This story was originally published in August 2011. It has been updated.
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 the Périgord where we spent a few days on our way to Spain.
|The Jazz Age: Energetic and goofy performances in the early years|
|Her Parisian breakthrough show|
|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.
|Immortalized by the Harcourt photo studio
|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|
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:
|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:
— A bientôt.
If you would like to know more about Josephine, YouTube has many excellent videos of her performances. Here are some favorites: – Brigitte Bardot’s call for help on French television (1964) Rare images of Josephine and her family seen at the end. In French, with the inimitable Bardot voice! – Josephine’s moving interview during the Bobino comeback show (1975). In French (she spoke it fluently.) A 68-year old Josephine talks about her love for her growing children who could not attend the show. – One of her last performances in London (1974), in “Sourire” (Smiling, always Smiling.) Ah, that voice; those costumes, the feathers! See how 67-year old Josephine works them! Move over, Lady Gaga! – A 1950s version of her hit “J’ai Deux Amours” (I Have Two Loves). My favorite version is on Le Château des Milandes website. Click on the British flag and the song starts playing while you browse the site. I could listen to her voice for hours! – Josephine sings Hello Dolly, at the Olympia, Paris (1968.) She is trying to raise enough money to save her home, les Milandes. – Josephine sings “Vous Faites Partie de Moi“ (Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got you Under my Skin”.) Early recording.