Continuing with the theme of Women's History Month, what better person to discuss than Josephine Baker? She was an international icon who rose from poverty in St. Louis, Missouri to the lavish lifestyle of Paris, France. Baker had a slew of nicknames: "Creole Goddess," "Black Venus" and "Black Pearl." She was renown for her beauty and her innovative and flamboyant dances. According to Biography.com, Baker had a pet cheetah and adopted 12 children from various ethnicities called the "Rainbow Tribe." But do we know the story behind Baker providing intelligence to the Allies during World War II? Josephine Baker received a Medal of Honor for aiding the French Resistance during WWII.
Josephine's rags to riches story was very similar to many Negro entertainers in the early 1900s. She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906. Baker worked at an early age as a domestic and waitress to help her impoverished family. She married at age thirteen but did not remain in the union for long. (Baker later wed several more times) Young Baker then started dancing professionally. Considered too dark and skinny in America, the New York Times once referred to her as "The Negro Wench." (Source: The Official Josephine Baker Site)
|Josephine Baker during WWII|
She became the highest grossing entertainer in Europe according to Biography.com. Baker infatuated legions of fans with her famous "Banana Dance," "Shadow Dance" and the "Original Charleston." A long line of modern day performers have cited Baker as a major influence. Baker incorporated comedy, visual appeal and high energy in her scene stealing performances.
Furthermore, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, and F. Scott Fitzgerald greatly admired the "Black Venus."** She embodied the Jazz Age and the accompanying Art Deco movement. Baker attempted to make a return to America in the late 30s with the show Ziegfeld Follies but faced audience rejection. She renounced her American citizenship and became a French citizen in 1937. By this time Baker was among the top photographed female stars. France embraced her. (huffingtonpost)
From the Official Josephine Baker site:
Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals.
Which is why Josephine Baker was the perfect candidate to smuggle information for the French Resistance during World War II.
The Vichy Government and The French Resistance
The surrender of France in June 1940, was a major blow to many French people in terms of their pride. Many believed that the government had let the people down. The creation of a Nazi-approved Vichy government, primarily in the centre and south of the country, was, in the minds of many, further proof that politicians had let down France. The resistance movement developed to provide the Allies with intelligence, attack the Germans when possible and to assist the escape of Allied airmen.
In the immediate aftermath of the June 1940 surrender, France went into a period of shock. The public had been assured that the French army, along with the Maginot Line, was more than strong enough to resist a German attack. The speed and severity of Blitzkrieg had shocked the French people. The non-occupied region of France, known as Vichy France, was set up by the Germans and governed by Marshall Pétain.
Meanwhile, French President Charles de Gaulle on June 18th, 1940 told the French people from London to keep fighting the Germans. The Vichy government, collaborated with the Germans and internal conflict began.
Baker had a castle in Southern France. She provided housing for Resistance members.
Josephine Baker, Free France Spy
Prior to the surrender of France to the Germans in 1940, Baker was made an "honorary correspondent" by a French official. Baker gathered information on German troops from various embassy and ministry personnel at parties. Baker passed the intel on to the French government. Her femme fatale persona allowed her access to confidential military information.(biography.com)
Baker housed French Resistance friends at her Southern France castle and procured travel visas. She traveled throughout neutral Europe and South America collecting information about German troop movement, airfields and harbors. As a spy, once again she obtained some of the information by her "beguiling smile" and sensuous charm. The intelligence would then be written on invisible ink on Josephine's sheet music. On some occasions the info would be pinned on her underwear. An entertainer of Baker's cache would not be subject to a strip search. (biography.com)
Baker's other WWII activities included a stint as a sub-lieutenant for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She also provided performances for French troops free of charge, boosting their morale. For her brave and commendable efforts Baker was the first American-born woman to be awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance and to be made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. (womenwhochangedamerica.org)
|Image via: queensofvintage.com|
Josephine Baker with her pet cheetah
American Civil Rights Proponent
Josephine Baker figured prominently in the American Civil Rights Movement. She was invited to speak during the 1963 March On Washington* and was one of the few women that spoke before thousands of protesters. After the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. his wife Coretta selected Baker to be the face of the movement but she declined.
Baker refused to perform in front of segregated audiences and challenged the social mores of the day, winning accolades from the NAACP. Her actions resulted in death threats from the Klu Klux Klan but she remained steadfast with her convictions.
One of the most famous entertainers of the twentieth century pushed the envelope with her stage persona and private life. Her songs are timeless standards covered by many. The "Black Pearl" reaped the benefits of her amazing popularity and enjoyed a posh lifestyle.
Josephine Baker's status allowed her to be the perfect spy for the French Resistance in WWII. Additionally, she was a pivotal player during the American Civil Rights Movement. Baker lived life on her terms and did not let rejection in the United States limit her. Josephine Baker died in 1975 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Baker was buried with military honors and over 20,000 people attended her funeral. (biography.com)
What entertainer today does Baker remind you of? Can you think of anyone else that was involved in military and social causes?
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|Josephine Baker was the only woman who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963.|
She is pictured with Lena Horne, another activist entertainer.
image via: pinterest.com
*historychicks.com-March on Washington Speech
Official Site of Josephine Baker
*Vichy- France was divided into two zones. Petain set up his government in the unoccupied zone at the spa town of Vichy. The large number of hotels housed all the ministries.