Josephine Baker, one of the most interesting celebrities of the 20th century, was an American-born French entertainer who used her status and fame to spy on the Nazis during WWII.
Josephine Baker led one of those lives that makes you wonder what you’ve ever done—or indeed, what you could ever do—for the world. She was both commercially successful and incredibly important for society, reaching far beyond the boundaries of your average entertainer. Aside from an incredibly accomplished and world-famous exotic dancer, she was also a prominent activist and, yep, a World War II spy. Talk about an exciting figure.
Her childhood wasn't easy
Born in America, Josephine Baker’s biological ancestry is a bit of a mystery. She was the daughter of Carrie McDonald, that’s for sure, but her listed father, drummer Eddie Carson, seems to have merely played along with the role. Baker’s foster son, Jean-Claude Baker, conducted an exhaustive investigation suggesting her father was actually a white man of German ethnicity, but no one knows for sure. In Jean-Claude’s words,
“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.”
At any rate, Baker was interested in the stage from an early age, surrounded by vaudeville theaters and influenced by her mother’s own acts in the jazz-heavy environment. This glamorous world contrasted with her humble origins, as she lived most of her childhood in relatively poor conditions.
Baker’s relationship with her mother was tumultuous, to say the least. Carrie didn’t want Baker to become an entertainer, and reproached her for not tending to her second husband, Willie Baker, whom she married when she was only 15 and whose last name she kept for the rest of her life. Due to her relentless pursuit of a stage career, she soon divorced him and became estranged with her mother. It was that family mayhem which pushed Baker to travel to France for the first time.
The Harlem Renaissance and rise to fame
She soon moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance, where she performed at several clubs. Her performances eventually gave her an opportunity to tour in Europe. Josephine was a celebrated dancer during her early career in America, sure, but her true breakthrough came when she moved to Paris in 1925, where she rose to international fame. There she first used her signature banana costume, and there she became the most interesting celebrity of the 20th century.
A WWII Spy and Civil Rights activist
In September 1939, France went to war against Germany after the Nazis invaded Poland. Around that time, the French military intelligence agency, the Deuxième Bureau, recruited Josephine as an “honorable correspondent.” Her job? Gather intelligence using her considerable influence, position, and seductive moves to “infiltrate” high-profile parties with top officials. Basically, she was a spy for the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation, gathering sensitive military and political information, which she then smuggled to the Allies. Yes, she danced for Nazis and fascists all over Europe, and successfully spied on them while doing so.
After the war, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (the highest French order of merit), and received the Croix de Guerre. By then, she had achieved more in a few years than most of us can hope to in a lifetime. But she wasn’t done. Baker was also a prominent civil rights activist, and in the 50s became an important supporter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement from afar. She actively refused to perform for segregated audiences, and she made it a point to let everyone know.
Following King’s assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, reached out to Josephine and offered her to take up his mantle, to become the unofficial leader of the Civil Right Movement. Baker thought it over for many days, but ultimately declined. She feared her children were too young to lose their mother.
Speaking of her children, Baker adopted many kids of very diverse nationalities, trying to prove that children of different backgrounds, races, cultures, and religions could still be brothers and sisters. In total, she raised two daughters and ten sons.
Josephine Baker is a role model to us all. Not only as an entertainer, but as a brave, sensible, principled, intelligent, strong, and good person on the whole. She fought not only for her dreams, but for justice and human decency, battling injustice wherever she saw it—from Europe’s Nazi fascism to America’s systemic racism. She led by example, and set the moral tone for subsequent generations in the process.
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