Josephine Baker: the incredible story of a spy, dancer and activist

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of notable Black Americans found refuge in France, especially Paris. There was no segregation in France (at least not legally), and while they did encounter racism, it wasn’t on the scale or with the violence of what they’d experienced in America.

Thanks to this, amazing talents like Richard Wright and James Baldwin thrived. Like anyone who spends time in France, the country left its mark on them – and they left their mark on it. You’ll find streets, squares, parks, daycares, and even swimming pools in France named after famous Black Americans, including some who are admired by the French, even if they never lived in France.

But there’s one Black American whose fate became particularly tied to France, to the point of falling in love with the country and even trying to save it from a terrifying enemy.

Let’s look at the life of Josephine Baker, entertainment icon and member of the French Résistance.

Where was Josephine Baker born?

Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906. Growing up, she spent time in and out of school, working domestic jobs and dancing and singing as well.

By the astonishingly young age of 13, Baker married her first husband. She began to perform with different vaudeville and dance groups. Soon, she divorced and then married Willie Baker, a musician whose last name she’d keep for the rest of her life.

Baker’s talent as a dancer and performer took her to Broadway, where she became a part of the ensemble cast of “Shuffle Along”, a review that celebrated Black music and performers.

Why did Josephine Baker come to France?

Stacked old steamer trunks of different colors and makes.

Although “Shuffle Along” was filled with talented musicians and dancers, Baker’s star shone especially bright. She caught the attention of a wealthy woman whose husband had a plan: put on a show similar to “Shuffle Along” in Paris, France, where jazz was still more or less unknown.

And so, in 1925, at the age of 19, Baker set off on a new adventure: to dance on a Parisian stage.

What was Josephine Baker famous for?

A man's hand on the keys of his trumpet. In the blurred background we can make out a bass.

Baker’s first show in Paris is her most famous. It was called “La Revue Nègre” (literally, The Negro Review).

(Before we continue, a quick vocabulary lesson: nègre in French can translate to “negro”. At the time, this was generally a respectful way to refer to Black people. But today, like its English-language counterpart, the word nègre is considered old-fashioned and pejorative. Add to this the fact that there is no mainstream French equivalent of “the n-word”, which means that sometimes, depending on the context, nègre was/is used that way, too. 

So it’s very much a word to avoid when speaking French today. The word noir (Black) is the respectful noun or adjective to use when talking about Black people and culture in contemporary French.)

“La Revue Nègre” caused a sensation in Paris. For one thing, it was the first time most Parisians had ever heard jazz or seen it performed – including the famous dance the Charleston. 

For another, in 1926, when the show moved to the Folies-Bergère, Josephine Baker gave an unforgettable performance. Wearing  lavish jewelry, a skirt made of fake bananas, and nothing else, Baker danced the Charleston and managed to look incredibly sexy and exotic (more on this in a moment), while also making her signature funny faces.

You can watch the official, topless version of Baker’s banana dance on sites like YouTube today, although you may need to sign in and prove you’re over 18 to do so!  Fortunately, there are “clean” versions where she wears a bikini top. These were probably made for newsreels.

Baker’s funny yet sexy style was irresistibly charming, although some people might find it strange to watch today.  

Through the lens of our modern world, the appreciation for Josephine Baker’s banana dance is problematic. In Paris in the 1920’s, people were fascinated by the exotic portrayal of African cultures. There was most definitely a sexual undertone to the appreciation for Baker’s performance, one that was patriarchal, patronizing, and racist by today’s perception.

And yet, it’s also important to understand that France was a much more progressive and tolerant place than countries like the US. There was no segregation here, and Black people had the same legal rights as whites did. For the first time in her life, Baker was able to go where she wanted, without being thrown out or forbidden due to her race. This became a standard for her; when she returned to perform in the US several years later, she refused to participate in segregated venues.

It’s no wonder that the other performance Baker is most famous for is her song, first sung in 1931, J’ai deux amours (“I Have Two Loves”). The song begins: J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris (I have two loves, my country and Paris). 

