Elle s’appelait Joséphine Baker, and I couldn’t say she was American, I couldn’t say she was French, I couldn’t say she was Black, a patriot, an artist, a singer, a dancer, a meneuse de revue, a World War II hero, a Civil Rights Movement activist, an actress, an icon, a feminist, a castle owner, a mother – because she was all these and much more than that.
Her story is that of a princess, gone from the black suburbs of Saint-Louis, Missouri, to the stages of Paris. She inspired while living and continues to inspire by her talent, her dedication and the multiple causes she defended until her very last day.
But let’s get back to the beginning. Not to hers, but to mine.
Ever since the age of 6, I’ve been spending one week every summer in the Périgord, southwest of France. When I was 5, my parents had decided that every year, they would take my brother and I to a different region of France. The first year, we went to Alsace, of which I can remember the colorful vineyards, traditional folklore clothes and tasty bretzels. The second year, we discovered the Périgord.
I don’t exactly know what made my parents decide that, from now on, we would go there every year. However, I vaguely remember my 6 year-old sef crying them a river and threatening them to flee their house and walk back there alone. I officially became the saddest little girl on Earth for the two weeks after we went back to Lyon – and more or less made them understand that I had found my paradise on Earth and would never feel at home anywhere else. So we renounced to this Tour de France – I’ll never feel grateful enough. Then, I stuck to my wall, in Lyon, a little calendar on which I would draw a cross every week that passed, and that would bring me closer to our reunion. Try to think about what you love the most on this planet. For me, it was that. The Périgord.
So, I was, to say the least, particularly predisposed to enjoy anything I would see, or visit there. In eleven years, you have plenty of time to discover new locations, but also to judge which of them you prefer. Among all those we saw- the Périgord pretty much contains as many castles as I have hair on my head. The Château des Milandes, Castle of the Milandes, quickly became one of my favorites. I knew that a Great Lady used to live there, that her name was Joséphine Baker and that she was American. I also knew that she used to dance in Paris’ cabarets with nothing on her but a belt made of bananas and that she adopted twelve children from many countries in the world. But, unlike many American celebrities who decided to live in Paris or on the French Riviera, she had chosen the Périgord and that was enough for me to adore her and to want to learn more.
For years, I forgot about her. And then I saw her name on the cover of a book in my school’s library. A week ago, I went back there to borrow it and put it on my table, before going back to my political science study sessions. I resisted two minutes before putting my notes down and taking the book instead. I read it in one sitting and it was like a postponed love at first sight.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in 1906 in Saint-Louis, Missouri, from a Mother who was a dancer and a Father who was a musician, that would soon leave the family. Her first years were plagued by misery. In a highly segregated America, this young Afro-american had to perform menial jobs very early to help the numerous children her Mother had with another man. This free spirit even left school at the age 14 to get married, but her very first husband and her quickly got separated. She then joined a band of street musicians to perform her true passion: dancing.
Freda Josephine is 16 when she leaves her second husband (Willie Baker, she always kept his name) to go to New York, her head full of dreams of Broadway. There, after many failures and refusals, she joins a theater whose band is entirely black, but soon leaves it to join another one… until her path crosses that of Caroline Dudley Reagan, wife of the American ambassador in Paris. It’s Reagan who, impressed by the talent of this black dancer that squints and gambols on stage, asks her to come to Paris with her.
1925, Paris. It’s the opening of the Revue Nègre. On the stage of a cabaret, for Reagan’s very first show, here dances an astonishing black girl that challenges all the clichés. Naked at the exception of a belt made of false bananas, she embodies an actual revolution. She dances in the foolish, unleashed and almost dismembered way black Africans could be thought to dance, and she makes fun of these prejudices with a sense of humor and a talent that lets no one indifferent. It’s first a scandal, but it soon turns into a success. Advised by Pépito, her boyfriend of the time, Freda, who switches her name to Josephine, is adopted by Paris. She becomes meneuse de revue at one of the most famous Parisian cabarets, Les Folies Bergères. She then shoots a movie, opens a club: At Josephine’s, sings a tremendous hit: J’ai deux amours, in 1931, and embodies a new dance: the charleston. Unfortunately, her success does not seem to reach America. However, in 1937, she officially becomes French by marriage and a few years after, gives back to France everything she thinks France gave her.
