The Black Lives Matter protests in France began on May 30, five days after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. There was some confusion in the American news about the French “manifs” (short for manifestations, or protests). People marched in a show of solidarity with the US, but the tens enraged on behalf of another black man, Adama Traoré, who died of asphyxiation in 2016, after a violent arrest. France likes to claim that it is not racist. They don’t keep track of your race or religion, never ask for it on any official form, and there is no practice of saying someone is Malian-French (as was 24-year-old Traoré), or Moroccan-French or Irish-French or American-French. If you are a citizen of France, you are simply French. The lived life is very different. Systemic racism is alive and well in the land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Generally speaking, blacks of African descent are subjected to discrimination more so than African-Americans.
I wrote about Josephine Baker in In Praise of Difficult Women, attempting to address France’s long-standing, largely inglorious, attitude towards people of color.
On October 2, 1925, moments after she appeared on stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Josephine Baker became the red-hot toast of Paris. She made her entrance splayed across the back of her partner, Joe Alex. The number was called Danse Sauvage, and their identical “savage” costumes included matching feather skirts accompanied by a collection of bracelets and necklaces made from shells and seed pods. Joe wore a feather headdress. Josephine already sported her trademark slick cap of black hair, a silver dollar-sized spit curl plastered to her forehead. Also, for some reason, black flats. (As people are known to wear in Darkest Africa.)
Josephine rolled off Joe’s back and launched into a frenzied dance the likes of which no one had ever seen—even in sophisticated 1920s Paris. She shook body parts no one knew you could shake. She was a proto hip hop artist, popping and locking, isolating different joints, hips doing one thing, belly another, ribs still another. Her arms flailed, and her head rotated on that long, elegant neck. All that bumping, grinding, and groove thang shaking that goes on during music videos, televised award programs, rock concerts, Super Bowl halftime shows and fraternity mixers? It all can be traced back to Josephine Baker, the celebrated American-French singer-dancer who would go on to spy for France during World War II, agitate for civil rights in the States during the 1950s and 60s, and mesmerize audiences until four days before her death, at 68, in 1975.
In 1926, she followed up the danse sauvage at the renowned Folies Bergère cabaret with her most unforgettable act: Un Vent de Folie, also known as the banana skirt dance. The performance made her the biggest African-American star in the world. “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on,” she explained. It was untrue, even metaphorically. Josephine was completely naked before her audiences, which was part of her stupendous charisma.
Josephine McDonald was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, into the sort of extreme poverty that turns children into adults before they’ve lost all their baby teeth. Her parents were song-and-dance people who performed at theaters in black St. Louis. Her father, Eddie, was a drummer. Her mother, Carrie, was admired for her quick steps and flair. They were poor but happy until the arrival of baby Josephine made them just poor. Eddie and his drum kit split before Josephine turned one. Carrie gave up dancing and started taking in laundry; she had three more children with another man, Arthur, who stayed home. Really stayed home. As in, never left his easy chair, even to go to work.
Josephine, her mother, stepfather, and three siblings all slept in the same bed. Her stepfather’s feet smelled worse than the stinkiest French cheese Josephine would one day come to adore. She preferred to sleep on the floor beneath a blanket of newspaper. At the age of eight, her mother sent her to work as a maid for a white woman, where her sleeping conditions improved considerably—she slept with the dog in the basement. She grew attached to both the dog and a chicken named Tiny Tim, who lived in the yard; one day, her mistress ordered her to kill the chicken which she dutifully did, after giving it a sweet kiss on the head.
By my subjective reckoning, girls grow into difficult women after experiencing extreme childhoods. If you’re sheltered and well-fed, and your loving parents believe you to be a complex, competent person who has a right to march through the world making an impact, you’re likely to be difficult. Why shouldn’t you be? Speak your truth, go for broke, give it everything you’ve got, be a person of consequence. But wretched, abject childhoods can also produce difficult women. Maybe because many culturally approved feminine traits—receptivity, submissiveness, not worrying our pretty heads about anything—are luxuries when we’re talking day-to-day survival. That was surely the case with Josephine, whose hellacious American childhood would give Grimm’s fairy tales a run for its money.
