josephine baker

Oh, you’re pleased that I am doing a non-white Shelved Doll? I’m sorry. I don’t see skin color. I ONLY SEE SOUL COLOR.

Souls are the color of assorted skittles. The tropical flavor kind. The weird kind nobody likes. Nobody except God. So, there are a  lot of turquoise, and that sherbet shade of orange that is hard to look at for a long time, and a really nice shade of blue that is inexplicably labeled “melon berry burst”. I guess it was labeled by someone more color-blind than I, or someone who had never seen a melon nor read a book about melons.

Josephine Baker’s soul? Her soul is mauve.

Now, you might be thinking that’s just because I like the color mauve – which I do – but it’s also because mauve dye (the color, really) was discovered in 1856. It was the first synthetic organic chemical dye. In my story Josephine Baker is going to represent a lot of firsts for a lot of people.

She is our first Shelved Doll of color. Which is going to be different than when American Girls made Addy because, thank Goodness, Josephine Baker isn’t going to be all wholesome and spouting inspirational quotes like “If you fill your heart with hate, there’s no room for love.”


Instead, she’s going to take her top off, wear some bananas as a skirt and spy on the Nazis. Not all at the same time. Still. And she’s going to live in a chateau. And adopt a bajillion and four children. Approximately.

Let’s fade in on this:

She wasn’t born Josephine Baker. She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906 to a washerwoman. It was not a great time to be black, born illegitimately to a washerwoman and living in the American South.

I don’t think any time has ever been a good time to be named Freda.

Although, technically, she was African American/Native American, which at the time just meant “you’d probably be best leaving America altogether.”

At the age of 8 she began babysitting for white families, one of whom reminded her that she “should not kiss the baby”, because they worried that her color might rub off. When she put too much soap in the laundry, her hands were burnt to teach her not to do it again. She also slept in the cellar. With the dog. Harry Potter presumably had the nicer room.

Josephine later said, “I was taught to believe that I was inferior like many, many colored peoples of the world, who are taught, every day, to feel that they are inferior to white people.”

When she was 10, though, something happened that may have changed her life. A medicine man passing through town held a dance contest. Josephine jumped onstage and performed a series of impromptu dances. The audience cheered for her, and she won a dollar.

Shortly after, she declared, “there is no Santa Claus. I’m Santa Claus.” Here is a picture of Josephine Baker as a child wearing a Santa hat. That’s so you’ll remember to tell your children to address their Christmas lists to her in the future. Please remind them to ask her for the gift of dance!


When she was 13, race riots swept through St. Louis. That was around the same time Josephine married to Willie Baker, and the same time that she began to dance in vaudeville.

The vaudeville circuit at the time wasn’t the way you think of the theater today. This wasn’t something people dressed up to attend; it was before movies were popular, and at a time when people needed a cheap form of entertainment. There would often be a tent set up in a hollow, which is where Josephine started performing.

The audiences – often tired out, using their small disposable income to watch the show – were famously difficult. However, if they loved you, they really loved you.

And, oh, audiences loved Josephine Baker. By 1921 she was in New York – a much, much better place to be than Missouri. The Harlem Renaissance was just beginning, and all black shows like Shuffle Along, which Josephine Baker had a role in, were becoming popular. However – in a super weird twist – African American performers at the time often wore blackface to be better accepted by white audiences. It wasn’t because they wanted to seem like they were somehow “in on the joke” (a weird, twisted, race-riot-y joke? As though they thought black people were hilarious caricatures of people?). It was because, if they “blacked up,” then white audiences would often assume they were white.

The audience might also have assumed the performers were white as most of the chorus girls were selected because they looked “almost white.” The African American performers in vaudeville were largely very light skinned, and Josephine’s naturally darker skin was considered a significant deficit. (She wore white face powder when she auditioned for Shuffle Along). She made up for her complexion by being a great dancer – one reviewer said that “her legs have no bones” – and having a terrific sense of comic timing. Her bit in the show revolved around her coming onstage, acting as though she had forgotten her part and then, over the course of the number, seeming to master it, and finally performing it better than any of the other girls with additional kicks and cartwheels. It was a standard gag in black vaudeville, but Josephine made it hers.

