For as long as I can remember I have harboured a fascination for the legendary Joséphine Baker (the titillating image her nickname ‘the Black Pearl’ brings to mind may have contributed a tiny bit. She is well known for her erotic dancing, after all.)
I’ve only recently become aware of the many reasons she earned her status as a legend of the 20th century, though. For a poor, fairly uneducated girl, it is extraordinary all that she achieved in her lifetime.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri, in 1906, she kept her second husband’s surname (she married Willie Baker at the age of 15 and they divorced a short time later) when she began to experience some success in her home country.
She became hugely popular when she traveled to Paris in 1925 as a musical star and erotic dancer. As a member of an African American variety revue, the thirst for American jazz and exotic nudity in Paris at the time assured Joséphine’s fame and she earned the nickname ‘the highest paid chorus girl in the world’. She adopted France as her home and became a citizen in 1937.
Joséphine refused to be segregated and during her work with the Civil Rights movement, she began adopting children – two daughters and ten sons: her Rainbow Tribe to prove “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” (Joséphine did not have any biological children – after several miscarriages she developed a severe infection and had to have a hysterectomy).
She assisted the French Resistance in WWII by collecting information on German troop locations from officials she met at parties and later used her career as an entertainer to carry intelligence all over Europe (written in invisible ink on her music or pinned inside her underwear). She received the French Military honour, the Croix de guerre for her efforts.
She is also an LGBT icon – she was married and divorced four times and had a string of male lovers and ‘lady loves’ including Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
And she acted in movies!
There were whispers Rihanna was slated to portray the playfully sensual woman in an upcoming movie, but that seems to have fizzled out. I think she would have made a sensational Joséphine.