As she became increasingly tied to France, Baker changed one of the lyrics over the years. The song soon went: J’ai deux amours, mon pays c’est Paris.  (I have two loves, my country is Paris.)

It’s a sentiment I think many expats can relate to on a deep level, myself very much included. We know where we come from and how that’s shaped us, but we’ve also found a new place that holds just as much importance in our hearts – maybe more.

J’ai deux amours” was an instant hit and even decades later was the song associated with Josephine Baker. Notes of it would often be played to introduce her whenever she made a public appearance.

Baker could have been satisfied to continue performing – her life certainly would have been full and exciting enough.

Instead, she also decided to help save France!

Was Josephine Baker French ?

In 1937, Baker married for a third time, this time to Jean Lion, who was French. This gave her French citizenship. But she may also have been able to earn it on her own, just a few years later….

Was Josephine Baker in the Résistance?

The Croix de Lorraine Monument at Juno Beach, Normandy. This is a tall gray double lined cross that looks ugly close up but probably striking and sober from far away. Beside it is a French flag with a red Croix de Lorraine in the center, blowing in the breeze. The Croix de Lorraine is a symbol of the Free French and the Resistance.
The Croix de Lorraine Monument at Juno Beach, Normandy. The Croix de Lorraine was a symbol of Free France and the Résistance.

When World War II broke out, Josephine Baker immediately wanted to help defend her beloved adopted country against  the Nazis.

She met with Jacques Abtey, a French military intelligence and espionage officer, and famously told him, “France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything… I am ready, [C]aptain, to give them my life. You can use me as you wish.”

And so, Josephine Baker became a spy for the French Résistance. She used her international fame and famous charm to attend parties and social events with members of the Axis powers on the guest lists. She’d eavesdrop and write down information, even sometimes stashing her notes in her underwear. She also hid Resistance officers at her chateau in the French countryside.

When things got too dangerous and Baker, like most Americans, had to leave France, she continued working beyond borders to share information with the French and the Allied Forces.

She also worked to boost morale among Allied troops. There was no organized entertainment sector of the Free French Army, so mostly of their own initiative, Baker and her musicians toured North Africa, performing for military troops. Baker continued to perform even after suffering a miscarriage that involved lingering health issues.

At the end of the War, she returned to Paris and began raising money to help the now impoverished people of France.

In 1945, Charles de Gaulle, who became a personal friend of Baker’s as well, awarded her the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance, and named her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

You can read this article to learn more about Baker’s bravery and experiences during the War.  Wikipedia’s entry on Josephine Baker also contains a lot of interesting information about this period of her life.

Jacques Abtey also wrote a book called La guerre secrète de Josephine Baker (Josephine Baker’s Secret War), which is out of print, but which you may still be able to find in online and used bookstores.

Josephine Baker’s other fights

Image of a Civil Rigths march to improve housing, demand equal rights, and de-segregate schools in the US. The image is in black and white and shows a number of Black women and men marching.

Taking part in the French Resistance was far from Josephine Baker’s only fight. In addition to speaking out for racial equality and human rights in general, Baker also participated in the Civil Rights movement in the US and denounced the injustices of Batista’s regime in Cuba (sadly, Castro’s government wouldn’t exactly live up to Baker’s ideal of treating all people humanely and equally).

She also tried to put her ideals into practice. With her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, she adopted twelve children of different races and cultural backgrounds. She called them her “Rainbow Tribe”.

How did Josephine Baker die?

Baker survived race riots in her youth, World War II, health problems, and many other brushes with death. At age 68, she was still performing, although not the Charleston. Joséphine à Bobino 1975, a revue of her life, with her own performances as well as reenactments of some of her classic acts by other performers, opened to rave reviews at the Bobino Theater in Paris on April 8, 1975.

Four days later, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was found in her bed, surrounded by magazines and newspapers praising the show.

Hidden in the YouTube comments of a video entitled “(1925) Josephine Baker dancing the original charleston” is the testimonial of a person whose username is CittaRoma P. They claim to have been one of the dancers who performed in Joséphine à Bobino 1975 (They’ve posted  a video about this on their own YouTube page ). The comment reveals that Baker was gracious and grateful, friendly to her dancers to the end.