Remember – performers would (weirdly) be doing the act either entirely covered in white powder or in blackface.

It was completely okay to be a white person dancing like a black person, it just wasn’t okay to be an actual black person.

This seems so confusing to me that it makes total sense when Josephine decided to go to Paris.

At age 19 she was offered a spot in an all black Paris company – the Revue Negre. Josephine reflected, “[I] was a girl who left St. Louis to come to Europe and to find freedom.”

And she did.

For the first time Josephine Baker was able to walk into any restaurant and eat there. The French were actually at a point where they embraced all things African. Okay, it was partly because they were colonizing Africa at the time, but it meant that Josephine was going to have a fantastic time.

The Revue Negre convinced her to perform in an erotic dance, supposedly done in an “African style” which simply meant Josephine would have to appear entirely nude. Well, not entirely. She had to wear a pink flamingo feather.

It was beyond a hit. The audience was dazzled. A critic wrote:

“Her lips are painted black, her skin is the color of a banana, her hair, already short, is stuck to her head as if made of caviar. Her voice is high-pitched, she shakes continually and her body slithers like a snake. The sound of the orchestra seems to come from her.”

I can’t imagine how – when nearly a hundred years later it is still considered scandalous to see people topless in their own homes – Josephine summoned the courage to perform that number. Apparently she wasn’t completely naive. When the producers told her they wanted her to perform, she responded that she would take the night to consider it. And then she decided to go ahead. How do you think she came to that decision?  She was, after all, very young, and probably possessed a properly puritanical American system of values. Do you think she wanted to feel free?

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.

She became, certainly, an instant sex symbol. She went on to star in  La Folie du Jour at the Folies Bergeres, where she performed the famous banana dance.


Okay, go make popcorn. Or deviled eggs, which were the most popular snack to eat at the cinema around 1927. Then let’s watch it together:

Now we clap!

Okay, good work everybody.

My first reaction was “Good lord, there’s still video of the banana dance? They barely had cameras in 1927.”

But then I thought about it.

I thought, “Well, they had cameras for about 30 years at that time.” That was after I Googled some stuff.

Then I thought that if I had a newfangled camera, the first thing I would record would be a train. Something weird. Then probably a baby. Then a couple kissing. Then Charlie Chaplin being whimsical. Then Josephine Baker dancing naked.

This is pretty similar to the way I imagine people first used the internet. Like, those were the first four or five things Al Gore searched. In slightly different variations, sure,  -he Googled a potato, not a baby – but otherwise exactly the same.

So really, the fact that there’s still footage of this unbelievably pivotal dance isn’t terribly surprising at all. However, it is bewildering that she’s wearing a top in it. But the announcer mentions, “Censors saw to it that Josephine was dressed rather more modestly than she was for Paris audiences.” That’s because this film was going to be shown as a preview to movies in America. But she is wearing a strapless bikini top at a time when women were considered very daring indeed if they went to the beach dressed like this:


However, I will say that, sheerly in terms of picture quality and being able to watch her move, this video is slightly better. During this period she was likened to “a black pearl”, a “black Venus” and every kind of exotic creature. But to me, it’s that line about having no bones in her legs that really sticks out the most:


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.

And it did not go well.

I had always heard that her performances in America was lambasted, and wondered if that was perhaps because she was, understandably, nervous to be returning.

But then, I’d never read the New York Times Review. It said, “In France a Negro wench always has a head start” (this statement is insane) and then went on:

“To Manhattan theatergoers last week she was just another buck-toothed Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris.”

Critics almost universally complained when she performed the French cabaret songs that had made her famous rather than “Harlem songs.”

A reviewer from an Amsterdam paper was outraged by this condemnation and claimed, “Harlem should rally to the side of this courageous Negro woman. We should make her insults our insults.

America simply wasn’t ready for a black woman to be considered an object of intense desire, rather than someone out of a minstrel show. They probably also weren’t ready for her leopard leaping into the orchestra pit, the way people in France were prepared.

