Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar, was a master of image and reinvention.
In the 1920s, she twerked for Paris audiences before there was such word as “twerking.” Later, the mesmerizing woman who danced in a skirt of plastic bananas (breasts bare and bum jutting), would change into a beautiful couture gown and hobnob with the elite.
Film made Baker one of the first black actors to have a major role on the big screen. World War II gave her a new identity as an entertainer-informer, passing information to aid her beloved France.
Then, in the 1950s, Baker dressed for an entirely new role. In a more buttoned-up, prim wardrobe of dark dresses and flats, she became a mère of the world by adopting children of different races. She made headlines by gathering a “rainbow tribe” and using her own castle as the stage.
But was her longest role — she spent more years as the mother of 12 children than she did as a dancer — just a publicity stunt, a bizarre bid for attention?
Could it have been a heartfelt, biological urge? Or maybe a utopian gesture that would teach the world a lesson about brotherhood?
A new book says the girl born into St. Louis poverty knew exactly what she was doing.
“She was kind of the avant-garde of civil rights,” says Matthew Pratt Guterl, author of “Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe.”
“Martin Luther King recognized the value of having the camera on marchers when the police would release dogs. And that’s no more strategic or symbolic than what Baker did.”
Which doesn’t mean that Guterl approves of gathering up stray children and assigning them new names and religions.
But as a professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University, he says that these misunderstood years of Baker’s life provide a broader understanding of both her and the U.S. civil rights movement:
“A lot of people did idiosyncratic things in the civil rights movement, and when we think about it as only ‘Martin v. Malcolm’ we’re misremembering” a more complex history.
Nothing Baker ever did was simple or boring.
Guterl, who discussed his book by phone, says what Baker’s biographers usually say: Her stories ranged from true to embellished to patently false. (Authors have even disagreed on who her biological father was.)
But even the bare-bone facts of her life are fascinating.
Carrie McDonald gave birth to Josephine on June 3, 1906. The pretty, unmarried mother, who had come to St. Louis two years earlier from South Carolina, said the father was an olive-skinned drummer, Eddie Carson. Living with her mother and sister in a slum on Lucas Street, McDonald formed a song-and-dance act with Carson during a time when St. Louis was “alive with music,” including ragtime, writes Ean Wood in “The Josephine Baker Story.”
But Carson moved on after Carrie had a second child, son Richard. According to Wood, Josephine would later claim various fathers: a “Jewish tailor,” a “Creole from New Orleans,” a “Spanish dancer.”
Not only was Josephine cold and hungry as a child, when she was 8 her mother sent her to live as a maid with a white widow, who once punished the girl by sticking her hand in boiling water.
Her life would continue to be one dramatic story after another: She performed on the streets, waitressed at the Old Chauffeur’s Club and married at 13.
Soon after, she danced with a band at the Booker T. Washington Theater, then took up with a touring troupe and went on the road. At age 15, in Philadelphia, Josephine met her next husband, Willie Baker.
She would leave Baker for a stint in New York, but she never dropped his name. In New York, she was offered $250 a week to join a show in France and bravely left the U.S. at age 19.
Baker embarked on the most famous (and notorious) part of her career, as she enthralled Paris with her “danse sauvage,” an primitive stereotype of a dark-skinned couple doing a shocking African-style “mating dance.”
But even before she became a star, she had been well-aware of racism (having witnessed victims of the East St. Louis riots when she was just 11). In just a few years, she would morph into a more cosmopolitan performer who both spoke French and sang “La Marseillaise” while also playing to colonial stereotypes.
By the mid-1930s, Guterl writes, Baker “had played to the crowds as if she were Indochinese, African, Caribbean, and Oriental.”
However endlessly fascinating Baker’s life was, Guterl’s motive for his new look at her was to explain how she could be at home in the French countryside and yet also “decide to change her image and change the world.”
So fast forward through Baker’s movie roles and indefatigable war work (she was awarded multiple French medals, including the prestigious Legion of Honour). Guterl sets the stage for Baker’s civil rights work with detailed history of her refusal, in the early ’50s, to perform at U.S. venues at which African-Americans were banned.
Her well-publicized demand in 1951 at the Copa City Club in Miami led to this comment from a columnist: “At the command of one little brown girl, the walls of segregation came tumbling down.”
