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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Josephine Baker, by Wiggia

Strange how lately small readings, items and simply noticing something jog the old grey matter into action. Two items prompted this: Sackerson's Sarah Bernhardt piece because the story was in Paris, and recently the Tour de France coverage - one of those helicopter shots hovered over what was the home of the subject of this piece, the Chateau des Milandes.

Her story is well known and a film was made, The Josephine Baker Story (1991) starring Lynn Whitfield as the artist. I will not here attempt to do the life story; that was remarkable, in that it was a classic case of child-to-star and lifting herself out of poverty - poverty in those days was sleeping on the street as a child and dancing on street corners for money to survive, a far cry from what is considered poverty today - but I digress. Below is her coming into the world, which gives a flavour of what was to follow. I have lifted this direct from Wiki as there was not a better version out there:

"The records of the city of St. Louis tell an almost unbelievable story. They show that (Josephine Baker's mother) Carrie McDonald ... was admitted to the (exclusively white) Female Hospital on May 3, 1906, diagnosed as pregnant. She was discharged on June 17, her baby, Freda J. McDonald having been born two weeks earlier. Why six weeks in the hospital? Especially for a black woman (of that time) who would customarily have had her baby at home with the help of a midwife? Obviously, there had been complications with the pregnancy, but Carrie's chart reveals no details. The father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw" ... I think Josephine's father was white—so did Josephine, so did her family ... people in St. Louis say that (Baker's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). He's the one who must have got her into that hospital and paid to keep her there all those weeks. Also, her baby's birth was registered by the head of the hospital at a time when most black births were not. I have unraveled many mysteries associated with Josephine Baker, but the most painful mystery of her life, the mystery of her father's identity, I could not solve. The secret died with Carrie, who refused to the end to talk about it. She let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along, (but) Josephine knew better."

Primarily a dancer, she became the first black American to be become an international star, though it has to be said it was her moving to live in France where she became a huge star that sealed that title, rather than what she achieved in the States.

Although she achieved recognition as a dancer in the States, problems with her mother and rejection as a black woman both personally and as an artist drove her (with her mother's encouragement) to go to France, a place she had toured and liked simply because the barriers for black people at home did not exist there in France.

It was as an erotic dancer appearing at the Folies Bergère, appearing in the outfit that consisted purely of bananas, that she become an overnight sensation. Her fame meant she was recalled to the States to appear in the Ziegfeld FolLies, but the critics were not kind and again rejected a black woman being given the lead role and she was replaced, returning to France heartbroken and then made the decision to become a French citizen. There is of course a lot more - her many husbands, her adopted children - but it was the war story that fascinated, a story that has more to it than the rather cut-and-paste items that seem identical when researching this; in fact, it took a lot of digging to find even simple variations on the theme.

In 1939 after war had been declared, Josephine found herself entertaining a very different audience: French and British soldiers, looking for entertainment in what was (so far) the false lull in activities .

Josephine had many male fans, a thousand marriage proposals after her Folies debut, but an unlikely admirer was the 33-year-old head of French military intelligence, Jacques Abtey. He was in the process of acquiring agents to work undercover without pay for the French war effort.

Abtey had a friend who had a brother who worked for Baker, and it was he who suggested she might be suitable. Abtey was at first reluctant to approach her, fearing that if exposed she would end up like Mata Hari who was shot as a spy in WWI.* The similarities of the two women worried him and he did not want to take the risk.

But his friend persisted, saying she was perfect for the job: with travel normal for her friends in high places, she would have little trouble passing back and forth whilst performing in European countries. She also had a loathing of Nazis, who reminded her of the people back home in the States who put up barriers to non-whites.

Abtey was convinced and arranged a meeting with Baker at her Chateau. He was taken aback when she was not quite the woman he had envisaged, being dressed in old clothes and carrying a can of snails, which she had collected in the garden to feed her ducks. It improved after that as once inside Abtey laid out his mission to her over glasses of champagne served by her butler.

