Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became very popular in France in the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in Missouri, she spent her youth in poverty before learning to dance and finding success on Broadway. In the 1920s she moved to France and became one of Europe’s most popular and highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and devoted herself to fighting against segregation and racism in the United States.
During Baker’s work with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children. She wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” She adopted 12 children of different nationalities.
Princess Grace of Monaco had been a dear friend to Baker for years.
In April 1975, Josephine Baker performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, in the first of a series of performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut.
Day after it, Josephine Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors in Monaco.
Mike Reynolds, an American producer specialized in documentaries, behind-the-scenes films, and culture in general, has for some time traveled between Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Beausoleil and Monaco in the footsteps of Joséphine Baker. In order to create a program dedicated to the artist. While another travel program, shot in parallel, will focus on the Mediterranean coastline. Presenting, among others, the municipalities of the Eastern Riviera.
Why are you interested in Josephine Baker? I was working for HBO when they produced ‘The Story of Joséphine Baker’ and I had had to do some research for it. When I realized that the film would only cover a part of her life, I felt that a wider view of her story deserved to be seen. Creating my own series about art and culture allowed me to tell it. Joséphine has never been forgotten and I think it was time for someone to watch a complete documentary, without ever having to use the same footage or the same interviews. What is wonderful in Europe, and more specifically in France, is that when someone achieves a certain success, they never ever fall into oblivion.
What do you think of her? Josephine was, and still is, a phenomenon. On my last visit to the Coast, I was surprised to find that she does not only echo in the elderly, but also among young people. I met a taxi driver in Monaco who asked me why I wanted to go to the cemetery. And when he understood that it was to see the tomb of Joséphine Baker, he was surprised. I explained to him the more precise reason. He was so enthusiastic and excited about the idea that he gave me his card, so that I can tell him when the program would air on TV. “It is time,” he exclaimed. “She deserves it. That’s great. Great.” And many people of all ages, from all backgrounds, have had the same reaction in almost every village, town, and big city I have been to.
What else will be in the program? Thanks to Laurence and Anna from the town hall of Beausoleil and the incredible Marsou in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, I was introduced to Luis, one of Joséphine’s adopted sons. He promised me to bring nine of the children together for a cross-interview and this alone is already a first for such a project. I am really indebted to him. There are also many interviews set with people who knew her and worked with her. I am convinced that viewers will be surprised to discover the influence Josephine had on very different people.
What is your intention with this project? I just hope I can do a little homage to Joséphine Baker and her family and that a wider audience will get to know her. This audience could also grow in strength because a major film company let me know that if I made a version longer than the 60 minutes needed for the show, it could get released all over the world in the form of a documentary film. We’ll see what will happen, but in any case, Josephine will be seen, and, hopefully, rediscovered by many people in the near future.
How did you come to create your own TV project? A few years ago, I was asked to become production manager of a new American channel that would broadcast programs about travel as well as art and culture. I suggested that we go to the International Market for Television Programs to meet people who can distribute and sell programs. I have been coming to Cannes regularly since the 1970s and, as I know the territory well enough, I proposed filming episodes at the Market. The financial contribution needed to launch the chain did not happen and everything fell apart. But people advised me to go out on my own because they liked the ideas I had submitted. This is how the Destination travel program and the series on Art and Culture were born.
What does the series consist of, more precisely? I am based in the United States but the series is aimed at an international audience. It will not be realized with an Anglo-Saxon point of view. I am a great admirer of Georges Pernoud and Thalassa and I want to work with this mentality. Travel programs often deal with places that everyone knows and all show the same things. I wanted to highlight places where tourists do not go. But should. I also wanted to focus on places where it was possible to carry out both a one-hour travel report and a one-hour episode on art and culture as well, for practical and financial reasons. The title of the program I am currently working on is: Destination: Méditerranée. The majority of it will take place in the South of France. I will start in Collioure and finish in Menton.
You are quite attached to France. I have been married to a French woman for more than 20 years and my family live in the vicinity. So my knowledge and affection for France, and more specifically the South, have grown over the years. For some reason, as a child in England, I felt attracted to this country. In Los Angeles, where I live today, I exist. In France, I live. And that’s why I really wanted, with these television projects, to create a love letter to France.
Josephine Baker’s Son Luis Steps into the Spotlight
I did not want to introduce myself as the son of… People cannot imagine what it’s like in this milieu. With all that my mother had gone through, I remained closed-off from the public world. Luis Bouillon could have used his mother’s surname on a number of occasions: Baker. Five letters synonymous with belonging to the “rainbow tribe” of artist and activist Josephine Baker. A brand of prestige. But little inclined him to expose himself, he had done so only once before. A few months after the death of his brilliant mother, in 1975. “I asked Princess Grace to be my daughter’s godmother,” he says. “I went through the secretariat of the palace on a Saturday morning. At about three o’clock a carabineer rang at my door to bring me an answer. She was delighted.” He explains that he quickly scheduled the date of the baptism with her. In the Church of St. Charles of Monaco rather than in Roquebrune, where he lived. “It was the sincerity of Grace. She made things simple; she would put herself on our level.”