America during this period kind of sucked, you guys. 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.

Devastated, Josephine returned to France. She was 30 by then, and wanted children. She engaged in a whirlwind romance with a wealthy sugar broker and famous playboy, Jean Lion. You can see them here, dancing:

They were married in 1937 – Willie Baker was long gone although she kept his name professionally. However, after 14 months, when Jean seemed to decide that he was going to continue to be a playboy, Josephine filed for divorce.

Soon after the Nazis invaded Paris. Josephine – unlike other creative professionals (Coco Chanel) – never even considered working with them. She refused to perform for racist Nazis or any of their sympathizers, and withdrew to her chateau in the Dordogne. However, she only appeared to be keeping a low profile. In reality, she was working as a “correspondant” for the French government, smuggling secret messages hidden in her sheet music. She also went to parties where she gathered intelligence and reported on German troop positions.

In North Africa, she was an ambassador for the Free France movement and performed for British, American and French troops. She also toured the Middle East to raise money for the cause. She managed to do this despite suffering from a near fatal bout with peritonitis.

When the war came to an end, Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle as well as the Rosette of the Résistance.

Earlier in her life, Josephine said “I don’t want to live without Paris . . . It’s my country . . . I want to be worthy of Paris.” The fact that she was now seemed beyond question.

And then, again, after the war, she thought she was ready to settle down and have children. She married again, this time to a jazz band leader, Jo Bouillon, in 1947 who professed his emotion claiming, “She’s the only woman I know who reminds me of a waterfall, a bonfire, and a nightingale rolled into one.”

Sadly, Josephine miscarried several times, and the couple ultimately decided to adopt. Twelve children, from different races. She called them her rainbow tribe. She hoped,

“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.”

While continuing to perform, her devotion to Civil Rights became unshakeable. She inserted a “non-discrimination clause” into her contract, which dictated that if clubs did not serve black patrons as well as white, she would not perform at that club. She returned to the United States in 1963 to participate in the Civil Rights march on Washington. She addressed a crowd of thousands of people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, telling them, “You are on the Eve of Victory.” She was by Martin Luther King’s side when he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.

When Josephine met with financial troubles (the chateau required constant upkeep), Princess Grace Kelly and her husband, Prince Rainier, offered the Baker family a villa in Monaco.

She returned to America one last time.

In 1973, she performed in concert at Carnegie Hall. Among other selections, she sang “The Times, They Are A Changin'”.


It was a hit.

Her last concert was in Paris. In 1975 she performed in a final retrospective at Le Bonibo theater. Sophia Loren and Princess Grace were in the audience, and Le Figaro wrote, “For the second time in fifty years, Josephine Baker has conquered Paris.”

As she listened to the fifteen minute long ovation, Josephine was said to remark, “Now I can die.”

And so she did. She died, peacefully, in her sleep, four days later. She was given a full military funeral, with a 21 gun salute.  Twenty thousand people took to the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. Although her grave is in Monaco, she was the first American woman to receive full French honors at her funeral.

This woman was so much better than Santa Claus. Or a “Black Venus”. She was some kind of earth angel who basically won all the points for doing all the good things you would like to do in your lifetime. Fight the Nazis! Adopt a dozen children! Be a sex symbol! What’s most delightful to me about this story is that if I created this sort of person for a novel, no one would believe that character at all. I would be derided for making up someone so fantastical.

I mean, she’s the kind of person who makes you want to run around saying things like “If you fill your heart with hate, there’s no room for love!”

But, Christ, let’s not do that.

I’ll instead opt to let George Balanchine – the famous choreographer, who knew her, and her divine soul as well as anyone – have the last word:

”She is like Salome. She has seven veils. If you lift one, there is a second, and what you discover is even more mysterious, and you go to the third, and you still don’t know where you are. Only at the end, if you keep looking for her faithfully, will you find the true Josephine.”

And she is mauve.

Additional Reading:

Harlem Renaissance Lives by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

Official Site of Josephine Baker

SP Clarke, Josephine Baker

Mon Pays, London Review of Books

Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar

The Story of Josephine Baker