Who: American born “erotic” dancer, singer, and actress. French Resistance Fighter. Civil Rights Activist. Recipient of the Croix de Guerre, Légion d’Honneur and Rosette of the Résistance. Taught herself French by reading her own press clippings. Animal lover.
Signature Difficult Moves: During World War II, snuck encoded information out of occupied France on her sheet music. After the war, back in the States, leveraged her fame to insist on integration in restaurants, hotels, and night clubs.
What People Said About Her: “She just wiggled her fanny and all the French fell in love with her.” — Maria Jola, expat hostess with the mostest.
Personals: Married four times. Adopted twelve children, which she called “The Rainbow Tribe” due to their different ethnicities and religions. Had a brief affair with Frida Kahlo (Difficult Woman N°10)
Feminine Charms: Radiant smile, breathtaking skin, off the charts charisma
How She Spoke Truth To Power: Only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. In front of a crowd of 250,000, at the age of fifty-seven, dressed in the wool uniform of the French Resistance, she talked about returning from France, her adopted homeland, to the US:
“And when I got to New York I had other blows—when they would not let me check into the good hotels because I was colored, or eat in certain restaurants. And then I went to Atlanta, and it was a horror to me. And I said to myself, My God, I am Josephine, and if they do this to me, what do they do to the other people in America?
You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world. So I did open my mouth, and you know I did scream, and when I demanded what I was supposed to have and what I was entitled to, they still would not give it to me.
So then they thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a Communist. Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a Communist. But they were mad. They were mad because I told the truth. And the truth was that all I wanted was a cup of coffee. But I wanted that cup of coffee where I wanted to drink it, and I had the money to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I wanted it?
Friends and brothers and sisters, that is how it went. And when I screamed loud enough, they started to open that door just a little bit, and we all started to be able to squeeze through it. Not just the colored people, but the others as well, the other minorities too, the Orientals, and the Mexicans, and the Indians, both those here in the United States and those from India.
Now I am not going to stand in front of all of you today and take credit for what is happening now. I cannot do that. But I want to take credit for telling you how to do the same thing, and when you scream, friends, I know you will be heard. And you will be heard now.”
Quote to Live By: “The secret to the fountain of youth is to think youthful thoughts.”