Her response took him by surprise. She explained that France had taken her in and her gratitude knew no bounds, she was prepared to lay down her life for the cause and told him to use her any way he wished for the war effort. Abtey had no qualms and hired her on the spot. She began training immediately with enthusiasm, learning karate and becoming a crack shot with a pistol in a few weeks.

Back in Paris she worked at the Red Cross shelter with Belgian refugees. In between playing the music halls, she started to keep an ear out for relevant information at all the parties and functions she attended all over Europe. Her international fame had spread and she was adored by Mussolini who entertained her. Within a week she had codes from the Italian embassy that were passed back to Abtey.

When the Germans invaded France Abtey was worried for her and suggested she leave Paris. She returned to Milandes where she took in refugees including military personnel and hid them in various parts of her huge chateau. Although worried about being shopped by sympathisers she carried on and even when five German officers showed up to search the chateau she charmed them to such an extent that they went on their way without entering the place.

But she was not safe there. Being black and still technically married to a French Jewish man she was in extreme danger - should she have been outed she would have suffered dire consequences. She left for Portugal after De Gaulle asked her and Abtey to to go to Lisbon- a neutral country - and send reports back to London.

The trip was accomplished by disguising it as a through trip to South America they had to transport classified information and it was Baker who came up with the idea of using invisible ink to write it on her sheet music.

Once there she was invited to all the parties held at the various embassies. Everyone wanted to be seen with her and talk to her and the information flowed. On her return to her hotel she would make notes on slips of paper and hide them in her bra and panties - the chances of her being searched were very unlikely.

On her assignments for De Gaulle she traveled with the extravagance she was renowned for: a huge amount of luggage and a menagerie of pets including a Great Dane and three monkeys. All this made her seem more “normal.” With France now occupied she could not return home and she and Abtey (who all along played the part of her assistant) went to North Africa, setting up a liaison and transmission center with British Intelligence. Visas for travel were slow to come and difficult to obtain, but they finally made it to Casablanca, meeting up with the Free French. From there she toured Spain, Portugal and Morocco to enthusiastic audiences, still gathering information and with a career still on a high. Abtey had become devoted to her; they became lovers and had an intense five-year relationship. All her relationships were intense; she openly admitted she loved sex but as with all things the relationship side would be relatively short.

In 1941 it all stopped. She suffered a miscarriage and had to have an emergency hysterectomy, complications set in and she was hospitalised for eighteen months. During that time Resistance members would meet in her private hospital room and discuss strategy and German troop movements. Not able to perform, she became invisible to the extent that many outside of France believed she had passed away; she had to issue a press bulletin saying “she was too busy to die” to rectify the sad news.

Once recovered she was back on the road entertaining the troops and it saw the beginnings of her involvement in the equal rights movement as she insisted on integrated audiences.

After a benefit performance in Algiers for the Free French she finally met De Gaulle who presented her with the Cross of Lorraine, his chosen symbol for the Free French. It became her most prized possession. She was made a sub–lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force and later received the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with rosette; all were treasured by her.

The Allied victory in 1945 had been sealed by the American war effort, so Josephine felt encouraged to return to the States for various activities in the civil rights movement, and in ‘63 she spoke in Washington alongside Martin Luther King, wearing her Free French uniform; she was the only woman to speak, and that in front of 250,000 people.

Her remarkable story did not end there, it carried on with assorted husbands and lovers, her rainbow tribe of 12 adopted children, her having to leave her wonderful home at Milandes, and her close friendship with Grace Kelly who found a villa for her and the children in Monaco after leaving Milandes. During all this time she was an activist in the civil rights movement, something she had striven for all her life, the right to be equal; it made her a person who was watched by the FBI - they considered her a security threat and had a file of over 450 pages on her, calling her a Communist Party apologist; but she never relented.

Her final comeback in the States was in 1973 at Carnegie Hall; after decades of rejection, she received a standing ovation. Back in Paris she started a run at the Bobino Theatre in Paris with her good friends Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren in the audience - this was in April 1975; a few days later, on the 12th, she died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68.

Her funeral drew a large crowd and she became the first American woman in history to be buried with full military honours, including a 21-gun salute.


* Some now think Mata Hari was framed - (Ed.)

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