Josephine Baker Was the Star France Wanted – and the Spy It Needed

Credits: Flickr/Allison Marchant

Few individuals have imprinted the world as profoundly as Josephine Baker. In Paris, she mesmerized audiences with her enthralling stage presence and avant-garde fashion choices. Yet, beyond the glitz and glamor, she was also a valiant spy during World War II, gathering crucial information globally.

Her steadfast dedication to civil rights led her to decline performing before segregated crowds in America. An iconic performer, global intelligence agent, and unwavering advocate: Delve into the narrative of Josephine Baker – a woman whose brilliance redefined entertainment and societal conventions.

Josephine Baker’s journey began in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906. Born amidst deprivation, she was brought up by her mother, a performer by profession. Baker’s early years were marred by prejudice, compelling her to switch between various jobs to support her household.

By her pre-teens, she had left school, and by her mid-teens, she had experienced two marriages. Though she momentarily served as a domestic helper, her heart was truly captivated by the world of performance.

Her remarkable talent caught the attention of a touring ensemble, leading her to the vibrant streets of New York City at just 15. In no time, Baker carved a niche for herself in vaudeville acts, notably the musical comedy Shuffle Along and the prominent floor show of the Plantation Club. Little did she know, she was emerging as a star during the Harlem Renaissance.

Her dancing prowess soon paved her path to Paris, France, setting her career trajectory soaring. In the unfamiliar French terrains, despite linguistic barriers, Baker’s magnetism and expertise made her an instant sensation. Her distinct choreography and outfits rendered her one of the country’s most in-demand artists.

In 1925, a breakthrough opportunity emerged when she graced the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with her performance in La Revue Nègre.

Though her act stirred controversy due to the racial undertones and attire expectations, Baker and her entirely Black ensemble embraced unprecedented liberty in France, something unimaginable back home. Her stardom escalated at the Folies-Bergère, and she embraced French nationality in 1937.

Stateside, Baker etched history as the inaugural African American actress in a film and shared the stage with a diverse ensemble. Her artistic expression often intertwined with African motifs.

Her iconic danse sauvage, where she donned a G-string adorned with bananas, positioned her as both a pop culture sensation and a provocative symbol. Yet, there was more to Baker than her luminous stage appearances.

The winds shifted in 1939 as Nazi forces dominated France. Retreating south to escape Nazi clutches, Baker embraced a role that immortalized her legacy. She clandestinely allied with the French Resistance, leveraging her performances to eavesdrop on adversaries.

Ingeniously, she employed invisible ink on music sheets for information relay and concealed crucial messages within her attire. Her esteemed stature made her an impeccable informant, a role she undertook with pride.

Venturing across Europe, she transmitted information vital to counteracting Nazi advances. As part of the Free French allies, she liaised with the Red Cross, uplifted troop spirits with her acts, and fundraised for wartime initiatives.

In recognition of her valorous wartime contributions, Baker received the esteemed Croix de Guerre and was anointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

Within the Civil Rights arena, Baker’s contributions were foundational to her persona and ethos. She consistently rejected offers to entertain segregated crowds in the US, thereby pushing venues and clubs toward integration.

The NAACP acknowledged her steadfast stance against discrimination and racial segregation in her twilight years. Notably, in 1963, Baker stood out as one of the rare female voices during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a pivotal event in the Civil Rights era.

Throughout her life, she remained an active presence in Civil Rights marches. In 1968, at the March on Washington, she delivered a speech singularly celebrating the contributions of female Civil Rights leaders.

Post-war, much of Baker’s focus shifted to her estate, Les Milandes, in southwest France, where she dedicated herself to nurturing her “Rainbow Tribe.” Even though she bowed out of the entertainment scene in 1956, she made a comeback in Paris in 1959 to generate funds for her beloved château.

Josephine Baker’s impact on the world is one that few can rival. A phenomenal force who defied the norms in showbiz, Baker was not only an entertainer but also a courageous World War II informant and a staunch civil rights advocate.

Despite the shadows of prejudice and financial hardships in her earlier years, her indomitable spirit led her to the heart of Paris, cementing her star status. Harnessing her celebrity status, she championed the wartime cause and relentlessly advocated for universal equality.

Her multifaceted legacy as a pioneering entertainer, wartime spy, relentless activist, and devoted mother remains a beacon of inspiration and serves as a reminder for all.