Later that year, Baker and her friends went to the Stork Club in New York, which took an hour to serve her. Her public complaint led to a tense fight with famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who she thought could have supported her more. He, in turn, implied she had communist leanings and helped sic the FBI on Baker.
In 1952, she traveled to Argentina and told a nation mourning for Eva Perón that “the United States is not a free country” and blacks there were treated “like dogs.”
Her public statements during a tour of South America were often well-informed — and plainspoken. She discussed desegregation, class and the Cold War. Guterl reports that Baker noted “in the old days when a white man spoke of the equality of races, he was called a nigger-lover. Today, that word has been changed to Communist.”
But soon after Baker’s visit, she was apparently inspired by the legendary and glamorous Perón’s efforts for poor children. Evita took a “Rainbow Tour” of Europe in 1947, saying the rainbow joined different countries. Guterl writes that Baker would later use the symbol for her “fairy-tale family.” The African-American star, who was unable to bear children, began planning for some.
She wrote a friend in Japan in 1953 that she planned to adopt five small boys, including “a purebred Japanese,” “a dark-skinned black” and “an Indian from Peru, a Nordic, and an Israelite.”
Although her plans sound crass today, her goal was not: “These small children will be like brothers, live together as a symbol of democracy.”
She had, Guterl writes, “a cool, tactical approach to the assemblage of the Rainbow Tribe.”
But reality would be different. In 1954, Baker went to Japan and came home with not one, but two children. She’d impulsively decided on the second boy and later assigned them different identities, Guterl writes. The first, Akio, she said was “half-Korean” and Buddhist. The second, whom she called Janot, was “half-Japanese” and Shinto.
Over a decade, Baker would adopt 10 more children: 8 more boys and 2 girls.
Guterl writes that what she wanted were “representative types, human metaphors who could be displayed together for visual contrast, and whose play together could make a bigger point about common humanity and the roots of racism.”
Baker’s actions showed both plotting and impulsivity, he says. She planned for a political experiment, but also couldn’t resist bringing home a child who touched her soul.
Home, at this time, was Baker’s castle Les Milandes in southern France. Not only did she put the children on display for visitors, she charged admission. Thousands came and letters show that many were changed by the experience.
At times the family (Baker was now married to a white band director named Jo Bouillon and had brought her mother and half-sister to France to help) would appear in advertisements or orchestrated press photos.
In one sense, the 15th-century Dordorgne chateau was a desegregated playground: It had a pool, tennis courts, beautiful lawns, a music hall, a pedal-cart racetrack. Dozens of French workers helped run the estate. Baker hid from the children, though, old pictures of herself as the “Black Venus.”
Guterl talked to a few of Baker’s brood as adults. Jarry, born in Finland, said, “We grew in Les Milandes like a regular family.” But the show business aspect was tiring.
As the children, so charming and well-mannered as tots, grew, Baker had to tour more to earn money to try to cover her expenses. The teenage boys rebelled. Her daughter, the “French” Marianne (acquired in Algeria) would sneak out of the castle to meet a boy. Marianne was sent off to England. Baker, known for her many lovers through the years — both male and female — became angry when she found out that one son, bathing with a boy, was gay.
Always a strong-willed diva, her dictatorial manner finally drove her fourth husband away. Two of the children would later live with him.
Then, by 1968, Baker was in deep debt and would lose the castle. Guterl says he tried to respect the grown children’s privacy so his book includes little of their later years; his interest lies in how Baker “deployed” her family politically.
He calls modern celebrities known for their adoptions “cheap copies of the original.” One difference between Baker and Angelina Jolie or Mia Farrow is that the later women have tried to give their children some semblance of a private life. Baker had a noble aim, even if it sometimes seemed crassly commercial, Guterl says.
Most of all, Baker’s actions were purposeful — not desperate or crazy, as they have sometimes been portrayed, he says.
“In the ’50s, before the mainstream civil rights movement, this is a fairly radical thing,” he says. “I think people thought about it really positively.”
Although Baker’s Rainbow Tribe and French chateau were off-beat, “it wasn’t like Michael Jackson’s ‘Neverland,’” he says. “It was a serious thing.”