The larger world was also horrifying. When Josephine was eleven, in 1917, race riots broke out in East St. Louis (located in Illinois, just across the river from the city of St. Louis.) It was the usual thing: white people were afraid people of color were going to take all the jobs (rural blacks were moving to the city to snap up all the glamorous, sexy gigs at the Aluminum Ore Company and American Steel Company). This early experience planted a seed in Josephine’s heart. She would flee American racism as a teenager, but would combat racism for the rest of her life.
At thirteen or thereabouts, Josephine quit school. In 1919, she procured herself a job as a waitress at the Old Chauffeur’s Club—and also a husband, Willie Wells. The women of Josephine’s family had an uncanny ability to attach themselves to men who, once married to them, planted themselves in their easy chairs to be both supported and waited on. Josephine was also a magnet for slackers, and the union didn’t last.
Soon after, Josephine fell in with a troupe of street performers, which would comprise her informal dance education. She schooled herself in the dances of the day—the Tack Annie, the Itch, the Mess Around, Trucking—cutting loose with abandon. She joined the Jones Family, a neighborhood crew who liked to pass the hat in front of the Booker T. Washington Theater, a popular black vaudeville joint. One night the Dixie Steppers were headlining at the Booker T. and their opening act failed to show. The Jones Family was snagged to fill the breach. Teenage Josephine could dance, cross her eyes, and play the trombone at the same time. (Let’s pause to imagine that.) She made the manager of the Dixie Steppers weep with laughter, and when the Dixie Steppers left St. Louis and headed to New York, Josephine went with them.
In 1921, she landed a role in Shuffle Along. In the pioneering revue—written, directed, and performed by African-Americans—Josephine played the klutz at the end of the chorus line who can’t keep up. She falls over her own feet, makes a fool of herself—and then, at the end of the show, breaks into a dance so skillful and breathtaking that it puts the rest of the line to shame.
Josephine’s great strength was her ability to optimize the one thing she knew she was good at: dancing without inhibition and making people laugh. It’s instructive, I think, to imagine what our lives might be like if we were to invest 100 percent in even one thing at which we know we excel.
Four years later, Josephine was recruited for an all “African” revue in Paris at the Theatre du Champs-Elysees. Her primary philosophy of living was “pourquoi pas?”—why not?— so off she went to France. Josephine would say later that her only real memory of her Paris debut was not the bright lights, the physical exhilaration of performing, or the thrill of applause. It was that after the show was over, “for the first time in my life, I was invited to sit at a table and eat with white people.” The French adored her, and she them. They found her to be dazzling and sexy, her dark skin beautiful. That said, their love was complicated and frankly, a little weird. To them, in what was a colossal and willful case of mistaken identity, Josephine was not a Missourian who escaped the grinding poverty and appalling racism of the United States, but a sexy, earthy exotic African blossom from deep in the jungle.
It was a pure fantasy, which bothered no one. Paris between the wars engaged in a mad romance with all things primitif. The New Yorker writer Janet Flanner was there the night of Josephine’s debut in 1925 and summed it up this way: ” . . . two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable—her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe: Paris.”
In 1926, the banana skirt dance sealed Josephine’s celebrity. Wearing nothing more than a “skirt” of sixteen rubber bananas, “she pushed forward her stomach, swung her hips, twisted her arms and legs and pushed up her bottom, as she clenched her fists and motioned her arms like a runner, her feet remained still as she shook the fruit backwards and forwards until it moved in angles of 180 degrees,” wrote a contemporary observer.
Josephine’s star shot into the Paris sky. Embraced by bourgeois night lifers, artists and intellectuals alike, Josephine was synonymous with the jazz age, Art Deco, freedom, joy, and everything modern. She subverted racial assumptions, proving that a black woman could be beautiful, sexy, cheeky, and au courant. Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” The country’s most celebrated clothiers, Madame Vionnet and Paul Poiret, draped her in couture. Diamond bracelets adorned her wrists. A club owner thought it would be interesting to add a live cheetah to one of her acts; after the show closed Josephine adopted her. From that moment on, Chiquita traveled in the back seat of Josephine’s white Rolls Royce, sporting her own diamond collar.
