Josephine Baker – there was more to her than just a banana skirt

Since I’m in holiday mood, a fun subject this week. The first time I saw a photo of Josephine Baker, I was entranced. I loved her hair, her style and her nerve! I defy anyone to watch this footage of her and not smile.

Only recently did I read about her life and realized she’d be a perfect subject for a blog: there was so much more to her than just glamour.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906 to a poor family – her father a walked out on the family soon after she was born – her early years were spent cleaning houses and waitressing. She dropped out of school aged thirteen, lived on the streets and began dancing in vaudeville, eventually making it to Broadway, where she auditioned to be a chorus girl but was rejected for being “too skinny and too dark.”

In 1925, she went to Paris to join the jazz revue La Revue Nègre. Thanks to her comic and dancing skills, Josephine became an instant success and became one of the best-known entertainers in both France and much of Europe. Her daring, exotic act, which involved her wearing nothing but a feather skirt, captivated everyone who saw it. She was admired by many, showered with gifts, including cars and diamonds, and received around 1,500 marriage proposals. In fact she married and divorced four times and adopted twelve children, as well as a plethora of exotic pets including a leopard and a snake. attracted the attention of the director of the Folies Bergère. She starred in a new show, La Folie du Jour, that involved her wearing a skirt made of 16 bananas strung together, reinforced her celebrity status and made her one of the most photographed women in the world. But when she returned to the US in 1936, they rejected her, calling her a Negro wench, and she returned to Europe.

During World War II Josephine Baker worked with the Red Cross, was a correspondent for the French Resistance, including smuggling messages written on music sheets, and performed for troops in Africa and the Middle East. It was at this time that she began adopting children and formed a family she called the ‘rainbow tribe’, with the intention of showing the world that children of different races and cultures could be brothers.

In 1951 in the US, Josephine was refused service at clubs and her hotel reservations were not honoured because she was black. She was so upset by her treatment that she began to campaign for racial equality, refusing to entertain in any club or theatre that was not integrated, and wrote articles for the civil rights movement. In 1963, she spoke in Washington beside Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1975, at the age of 68, she performed a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall and received a standing ovation that reduced her to tears onstage. Soon afterwards, she performed in Paris and received ecstatic reviews. But two days after her last Paris performance, she died of a stroke. More that 20,000 mourners lined the streets of Paris and she was buried with military honours.