Josephine Baker was an American-born black woman who managed to find fame as an entertainer in Interwar France. However, she was far from being limited to a single role, as shown by the fact that she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her role in the French Resistance in the Second World War. On top of this, Baker was an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States as well, not least because she was bold and outspoken. Here are 10 things that you may or may not have known about Josephine Baker:
1. Unknown Biological Father
Baker’s biological father remains a mystery. Her foster son Jean-Claude Baker looked into the issue, which caused him to believe that Baker’s biological father had been a white man because someone had paid for her mother to stay six weeks at a St. Louis hospital that was reserved for white women when she was pregnant. However, Baker’s mother carried the secret to her grave, meaning that there is minimal chance of the mystery ever being cleared up.
2. Had a Rough Childhood
To call Baker’s childhood “rough” would be rather euphemistic. Her family was poor, with the result that she was often hungry while wearing poor clothing. Furthermore, Baker received little formal education, not least because she started working at a young age. On one occasion, she even had her hands burned by her employer when she was a child live-in domestic because she had put too much soap in the laundry.
3. Became Successful in France
Baker became an entertainer in the United States. However, it wasn’t until her efforts secured her a chance to tour in France that she was put on the path to true success. By the 1920s, Baker had managed to land her first big break in Paris.
4. Became Acquainted with a Lot of Famous Artists
In Paris, Baker’s erotic dancing turned her into a star, which in turn, made her acquaintances with a wide range of famous artists. For example, she conversed with Ernest Hemingway, who outright called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Likewise, she was painted by Pablo Picasso on multiple occasions.
5. Never Found Similar Success
Despite becoming a star in France, Baker was never able to secure the same success in the United States, as shown by how one Broadway production caused her to be blasted by Time and other American publications. This was one of the reasons that Baker gave up her U.S. citizenship so that she could become a French citizen.
6. She Spied for France and the French Resistance
During the Second World War, Baker used her fame to spy for France and then the French Resistance. Her status as an entertainer meant that she could meet with high-ranking individuals with useful information. Moreover, her status as an entertainer meant that she could travel from place to place even during the occupation, which is how she was able to carry valuable information pinned in her underwear, written in invisible ink on her sheet music, and otherwise concealed.
7. She Continued to Help the French Resistance In Spite of Serious Health Problems
Baker continued to help the French Resistance in spite of serious health problems. In short, she suffered a miscarriage while she was traveling, which resulted in an infection that was so bad that it forced her to get her uterus removed. However, that wasn’t the end of it because the infection spread, with the result that she ended up getting sepsis. Despite this, Baker started providing entertainment to Allied soldiers in North Africa as soon as she was able even though she wasn’t fully-recovered at the time.
8. Her Wartime Service Gave Her Gravitas
It is interesting to note that Baker’s wartime service provided her with a sense of gravitas, which enabled her to tackle much more serious topics when she returned to being an entertainer in the post-war period.
9. Clashed with Segregated Venues
One of the reasons that Baker became a Civil Rights icon was because she refused to perform at segregated venues, which resulted in her managing to win some of the ensuing battles. This caused her to be hailed by the NAACP, though there were those who were less enthusiastic about her involvement because they saw her as being too “controversial.”
10. Adopted 12 Children
Over time, Baker adopted a total of 12 children who were born in different countries and raised in different religions. Jean-Claude Baker wasn’t officially adopted but was nonetheless mothered by her, which is why he eventually took on her name as well. Baker wanted her children to serve as a model of what she believed the world could be, which resulted in a somewhat mixed response from them. One of her children stated that she wanted a doll, whereas another child stated that “Mothers make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect”