Josephine Baker’s conquest of Paris of the 1920s - les Annes Folles - is the stuff of legend. Born in St. Louis, Missouri to poverty and racism she joined a vaudeville troupe at the tender (and illegal) age of 15. Before long, she traveled to France and performed for the first time on October 2, 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the Revue Négre - a success that changed her life forever and earned her nicknames such as Bronze Venus, the Black Pearl and Creole Goddess with the adoring French public.
When World War II broke out, Josephine, who took France to her bosom as much as it did her, volunteered to spy for her new homeland. By this point, she was one of its most glittering celebrities with high and widespread connections and access to the most exclusive of soirees. It was not only because of her race that Josephine stood vehemently against the Nazis, but also because her current husband, the millionaire Jean Leon, was Jewish. Like a real-life Mata Hari, Baker was able to attend parties at the Italian Embassy and hobnob with high-ranking Japanese officials, reporting back what she heard to the French government. As an entertainer, she also had the freedom to move around Europe, and smuggled secrets for the French Resistance by writing them down in invisible ink on her sheet music.
Josephine also contributed heavily to aiding the refugees as they fled from the Germans invading their homelands. “Every night after finishing at the Casino,” wrote her son, Jean-Claude Baker in his biography The Hungry Heart, “Josephine ran to the homeless shelter on Rue du Chevarelet, and did what she could to comfort new arrivals. In times of crisis she was magnificent; petty selfishness abandoned, she made beds, bathed old people, whispered words of comfort, and kept her eyes and ears open.” When Germans invaded Paris, Baker and her family moved down to her home in the South of France, Château des Milandes. She sheltered refugees there and aided them in obtaining passports and visas to escape the country.
Under the (true) excuse that she needed to recover from her pneumonia, Baker herself was able to leave German-occupied France for Morocco and continue her resistance work there, forming a close relationship with the Pasha of Marrakesh. In 1942, Baker’s health worsened as she went through the last of her several miscarriages (the great tragedy of Josephine Baker’s life was that she desperately wanted children but could never carry a pregnancy to term, though this did not stop her from adopting 13 children - her Rainbow Tribe) and a complicated hysterectomy. The doctors had a hard time keeping Baker in bed, and just as soon as she recovered, she was back on her feet entertaining Allied troops in North Africa. According to Jo Bouillon, one of Josephine’s husbands, she even performed at the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp where she sang for inmates who were too frail to be moved. Without ever mentioning the name of the camp, Josephine herself said, “I had to smile, I had to sing. Yes, songs have a soul. But the soul of songs sometimes can strangle you” (The Hungry Heart).
For her service in the war, Josephine Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle himself.
(Sources: Wiki and The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker.)
idk about this “like a real-life mata hari” thing, because, uh, mata hari was very much a real person who existed awesomely in real life, but the fact remains that i still desperately need a really great movie to be made about josephine baker. heroine for all eternity.
Ugh, excellent point, I just phrased it poorly. What I mean is that like Mata Hari, the espionage work Baker did was like something out of a work of fiction or a movie. I should have proof-read what I wrote better, thank you.
Posted on Wednesday, 7 March 2012
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