Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Dancer, activist, and badass bisexual spy
In her words: “I shall dance all my life. . . . I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”
In others’ words: “The most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Bio: Best known for a routine called the “Banana dance,” Josephine Baker was an international performer, civil rights activist, and spy.
Born in 1906 in a poor neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, Baker was surrounded by vaudeville acts early in her life. Because of her need to work, Baker only went to school through the fifth grade and spent her late childhood living on the streets. Between the ages 13-19 years old, Baker had been married and divorced twice, joined a vaudeville troupe and gotten off the streets, moved to New York with her troupe, and performed on Broadway in the chorus lines of musical revues.
In 1925, Baker moved to Paris and opened La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to great success; due to this success Baker broke all her American contracts and decided to remain in Europe. Around this time, she also began to perform her “Danse Sauvage,” wearing a skirt of artificial bananas and becoming a European sensation. In 1937, Baker returned to Paris after a failed stint on Broadway (due to unaccepting audiences) and she gave up her American citizenship in favor of French citizenship; this was the same year she married her third husband (whom she also divorced).
When World War II began in 1939, Baker was recruited by the French military to become a spy. She gathered intelligence on German officers she met at parties as well as passed messages throughout the French colonies in Northern Africa. Once the war ended, Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre, Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle (this is the highest military honor in France).
Josephine Baker had a long life full of many happenings: she married and divorced four times, had numerous female lovers, adopted 12 children of various races and referred to them as her “rainbow tribe”, owned a castle, and starred in a handful of films. Upon her death, Baker received the full French military funeral (she is the only American to have been honored with this) and over 20,000 people attended.