons in her castle. She also worked as a spy and an underground courrier for the French Resistance (hiding secret messages in her band’s music sheets.) After the war, she was awarded several distinctions including the prestigious Legion of Honor.
|Immortalized by the Harcourt photo studio
Josephine lived to defend causes she believed in. She fought against racism all her life. She married her fourth husband, Joe Bouillon, at Les Milandes after the war. Together, they started adopting orphan children from all over the world (Josephine was never able to have children of her own and gave birth to a stillborn child during the war.) Overtime, the family grew to include ten boys and two girls. Josephine loved her “Tribu arc-en-ciel” (Rainbow Tribe) and was a devoted mom to her children. She showcased her family at les Milandes to advocate tolerance and brotherly love. Thanks to her considerable fortune, Josephine created a theme park around the castle, complete with a nightclub (where she performed on occasion,) a hotel, a J-shaped pool, an experimental farm, and the replica of an African village. She named her magic kingdom: “Le Village du Monde” (the World’s Village.)
|Move over, Angelina Jolie!
Josephine and her “Rainbow Tribe”
|A devoted mom to her 12 children|
|Happiness at “Les Milandes”|
Josephine’s World Village was the Perigord’s leading tourist attraction for many years.
When Josephine left Les Milandes and ventured in the outside world to finance her project, she could see that racism was rampant. In the 1950s, she took another trip to the United States, and had a much-publicized altercation with the owner of the Stork Club in New York city where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly was there that night, and she was outraged. She immediately left the club with her entourage, in support of Josephine. The incident (in spite of negative press articles later accusing her of communism and fascist sympathies) gave Josephine a lifelong friend, who would stay by her side until the end. In the next few months, Josephine launched in a crusade for racial equality and for the rest of her long career, refused to perform in clubs or theaters that were not fully integrated.
|Grace and Josephine, lifelong friends:
the later years
Even though she was attached to France, she also worked with the NAACP and openly supported the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, during the famed March on Washington, she was the only woman invited to speak at the rally next to Martin Luther King. That day, she proudly wore her Free French uniform and decorations.
|March on Washington, 1963|
— Josephine Baker, looking over the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington
Josephine’s tumultuous life, excesses and extravagant spending started to take a toll on her health and her finances. “The World’s Village”, her children’s education and other humanitarian projects would soon bring her to financial ruin. Joe Bouillon, her husband, finally left her in 1964 but they remained friends. Her creditors were relentless. In her 60s, Josephine went back to the stage to try and save Les Milandes and her family. At sixty-two, she looked phenomenal and her voice was as powerful as ever. Her fans still remember her moving 1968 performances at the iconic Olympia theater in Paris. Unfortunately, students’ riots put an end to the show and it proved a financial disaster. In the following clip, she interprets “Quand je pense à ça,” (When I Think About That). In some videos, you can see tears running down her face as she sings.
Her many friends attempted to help. In April 1964, French actress and icon Brigitte Bardot, at the peak of her career, made a TV appearance to ask the French to help save Josephine and her family. They had never met. It took a lot for the famously reclusive French star to step out and speak on public television.
|Brigitte Bardot, 1964 TV interview|
In 1969, Les Milandes estate was sold for a fraction of its value. Josephine had lost. After sending her children away, she was evicted, but she refused to leave the castle. The pictures of an older, exhausted Josephine, sitting on her kitchen steps, surrounded by a few belongings, are heartbreaking.
|The end of Josephine’s dream|
An indomitable spirit, Josephine regrouped. She was saved by her friend and patron, Princess Grace, who gave her a place to live and financed a come-back tour in 1975, “Joséphine à Bobino” (Josephine in Bobino.) The shows were sold out months in advance. “La Baker” was finally back in Paris, her beloved city, to commemorate her 50 years in show business. All of Josephine’s friends showed up on opening night. There were many étoiles (stars) in the audience, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Josephine was the brightest of them all. As always, she delighted audiences, singing classics:”J’ai Deux Amours” (I Have Two Loves), “Dans Mon Village” (In My Village), “Hello Dolly” and more. On opening night, the public gave Josephine a fifteen minute standing ovation.
|The great comeback she deserved|
Josephine was back at the top, where she belonged. In 1973, she was overjoyed when her comeback performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall was a success. For the first time since her humble beginnings in Harlem so many years ago, she felt welcome in her native land. The final curtain was about to fall. In April 1975, four days after her first Bobino performance in Paris, Josephine died in her sleep of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. She was 68. I like to think that her big, generous heart finally went to rest. On the day of her funeral, thousands of people showed up to follow the hearse carrying her body through the streets of Paris, paralyzing traffic for hours. She was given full French military honors (the first American woman to ever receive them) and the ceremony was broadcast live on French television. Heads of state, celebrities, and anonymous fans joined her family and the entire “Rainbow Tribe”. In the days that followed, Princess Grace organized a funeral service in Monaco, where Josephine was finally laid to rest. That day, her sister declared:
“There were three things that Josephine clearly loved.
She loved her children first of all; she loved the theater; and she loved France.“
The French have not forgotten “La Baker.” They flock to “Les Milandes” every year to discover Josephine’s former home. In Paris, many walking tours highlight “La Place Joséphine Baker” (Josephine Baker’s square) in the 14th Arrondissement. On the blue street sign, she is identified as a “Music hall artist; Sub-lieutenant of the Free French Forces; Philanthropist.” In the summer, Parisians take a swim in the beautiful Josephine Baker pool, by the Seine river.
|Some of Josephine’s gorgeous dresses are displayed
at Les Milandes
|Place Josephine Baker|
|Josephine Baker pool, Paris|
It seems “La Baker” is still around, smiling that great big smile of hers. I envy those who knew her, and I will let Al Stewart wrap up this story for us:
“I was born too late to see Josephine Baker
Dancing in a Paris cabaret
Born too late to see Josephine Baker
She must have been great in her heyday.”
— A bientôt.