• Tue, Sep 25 2012

Shelved Dolls: Josephine Baker – Topless Dancing Ahead

She defined Paris at the time. Hemingway said that she was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Picasso claimed that she was “tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” During this period, she was said to have taken dozens of lovers and, remarkably, not in a way that people were slut-shaming her for doing so. She wasn’t seen as being a sad tramp, she was kind of seen as being, well . . . Samantha from Sex and the City. One lover remarked, “‘She didn’t need conversation. Sex was like champagne to her. It would last 20 minutes, perhaps an hour, but it was body to body the whole time.”

Once, she was said to appear at a party wearing an elegant fur coat, and nothing at all underneath.

I feel like every woman who has ever been a sex symbol has tried that move, but, you know, it never really gets old. Neither does letting your bikini top fall off while you’re out swimming. (Josephine didn’t need to do that because she was all topless, all the time.)

Seriously, someone should tell Kate Middleton that it is fine.

And she loved animals! Her dressing room was filled with pets – there were rabbits, dogs, and one pig which she would spray with expensive perfume. And there was, of course, her pet leopard, who wore a diamond collar, and sometimes performed onstage with her.

During this wonderful period she also performed in three silent movies - Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). And she became a successful singer, popularizing the song ”J’ai deux amours”.

She also bought a chateau explaining, “Since I personify the savage on stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.”

They were great years. Then, in 1935, secure in her success, she went back to perform in New York.

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  • Celia

    I LOVE JOSEPHINE BAKER. Seriously. She is the most wonderful, graceful, warm, intelligent, talented woman to have ever walked the earth. Thank you so much for posting about her!

  • LCT

    One of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a very long time. What an amazing woman! I think I need to buy a biography or two.

    And I’m off to make a poster of that quote of hers about skin color.

  • Celia

    Just a sidenote, you did Eva Peron who wasn’t white as well.

    • Annie

      There are only three anthropological classifications of race (Caucasoid, Mongoloid anf Negroid). You can be one, or a combination of two or all three. Eva Peron was white (Caucasoid). Her socio-linguistic group was Hispanic/Latin.

      Back on subject, I love the Shelved Dolls series. This was the perfect way to write about Josephine Baker.

    • Celia

      Please, there are clearly more than three race classifications in use in the USA. Just look at any government form.

  • BeccaTheCyborg

    Beautiful.

    Josephine Baker will forever be the most inspiring, brave, stunning, talented, brilliant woman. I feel like she’s one of the better arguments made in favour of humans.

  • Jaclyn

    Fantastic Shelved Doll!! I love this series. I’d buy the book…hint, hint.

  • MR

    Is this a good time to say we’re all happy you didn’t do that Nazi, Eva? :)

  • Sara Wagner

    This has been my favorite installment of Shelved Dolls yet. I had never heard of Josephine Baker before today, now I think she might be one of my heros. She’s so charismatic! and funny! and athletic! From now on whenever I hear someone making the outrageous claim that funny and beautiful can’t go together in a woman, I will post a video of Josephine Baker.

  • Cate

    I have loved Josephine Baker for years and years now, but I never knew she had pet rabbits. for some reason this small fact makes me love her even more.

    I wish I could time-travel back to 1927 and we could have playdates with our rabbits and drink champagne and eat the bananas that her skirt was conveniently made out of. It would be so fun.

  • Chelsea

    Before I go on reading this… you’ve got Addy f***ed up. She is awesome. I feel like since I had the doll and all the books, I have to defend her.

  • ScienceGeek

    I am in awe. I mean, I’d heard of her, I knew she’d achieved fame as a dancer when being black was practically a crime, but I had no idea she was so amazing.
    Thank you.

  • Elwar

    “I believe she probably just liked the fact that for the first time in her 19 years, her black skin was considered something erotic and beautiful, and not something ugly, to be ashamed of and covered up.”

    My favorite line. Cuts right to the heart of all that crazy stuff about feminism and the black female body. So many feelings are in that line. Thank you.

  • Katrina

    Jennifer, you really outdid yourself on this one! Well done!

  • Sharron

    “I know certain politicians talk a lot about the “good old days” but I am not sure if this is what they’re referring to.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they’re referring to. A time when it was okay to hate and hate freely. When they didn’t feel like their “supremacy” was being challenged.

    Nice article, btw.

  • julia

    a beautiful woman who led a beautiful life.

  • Renee

    “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak to one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

    Damn. Perfectly expressed. Josephine Baker gets added to the list of awesome women I admire. I hadn’t really known anything about her before, so this was delightful.

    Can’t help but ask, based on previous Shelved Dolls articles, did she have ANY dirty secrets? Cause she sounds pretty perfect. “Fight the Nazis! Adopt a dozen children! Be a sex symbol!” What else could you want? Warrior, mother, lover, artist…damn.

    • phillymiss

      She died broke.

  • …erg…

    She did some great things, yes, but she also had some MAJOR personality flaws. She was also kind of batshit insane, not to mention a spoiled brat. Her kids had some major issues with her, she seemed to think of them more as a collection of symbols than actual people. She allowed people to tour the chateau and peer at them like they were animals in a zoo. She dragged a long-time friend through the mud all over the media for years because she had to wait a while for her table at his restaurant on a very busy night. I am just not a fan. I’m a fan of the good things she’s done, sure, and I’m not making light of those things, but there’s just a lot more to her as a person than this somewhat one-dimensional image.

  • Whitney

    Hmmm…while I don’t think this essay or any of the Shelved Dolls essays are particularly well written I am glad that this one about Josephine was written. It has given me an inspiration to research more into her history.

  • phillymiss

    Not a fan — she fits the image of the highly sexualized “exotic” Negress and she was never very comfortable with her blackness. During the “Dance Sauvage” she actually climbed down a tree! What’s empowering about being a fetish for white men?