His word describing years earlier, when Josephine and her twelve adopted children had to leave their mythical castle of Milandes, in the Dordogne: “Ruins.” His Monégasque friends helped him to find refuge on the Cote d’Azur. “This was my mother’s last stop,” says Luis. I was 16 years old. It’s hard to move at that age. We didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to our best friends. And we didn’t even know where we were going. I felt something break. Like we broke something.” Moving began with six months in Paris. Then a holiday in Spain. Then Monaco for a gala organized by the princess. Another stint in Spain. And then a villa in Roquebrune. Neutral, hand brake. Relief. “We no longer had obligations to people. But it was not easy.” Says Luis. Who wanted, at the time, to dedicate himself to football. “I joined AS Monaco. I could have made a career like Rolland Courbis or Jean Petit but I got hurt. At the time, there weren’t medical treatments like there are today. For me, that career was over.” Faced with this accident, his mother expressed that he should resume his studies. “She was strict,” he explains, striking the table with the side of his hand.
He adds that his friends in the army helped him find a temporary solution: military service. “It did me good. Especially for mental strength,” he says. Sixteen months later, without any formal training, Luis entered the insurance business. Thanks to some knowledge of the environment. “I thought it would keep me busy. So I started 20 years ago… and I’ve been there for my whole career. ”
Climbing from a base position to that of Area Manager. Years passed, Luis marries his wife, a woman from Lille. They live in Paris. He then rediscovered the capital where he had lived as a child, returning to the Coast in 1991. “It was difficult at first. It was not really a good choice,” he whispers. Paris, Roquebrune, the Dordogne, his fairy tale castle in a state of abandonment, he returns to each one of his vestiges of the past, feeling a sour taste when seeing how these places have changed.
Painful memories of an adolescence abruptly shortened. In a time when documentaries about his mother are flourishing, Luis admits he still “finds it hard to accept other versions of our story.”
“My mother never revealed her private life.” So even between his brothers and sisters, the views on certain situations differ. Each sibling reveals parts of the narrative according to their personal filter. Each of them seems to have inherited traits from their mother and their father. The seriousness and sense of responsibility of Jo Bouillon (all his children bear his surname.) “My father has always been there,” says Luis. “He was the one who took care of us the most. Even when my parents separated, he never denied his children. While in some way, the tribe was imposed on my mother because she could no longer have children. But she had somewhat abandoned her family life at that time. We always did things without her.” Nevertheless, Luis received his creative side from Joséphine, defender of great causes. “She was very close to De Gaulle,” he recalls. “We half knew she had been a spy. But it was not her who told us. It was something normal for her, a duty. France had welcomed her. She had always wanted to be French. I had the opportunity, like her, to become a Monegasque. But I would not feel proud of myself.”
Luis explains that he agreed to begin to emerge from his relative anonymity a few short years ago, after having found friends of yesteryear on social networks. To have understood that what he had lived could not be erased, to have grasped that he himself embodies everything that his mother had fought for before him. “I represent everything she would have liked: I have a white woman but children of mixed race, a son married to a Dutch girl, a girl with a French man from Portugal. We claim equality for all. Fraternity.” So when he was asked, a few weeks ago, to participate in the inauguration of a mixed nursery bearing the name of his mother, Luis accepted. Babies from all backgrounds who come together from birth, what better symbol to illustrate the Josephine’s ideals? More than an artist, Luis sees her as somebody whose legacy continues to progress.
“In this crazy world, she fought so that everyone could have their say. She said ‘Power kills’. Today, we want to impose many things on people, without letting them think for themselves.” His thoughts are especially poignant now more than ever. Inspired by the humanism which his mother advocated for and what she had been able to instill in him, Luis said he was anxious about the way France is evolving. “We live for ourselves, not for the people next door,” he says, regretfully. Saddened that solidarity still largely rests on the ‘Restos du coeur’ charity, thirty years after its creation by Coluche. “But I did not go so far as to defend their cause. I do not have the fire…” Perhaps the reconstitution of the Tribute will help everyone collectively listen to the Baker philosophy.
Although it is difficult to reunite all the members of the family, distributed between France, Italy, New York and Argentina, “We still have this project. And our children are almost more excited than we are. “
One of his nieces (Joséphine) has already taken a step by producing a wine in honor of her wedding in the park of the Château de Milandes in the presence of a majority of her siblings. “Such a reunion opens a little relationship to the past, it frees me from certain things …”