By Reg Reynolds
How does a poor African American girl rise to become the darling of Paris and ultimately a spy for French Military Intelligence in World War II? Josephine Baker was that girl, who disillusioned with segregated America, moved to France and through her bubbly personality, unusual dancing and singing styles, a beguiling mixture of comedy and erotica, captured the imagination of fans throughout the world.
It was that very fame that convinced the leaders of the Free French that she was in a perfect position to gather information through the many contacts she had made through her cabaret and movie career and due to her ability to travel without facing the restrictions and suspicions facing lesser known figures. In her service to the Resistance, Josephine would perform throughout Europe and North Africa, with a brief stop in Gibraltar.
Much of this is covered in the many books and internet articles about Josephine’s life, but there is no mention of her being in Gibraltar. It was only through an old newspaper item that I found evidence that Josephine had indeed performed for troops in Gibraltar. The item is an interview with comedian Wee Georgie Wood and was in a Northern Ireland newspaper called the Northern Whig and dated February 22, 1944. George Wood Bamlett OBE was an English comedian and actor born in Sunderland on December 17, 1894. He was an actor and writer best known for Two Little Drummer Boys (1928). Regarding Josephine and Gibraltar, Wood, who had just returned from a 15,000-mile tour of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Malta and Iraq, told the Whig reporter:
A beguiling mixture of comedy and erotica.
“In Gibraltar I did seven shows in 28 hours. The troops were the greatest audience in the world. Most of the men prefer the songs of 1936-37 vintage to the new ones; they like sentimental songs and of all the artists who have visited I think they like Josephine Baker the most.”
Wood and Baker would have been performing under the auspices of ENSA (Entertainment National Services Association). Tatler Magazine of August 1943 features a picture of Josephine in Cairo meeting with the founder and wartime leader of ENSA, Basil Dean. That is likely when arrangements were made for her to appear in Gibraltar.
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie, had been adopted by Richard and Elvira, both of whom were of African American and Native American descent. Josephine’s estate lists drummer Eddie Carson as her biological father, but some biographers believe that her father was white, a member of a wealthy family that Carrie worked for. It is interesting to note that Carrie gave birth in an exclusively white female hospital and was there for six weeks. In those days most black women gave birth at home with the aid of a mid-wife. Carrie never revealed the name of the natural father.
Carrie married and had three more children, but her new husband had trouble holding down jobs, so she took in laundry to survive while Josephine toiled as a domestic for white families. Josephine dropped out of school aged 12 and often slept rough, dancing on street corners for change. When she 13 she married foundry worker Willie Wells, but they divorced soon after. In 1921, at 15, she married train porter Willie Baker. She left him when the vaudeville troupe she had signed with was booked into a New York City venue and they divorced in 1925. Though Baker traveled, she would return with gifts and money for her mother and younger half-sister, but turmoil with her mother pushed her to make a trip to France.
Her costume consisted of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace.
This was when Paris’ famous left bank was the artistic and cultural centre of Europe. Baker soon became renowned as a singer and dancer, and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère. Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in the city. Her costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, became an iconic image and a symbol both of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.
Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the ‘Black Pearl’, the ‘Bronze Venus’, and the ‘Creole Goddess’. After a disappointing series of appearances and experiencing more discrimination in New York, she gave up her American citizenship and returned France and became a French national.
When the Germans occupied Paris in May 1940 Josephine left the city and moved to the Château des Milandes; a castle-like mansion in the in the south of France. As an entertainer, she had an excuse for moving around Europe and South America. Attending embassies and ministries she charmed her hosts garnered information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbours, and German troop concentrations. Notes were written in invisible ink on sheet music which she pinned to her underwear believing correctly that her celebrity would prevent her from being strip searched.
Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa. The stated reason was Josephine’s health, but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From Marrakesh, she made tours of Spain. After a miscarriage, she developed an infection so severe it required a hysterectomy. The infection spread and she developed peritonitis and then sepsis. Josephine was out of action for more than a year and there were some reports that she had died. After her recovery she started touring again to entertain British, French, and American troops.
After the war, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General de Gaulle. Josephine married her fourth and last husband, director and composer Jo Bouillon, in 1947 and together they adopted 11 children of different races and religions. Josephine called them her Rainbow Tribe. When Boullon left her in 1961 Josephine struggled financially but she continued to work and remained adored by her fans, including now even in America. She was active in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
Notes were written in invisible ink pinned to her underwear.
On 8 April 1975, Josephine starred in a revue at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.
Four days later Josephine was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. Josephine was taken to hospital, where she died, aged 68, on 12 April 1975.
She received a full Roman Catholic funeral and is the only American-born woman to receive full French military honors including a 21-gun salute.