At the outbreak of World War II, Josephine is indeed recruited to serve in the Resistance. For years, due to her incredible success, she gathers informations and spies on high authorities. Her scores are used to transmit discreetly capital data between the resistant networks. She joins the female Air Force and sings for wounded soldiers to encourage the progression of the Army of the ‘France libre’ led by de Gaulle. At the end of the war, she receives many medals and distinctions to thank her for her fight.
At this point, we’re in 1945. Josephine is an internationally-known actress, singer and dancer (at least in the Mediterranean area) and she is a war hero. It would already be enough to fill up two lives – but she won’t stop there.
A few years ago, in 1941, she had contracted a very serious illness that eventually led to sterility. So, in 1947, when she married her last husband, Jo Bouillon, she decided to make one of her dreams become a reality and to gather a ‘tribu arc-en-ciel’, a ‘rainbow tribe’ of children from all countries and all colors of skin. In 1954, she adopts her first son, Akio, from Japan; he will be joined by Jano, Luis, Jari, Jean-Claude, Moïse, Brahim, Marianne, Koffi, Mara, Noël and Stellina, from Colombia, Algeria or France, among other countries.
But to host such a grande âme and such an original and tolerance-fostering family, nothing less than a castle was needed. And indeed, in 1947, Joséphine bought a huge XV century castle in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Périgord. It used to be called the Château des Mirandes, but her rolling American accent made it the Château des Milandes. The name has never left it since. Despite this new tie to France, Joséphine continued to travel. In 1963, indeed, she attended the March to Washington. Along with Martin Luther King, she delivered a speech as both an afro-american and the Mother of the ‘rainbow tribe’. Her most famous lines will probably remain the following: ‘My friends, I am not lying when I tell you that I went in King and Queens’ palaces, in presidential houses. And even more. But I couldn’t get in a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee. And that made me mad.’
After all this, and after making her mother and family leave America to settle in France, she would have deserved the best. But in 1964, everything seemed to begin to fall into pieces. Broke due to her expensive lifestyle and the money she invested in the Milandes and single after her divorce in 1961, she had to face the risk of selling the castle in which her children were still living. Only the reaction of another French icon, Brigitte Bardot, who she didn’t even know but who called for a surge of solidarity towards her, saved her property over the Milandes. However, that was nothing but a respite. In 1968, the castle was eventually sold for 1/10th of its value. Joséphine was violently expelled.
So she went back on stage to earn money again. Her tremendous success reborn from its ashes, and she gained the protection of an actual princess, Grace Kelly of Monaco. But in 1975, the day after her last show, she was hospitalized because of a cerebral hemorrhage. She eventually died in Paris on April 12, 1975.
Terribly sad is the story of this princess, full of infinite talent and generosity, that shaped an epoch but died broke and sick. The tale of Joséphine Baker still remains, first and foremost, that of a woman who started from nothing to gain everything. She federated around her a formidable network of hope and solidarity and she fought for the world to become a better place. She was a free spirit who always managed to bounce back, and used up to her last spark of energy to keep the dream alive.
And the dream still is. The day you go visit the French Périgord – congratulations, it’ll be the best decision of your life -, do not forget to go see the Château des Milandes, to get a closer insight in what Joséphine’s life was. You’ll be able to admire her stunning cabaret dresses, as well as an impressive show with raptors – she used to love animals, and would even go on stage with a leopard (yeah, you read that well). You can also go watch the links below and discover her unique and mesmerizing style, her humor and her elegance on stage. You’ll see this way she had to amplify an American accent on some words before it completely disappeared on others. You can also read the fantastic comic ‘Joséphine Baker’ by Catel & Brocquet, or you can even do all of those! The most important thing is, that we keep the memories of this embodiment of talent, tolerance, combativity and dedication alive.
Joséphine Baker was a proof that not all heroes wear capes. Some of them even wear nothing but a belt of bananas.
‘J’ai deux amours’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRfrUdsL4Pk
‘La petite Tonkinoise’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGr3c1dCm74
Joséphine’s Charleston: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGr3c1dCm74
The Castle of the Milandes: http://www.milandes.com
// Credits // milandes.com, pinterest, france-amerique