“I was earning a great deal of money but I wanted to earn even more,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It wasn’t because of the money itself—which ran through my fingers like water—but because of the importance the world places on wealth. ‘You can’t change the world.’ All right then. I would fight with the enemy’s weapons.”
That same year, Josephine met Pepito Abatino in a bar in Montmartre. A one-time Sicilian stonemason, now supporting himself as a gigolo, Abatino also liked to pass himself off as royalty. Josephine didn’t care about the ruse; she preferred a good story to the truth any day. They fell in love and di Abatino, as he called himself, would have become Josephine’s third husband—had she not still been married to husband number two, Willie Baker, whom she’d never bothered to divorce.
Pepito, who had no real training as an agent or manager, nevertheless demonstrated his unwavering devotion to Josephine by spending every waking hour figuring out ways to promote her. Tirelessly, he worked to get her film contracts and expand her sponsorship deals. (Pernod!) He struck a deal with a company interested in manufacturing the pomade Josephine used to paste down her hair. Called Bakerfix, it would increase her fortune by leaps and bounds.
By the mid-1930s Josephine Baker was the most successful black woman in Europe. Most of us would be perfectly happy with conquering the continent, but Josephine was more ambitious than she appeared. She wanted to be taken seriously in the United States—not as a black performer but as a performer. She wanted a standing ovation on Broadway.
At this point, Josephine had lived in France for ten years. She spoke French, acted and danced in French, was richer than she could have ever possibly imagined. Still, in 1935, at the age of thirty, she decided it was time to conquer her native land.
The childlike glee and abandon that made Josephine so popular with audiences made her difficult offstage. Like a child, she wanted what she wanted when she wanted it. External reality—and often the feelings of others—rarely factored into her calculations, such as they were. This would make her brave and dauntless when it came to risking her life for the French Resistance—but in everyday life, her demands could be exasperating. Fun at a party, hell at home: that was Josephine Baker in a nutshell.
She pestered Pepito about setting her up with something in the US. He worked his no-account count magic and got her a role in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies. The production was going to be the most lavish Follies yet. Vincent Minelli had been contracted for the sets and costume. George Balanchine was the ballet master, Ira Gershwin the lyricist. Could the classy vaudeville variety show inspired by the very Folies Bergère in which Josephine had been become a star be more perfect for her return? You would think.
From the moment Josephine and Pepito arrived in New York and were told they had to use the service entrance at the swanky St. Moritz (welcome home!) to the blistering reviews of her performance, the trip was a disaster.
Time magazine’s review was par for the course: “Josephine Baker is a St. Louis wash woman’s daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque show into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris during the booming 1920’s. In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has a head start. The particular tawny tint of tall and stringy Josephine Baker’s bare skin stirred French pulses. But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week, she was just a slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night club show, whose dancing & singing could be topped practically anywhere outside France.”
Josephine expressed her heartbreak by blaming Pepito. He should have negotiated a better contract, or known that the theater wasn’t right for her voice, something. Confident in Pepito’s canine-like devotion, she indulged her callous, willful side. After the first horrific reviews surfaced in February 1936, she hooked up with some random Frenchman she met at a Harlem nightclub and abandoned Pepito to contemplate his crime in solitude, alone in their suite at the St. Moritz. When he gave up trying to win her back and, complaining of stomach pains, abruptly returned to France, she figured she’d just make it up to him back in Paris.
A word about Josephine’s sex life: she was decades ahead of Cosmopolitan in believing sex was a good workout. It was fun, it felt good, and was a nice alternative to doing the Charleston. She was an equal opportunity seductress, taking up with men or women as the mood struck her. Even though they weren’t married, Pepito was old-fashioned, and expected at least a hat tip to fidelity on her part. Their preferred ongoing quarrel involved Pepito’s “irrational” jealousy. He would find out she’d been out canoodling, which would send him into a red-faced, spittle flying outburst, which would send her straight into the arms of some low key, smiling lover, which fueled yet another red-faced, spittle-flying outburst, which sent her into the arms of yet another low key, smiling lover, and so forth.
