Josephine Baker in Berlin, 30 April 1965
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Harry Croner

Josephine Baker

“All I want is to dance…” Josephine Baker has been inspiring untold numbers of people around the globe for a century. She used dance to get out of the slums of the southern United States and from Paris she conquered the world’s stages in the 1920s.

by Bärbel Reißmann

Born an illegitimate child in a slum district of St. Louis on 3 June 1906, Freda Josephine McDonald, the name given to her at birth, had a deprived childhood. She provided forceful accounts of the 1917 race riots in her home city and derived a mission in life from this: The fight against racial segregation, for freedom and equality. Dancing became her own personal route to freedom.

Every performance was intoxicating

From 1921, Josephine travelled through the USA with a dance troupe called “Dixie Steppers” and appeared in short scenes in so-called Vaudeville theatre shows. In Philadelphia, aged just fifteen, she married Billy Baker, who had already been married once before, under whose surname she was to become famous. Here, she also secured a fixed engagement as a clown at the end of “Chorus Line”. However, she had her sights set on being in the spotlight, on the big stage. So, she tried her luck in New York in the musical “Shuffle Along”. For Josephine, every performance was intoxicating: “The eyes of the audience looking at me electrified me.” Tirelessly on the go, she managed to attract attention. Thus, in 1925, she was engaged as a dancer to perform in Paris.

The French public was curious to see this quirky newcomer from America. Their fascination was directed towards the new artistic forms. Josephine Baker took Paris by storm with her permissive dance performances. She was sensuous, pure, exotic and a star. “She is credited with the fact that she dances not only with her body, legs and arms but also with her eyes,” wrote Austrian theatre and culture magazine Die Bühne in 1925. “The whole is a mix of music, movement, graphicness and eroticism, it is a unique sensation which Paris reckons it can no longer live without!” From Paris the tour went on via Brussels to Berlin.
Josephine Baker, Paris, around 1925
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: G. L. Manuel (photography studio)
Sammlung Stadtmuseum Berlin

Triumph in Berlin

Composer Rudolf Nelson placed his theatre in Berlin at the disposal of Josephine Baker. From the stage on Kurfürstendamm, she conquered the city as “Black Venus” in 1926. “Berlin feels great! A pure triumph. They carry me aloft. In no other city have I received so many love letters, so many flowers and gifts,” the dancer recalled in her memoires. 

With what was a hitherto unknown dance in Germany, the Charleston, she triggered a veritable dance craze. Celebrated and courted by theatre artists such as Max Reinhardt and Karl Vollmoeller, Josephine enjoyed the affection that came her way and the offers in Berlin, but ultimately opted for Paris. In ever more extravagant, tailored costumes, she served the exotically African image. The famous belt made of 16 fur-fabric bananas which she wore around her hips became her trademark look. 

Support for the resistance

With her marriage to Jewish businessman Jean Lion, the artist was granted French citizenship in 1937. Following the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Germany in the November pogroms in 1938, in an act of solidarity she became a member of the Ligue internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme (LICRA), an international organisation committed to fighting against racism and anti-Semitism.

After the capture of Paris and occupation of parts of France by the German Wehrmacht in 1940, Josephine Baker left the city where she had celebrated great successes in the 1930s (photo from 1941)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Harry Croner
The start of the Second World War, in the wake of which the German Wehrmacht occupied large parts of France, including Paris in 1940, changed Josephine Baker’s life fundamentally. “As long as there is even one single German in France, I will not sing”, she announced. She worked for the Red Cross and supported the Résistance. She gathered and smuggled information for the French government in exile of General Charles de Gaulle and the allied forces, on whose behalf she went to North Africa.  As lieutenant of the Free French Air Force, she travelled around by military jeep to entertain the troops. All proceeds from the concerts under de Gaulle’s patronage were passed on to the Résistance movement – over 3 million French francs by the end of the war.

In October 1944, a few months after the successful allied invasion of Normandy, she accompanied the allied troops from liberated Paris further eastwards.  Until the end of the war Sous-Lieutenant Baker saw it as her honorary, patriotic duty to sing for the soldiers. She was recognised for this in 1946 with the Medaille de la Résistance of Free France. In 1957, Charles de Gaulle named Josephine Baker Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur for her courageous efforts.

Ambassador for peace, freedom and justice

Josephine Baker returned to the stage after 1945 – as an ambassador for peace, freedom and equality of all people, regardless of nationality, skin colour or religion. Together with French conductor Jo Bouillon, whom she had married on 3 June 1947, she went on a tour of the USA in 1951. At her shows there was no racial segregation; as a star she had made this a stipulation.

Baker took an offensive stance against any form of discrimination. In 1963, US civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King got her up to the rostrum in Washington – her biggest role and her greatest triumph: She was more than a superstar, she was a political figure. In her speech on 28 August at the closing rally of the March on Washington organised by the civil rights movement, the 57-year-old encouraged all African Americans to assert their rights in their own country.

Josephine Baker with adopted children of her “rainbow family”. In the foreground: Jeannot (Japan), Jari (Finland), Brahim (Morocco); in the background Akio (Korea), Marianna (Morocco), Luis (Colombia), Josephine Baker with Koffi (Guana), Moïse (Israël), Jean-Claude (France); Paris, ca. 1957
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Pressedienst Kindermann
 Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon adopted twelve children of different skin colours from different parts of the world. She financed her rainbow family’s livelihood with further stage appearances. At her chateau “Les Milandes” in the Dordogne she lived the ideal of equality and freedom. She remained a political fighter and role model for many Black women until her death on 12 April 1975.

Further literature:
„Josephine Baker: Weltstar – Freiheitskämpferin – Ikone“, Mona Horncastle, Wien 2020