A few more facts about Josephine Baker

A cheetah sitting in the grass looks in what might be surprise at the photographer.

Josephine Baker lived an amazingly rich life and there’s so much more to discover and learn about her. Here are just a few notable, interesting facts:

She had a pet cheetah.

The cheetah was named Chiquita, and Baker took it to quite a lot of places with her.  Cheetahs aren’t typical or even legal pets in most places, but from what I’ve heard, they do make decent pets since they can be relatively docile. But this wasn’t always the case for Chiquita.

My favorite line from the “Josephine Baker” Wikipedia page is: “The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.”

Josephine Baker was bisexual.

Although she was married to several men over the course of her life, Baker also had known relationships with a number of women, including the French writer Colette.

Josephine Baker has inspired many artists and performers.

From Alexander Calder, who was in love with her and created a series of playful mobiles based on her, to Beyonce, who paid homage to the banana dance in 2006, Baker has inspired and continues to inspire artists around the world. You can find a list of them, as well as a list of her own performances, of course, on the Josephine Baker Wikipedia page.

Some Josephine Baker quotes

A view of the Eiffel Tower on a hazy day.

Baker often participated in shows and television appearances, and also gave speeches. Here are some of the thoughts she’s shared on life, prejudice, and passion:

The Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?

Josephine Baker

One dance had made me the most famous colored woman in the world.

Josephine Baker

I’m not intimidated by anyone. Everyone is made with two arms, two legs, a stomach and a head. Just think about that.

Josephine Baker

I believe if the white and colored people could get together and be let alone, they would understand each other and consequently love each other.

Josephine Baker

One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States… A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore… I felt liberated in Paris.

Josephine Baker

A violinist had a violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself. I was the instrument that I must care for.

Josephine Baker

I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.

Josephine Baker

I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.

Josephine Baker

You can visit this site for more Josephine Baker quotes. This website is also an excellent source for quotes by Josephine Baker. And of course, an online search can help you find even more.

What is Josephine Baker’s legacy in France?

A view of Paris from Montmartre. We see what sems like endless rooftops and a few buildings in the distance, beneath a typically partly cloudy Paris sky.

Josephine Baker is an icon in France. You’ll find images of her, including the famous poster for the Revue Nègre in various places, like the Bouquinistes’ stalls that line the parapets of the Seine.

She’s also a part of the landscape in a different way: A number of places in France have been named after her. These include la Place Joséphine Baker in Paris (note the French spelling of her name), as well as streets in many other French cities and towns.

As I’ve mentioned before, a magnificent and unique public swimming pool also bears her name. The Piscine Joséphine Baker floats on the Seine in Paris, using purified water from the river itself.

This is an especially fitting homage, since Baker once sung a charming song about the Seine.

Where can I learn more about Josephine Baker?

There are lots of ways to learn more about Josephine Baker. These include:

• doing a quick online search to find articles, interviews, and brief sources of information about Josephine Baker.

• reading a biography of Josephine Baker. There are several of these, in both English and French, not to mention ones in illustrated book formats for kids. The best biography seems to be Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, which in addition to its extensive research and interviews, was co-written by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Baker’s Rainbow Tribe children.

On that note, if you’re interested in learning about what it was like to be a part of the Rainbow Tribe and grow up with Josephine Baker during a complicated period of her personal life, when she was performing regularly but dodging debt collectors, Jean-Claude Baker also wrote a memoir (only available in French) called  Un château sur la lune – Le rêve brisé de Joséphine Baker, under the name Jean-Claude Bouillon-Baker.

• watching YouTube videos. You can find everything from documentaries to actual footage of Baker in interviews, as well, of course, as performing.

Josephine Baker represents so much today: an amazing performer, a kind soul, a brave fighter, a rulebreaker. And for those of us who love France and feel so strongly connected to it, despite being born somewhere else, I also think she’s a role model who shows that you can find a way to make it to the country you love, no matter where you come from.

Most importantly, Baker’s life and actions remind us that freedom and change are possible, and very much worth fighting for.

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.