In New York, Josephine dutifully endured the rest of her contract. Then, a few weeks before the Follies closed, she received word that Pepito had died. The stomach pain he’d been experiencing wasn’t caused by Josephine’s wrath and cruelty, but by cancer.
Few things in life make you feel more like crap than being nasty to someone, only to have them kick the bucket before you can make amends. Between the disappointing, ego-bruising reception at home and the death of her greatest advocate, Josephine was shattered. But not for long. She was a positive sort and was, she reminded herself, only thirty!
Back she went to Paris, where she took a role in another Folies Bergère nude revue—a little bit of a step backwards, but no matter. Within the year she was being courted by Jean Lion, a French “industrialist” (code for “makes a lot of money doing something boring”). While in the States she’d finally finalized her divorce from Willie Baker, husband number two, and in November 1937 Lion became her third husband. Jean was dashing, a sophisticate, and a risk taker, who basically married Josephine because he knew it would give his staid French bourgeois family collective heart failure. But it wasn’t her color the Lions found objectionable; it was her occupation. An exotic dancer, however celebrated, is fine for a mistress, but never a wife.
Jean courted Josephine in a way that made her swoon. Despite her firsthand experience of life’s grim realities—or perhaps because of them—she could be easily swept off her feet. She was a sucker for romance and the grand gesture. Jean flew her around in his plane. They rode horses in the Bois de Boulogne. They went fox-hunting, for God sakes.
They seemed poised to become Jeansophine—but instead of the hottest couple in Paris, they became yet another living example of the proverb “marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Turns out Jean and Josephine had wanted to get married, but not be married. He worked all day and she worked all night. Jean had no intention of changing either his bourgeois industrialist routine nor his playboy ways. Presumably, he expected his new bride to change her schedule. As husbands of the early-to-mid 20th century had been known to do.
Josephine’s biographers tell us that she yearned to be married and was eager to become a mother. But if Jean wasn’t willing to give a little so that they could be under the same roof at the same time, then neither was she. Josephine’s unwillingness to accommodate Jean’s unwillingness to accommodate her makes her troublesome in a time-honored manner old as Eve. (When the lady of the house stands her ground, refusing to budge off her position, and thus causes domestic strife, boy howdy is she difficult!) After a mere fourteen months Josephine had had enough. She was not a girl to let grass grow under her feet. Personally, I think it was one of her finest qualities. She filed for divorce and walked away with the one thing that meant more to her than anything: her French citizenship.
Two years later, in 1940, Josephine was dancing to standing room only audiences at the Folies-Bergère, waiting for her divorce from Jean Lion to become final—when suddenly, and without hesitation, she heeded the call of Charles de Gaulle to resist German occupation and volunteered for duty. Remember when past life regressions were all the rage? When people discovered they’d been Eleanor of Aquitaine in a past life, instead of an illiterate lice-ridden beggar? It’s the same thing with the French Resistance. Nearly everyone claimed after the fact to have worked for it, when in fact the real number was closer to two percent of the population living in France that summer.
But Josephine Baker was the real deal. She had no interest in the complexities of politics, but she knew a racist when she saw one and the Nazis became her sworn enemies. This, comingled with her devotion to France (which she loved with same effortless affection she felt for her audiences), made her a formidable intelligence agent. She was happy to leverage her celebrity, even at the cost of ruining her life.
Often when I think of a difficult woman, I envision someone articulate, outspoken, and (that loaded word) “bossy.” Josephine was none of those things. She was outwardly sweet, outwardly kind. But in always following her heart, she wound up behaving in ways that were both infuriating (the Folies-Pepito debacle) and breathtakingly courageous. What her heart commanded never gave her pause. She plunged ahead, even at personal risk to herself.
In the early forties, as the war engulfed Europe, Josephine crashed parties at consulates and embassies, batting her long lashes at Germans and Nazi sympathizers who mansplained to their heart’s content. She would then excuse herself and go to the Ladies’, where she would jot down the intel on slips of paper she would then pin to her panties. “My notes would have been highly compromising,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin? Besides, my encounters with customs officials were always extremely relaxed. When they asked me for papers, they generally meant autographs.” She would then deliver her information to Jacques Abtey, her handler and the head of Paris counterintelligence.
Here is Josephine fleeing Paris in her fancy car as the Nazis march in, the backseat filled with as many Jewish refugees as she could squeeze and the trunk filled with champagne bottles bearing precious, hard-to-obtain gasoline. Here she is deciding at a moment’s notice to tour Portugal, where she will smuggle strategic information about troop movement written in invisible ink on her sheet music; this will then make its way to Charles de Gaulle, who headed the Free French movement from his post in London. (He went on to become one of France’s most beloved presidents—despite having said, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”) Here she is traveling to Morocco, ostensibly to entertain the British, American, and French troops based in the French colonies, but actually to help establish a base for the Resistance. And here she is pulling strings to help none other than Jean Lion, her Jewish third ex-husband, get a visa to South America to escape the camps.
After the war ended, the newly liberated French government awarded Josephine a slew of medals. For her valor she received the Croix de Guerre, Légion d’Honneur, and the Médaille de la Résistance. Almost twenty years later, in 1963, she attended the March on Washington, where she was the only woman speaker. It was the end of August, hot and muggy enough to melt your eyeballs, but she wore her woolen French resistance uniform, complete with epaulettes and dark tie, with all of her impressive medals pinned in a row along her chest.
In 1947, at the age of forty-one, Josephine married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon. This time, she finally seemed to have gotten it right. Like Pepito, he was devoted to her and supported her aspirations; like Jean Lion he hailed from an orderly French bourgeois family and helped to keep her grounded. At least for a while.
In 1936—the same year as her calamitous trip to the United States—Josephine had purchased her country house, Les Milandes, with the profits from Bakerfix. It was a decrepit, if romantic, chateau tucked away in France’s rugged, remote Dordogne. After her marriage to Bouillon, she hatched a plan to refurbish it and create a tourist destination that would be a cross between Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and Downton Abbey. Josephine blew through money faster than she could shake her hips, and she was hoping Les Milandes would provide a nice revenue stream. She envisioned hotels, restaurants, stables, a miniature golf course, a farm with strolling peacocks, a big swimming pool in the shape of a J, and a wax museum depicting scenes from the great lady’s life. To run the operation, Josephine installed families in the surrounding village—and because she was fundamentally kind and generous, provided them with decent housing and hot and cold running water.
As you might imagine, this kind of project costs a fortune. During the war Josephine had lived on her savings, performing for the troops for free; now she was broke. To fund Les Milandes, Inc. (as I think of it), she returned to the stage. So devoted was she to making this monumental vision come true that she was forced to go where the money was. Europe was still crawling from the wreckage of a world war, but nightclubs across the United States were flush. Her Ziegfeld Follies folly was a distant, pre-war memory, and nightclub owners were happy to book her.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear how this ended up. Even in the aftermath of a war that had engulfed the entire world, one of France’s most esteemed citizens still could not get a room in a “white” hotel in her homeland. According to one account, she and Jo were turned away thirty-six times. This time, rather than hiding her pain and anger in a fling with a random Frenchman (although as distractions go, you could do worse) she just got plain old angry. And an unrepentant, angry woman is a difficult woman. If a city refused her request for a reservation, she would cancel her performance and tell the press why. She insisted on fully integrated shows, and would reserve a big table near the stage for local members of the NAACP; until they were all seated, she would not appear.
By this time, at the age of forty-five, Josephine was also completely over whatever lingering reputation she may have had as an exotic primitif. Her activism involved giving performances where she demonstrated that black people could be as sophisticated and worldly as anyone else. Dressed in Dior, Balmain, and Balenciaga (she made thirteen costume changes over the course of the evening) she showed off her language acquisition chops by singing in French, Italian, Portuguese, even Yiddish. She told stories about the old days, chatted up the audience. She was lovely, but also fierce and uncompromising. Once, she overheard someone use the n-word in a restaurant and called the cops. As her biographer Phyllis Rose observed: “Like a comic-book superwoman, one moment Josephine was an innocuous celebrity eating a meal—and then (quick moral change in invisible phone booth of the mind)—an intrepid fighting for civil rights, leaping into the fray, clad in the uniform of the Free French Women’s Auxiliary.”
Word got around. The New York branch of the NAACP deemed May 20, 1951 Josephine Baker Day, and Life magazine ran a feature story declaring that “La Baker is back.” Six months later—perhaps further emboldened by these public affirmations—she accused Manhattan’s celebrated Stork Club of racism when she was made to wait an hour for a steak. Accounts differed about whether this was an innocent error or just really bad service (history has come down firmly on Josephine’s side). But at this point, she had become such a staunch and respected foe of discrimination that the reputation of the club never recovered.
Josephine had always expressed a desire to be a mother, but for one reason or another (timing, various female maladies) it never happened. In 1954, after seven years of marriage to Bouillon, Josephine decided that she wanted to create a family that would also make a political statement. They would live all live at Les Milandes, where they would demonstrate love and tolerance for their visitors. “Jo and I plan to adopt four little children: red, yellow, white, and black. Four little children raised in the country, in my beautiful Dordogne,” Bouillon wrote in his memoir. “They will serve as an example of true Democracy, and be living proof that if people are left in peace, nature takes care of the rest.”
But Josephine and Jo did not adopt a tidy quartet of kids. They started a kid collection. In the same way some people get one tattoo, and then can’t help getting ten or twelve more, Josephine started picking up kids there and then—pretty much whenever the spirit moved her.
The Baker-Bouillon’s first four children were a pair of half-American, half-Asian babies adopted from a Japanese orphanage (their fathers were most likely GIs); a “white” Finnish toddler from Helsinki; and a “black” infant of indeterminate race. Four children that, alas, represented only three of the required colors: black, white, and yellow. Josephine was a stickler for seeing her fantasy to completion, and she refused to call her family whole until she was able to adopt a “red” baby: an American Indian.
It escaped her (if she ever knew), that the skin color of native Americans is actually a shade of brown. In any case, there weren’t a lot (possibly any) native American babies to be had in the orphanages of Western Europe after the war. This inability to easily fulfill her original mission inspired a new thought: her tribe would have not only children of different races, but also different religions. Think of the possibilities!
They adopted Moïse (Jewish). They adopted Brahim (Muslim). She acquired a few more Catholics for spare parts, Jean-Claude and Marianne. I believe we’re up to eight? Bouillon, who managed the money, started to lose his sense of humor. It was the usual thing: Josephine following her heart without a thought for how it might be affecting anyone else. She refused to consider the cost of raising all these children. A time-honored ongoing marital squabble ensued, where Jo called her impulsive and irresponsible, and she called him a petty bean counter. In 1961, he left. They had been married fourteen years: a relationship of duration for the impulsive, difficult Josephine.
She spent most of the rest of the decade trying to save Les Milandes—the only home her kids had ever known—but was evicted in 1968. She had to be dragged bodily from the kitchen of her chateau, and sat on the porch barefoot, a patchwork blanket over her knees, a lunch lady bonnet on her head. She waited for photographers to record her injustice and humiliation for posterity. Here I am, she seemed to be saying, La Baker, trying to do good for the world—and this is how the world has treated me. She seems to lack any responsibility for her current state of affairs.
Josephine was nothing if not a survivor. She bounced back. That same year, she was back on stage, singing and dancing at the Olympia in Paris; five years later she played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall. Four days before she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975, she opened in Joséphine à Bobino, a revue that paid tribute to her fifty years on the stage. The show was sold out; Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, and Jackie Onassis were among the opening night crowd. Josephine, at sixty-eight, was still wicked and captivating: a drama queen with a heart of gold.
 Beyoncé would pay homage to Josephine and her banana skirt several times, first in her “Déjà vu” track, and again in “B’day.”
 Zou-Zou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935) both written exclusively for Josephine were popular in France, but largely sucked. Courtesy of author Elissa Schappell, from whose Twitter profile I pilfered this descriptor. Merci bien, Elissa!