Josephine Baker’s life is like a kaleidoscope of incredible events, stories and facts. A girl in a banana skirt, performing in one of the legendary cabaret of Paris, became not only a symbol of freedom and incredible dance, but also an ardent activist who fought against racism. In addition, Josephine, awarded with the Order of the Legion of Honor, was buried in Monaco with military honors. Intriguing, isn’t it?
From New York to Monaco
It is not easy to describe all the adventures of the “black Venus” and the muse of Baudelaire… It took her 19 years to get from Freda Josephine McDonald, born in Missouri in 1906, to the girl who won public recognition in (almost) all of Europe. Sometimes her candid outfits and dances became the reason for local authorities to ban her performances in Vienna, Prague and other cities. However, it only played into the hands of a young dancer, stirring up the interest of the public.
Josephine’s professional career began when the girl was only 15 years old, and like a tornado rolled through New York, where she debuted as a chorus girl, and Paris, Berlin, Brussels … The 19-year-old dancer conquered the French capital instantly, becoming a Folies Bergère star.
Josephine began to try herself in other roles, performing as a singer during her tour in South America and Asia. She did not escape the nightmares of World War II, working for the Resistance movement. For her service she received several awards at once, among them the Order of the Legion of Honor, the highest award for services to the republic.
Nevertheless, Josephine’s personal life had never been stable… For the first time, the girl married at the age of 13. After this, a string of men and marriages did not stop for many more decades. Willy Wells, Willy Baker, Giuseppe Abatino, Jo Bouillon… Her marriage with Bouillon lasted more than 10 years, until 1961. However, at this point in her life there were 12 orphans from all around the world, adopted as a protest against racism.
A few days before her death, the star of cabaret and incendiary dancing celebrated the 50th anniversary of her career. She passed away on April 12, 1975. But what connected the “black pearl” with the Principality?
Grace and Josephine
Two Americans who have gained worldwide fame, had a strong friendship, which began in 1951, when the future princess of Monaco bore the title of a rising star of Hollywood.
The meeting of Josephine and Grace took place in the glamourous Stork Club restaurant in New York. Josephine Baker returned to the States, where the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named her the Woman of the Year.
Ironically, Josephine’s visit to New York was marred by an incident: the Stork Club staff refused service to the famous dancer. Being a witness to the outrageous scene, Grace Kelly unceremoniously left the restaurant with the black star and never returned there. Since then, two Americans became close friends.
Even after Grace married Prince Rainier III, becoming the princess of Monaco, their relationship remained the same.
After the war, Josephine Baker became the owner of a castle in the Périgord region, where she raised her adopted children, hoping to show the world that children of different nationalities and races can live in peace.
Life went on as usual in the Baker’s mansion, and Josephine tried to provide its “rainbow tribe” with a carefree childhood. The 50s, for sure, became one of the happiest moments for Josephine’s large family: each child had his own nanny. In addition to attending school, a private teacher came to the mansion to talk about the culture of their home country.
Nevertheless, the financial situation of the Bakers began to deteriorate – the fortune earned by the “black pearl” was coming to an end, and some of her financial decisions and a certain naivety almost led her to bankruptcy.
Seeing that her friend was in trouble, Princess Grace offered her a villa and financial support, until she got her feet on the ground again. At the invitation of the princely couple of Monaco, Josephine Baker performed in the Principality. By the way, the Parisian concert dedicated to the 50th anniversary of her career was financed by the Prince of Monaco, Jackie Onassis and Princess Grace.
Josephine died a few days after her last concert from a brain hemorrhage. After the ceremony in Paris, she was buried in the cemetery of Monaco.
Throughout her life, Josephine fought tirelessly against any manifestation of racism. She was seriously worried by the fact that racial discrimination existed in her homeland after the war. In one of her radio interviews, she admitted:
“I was born in America and grew up in St. Louis. I was very young when I left for Europe. I was 18 years old, I wanted to be completely free. And in St. Louis there was racial discrimination, the worst in America. I heard that now everything has changed, but I no longer came there. I have bad memories of this city.”
In 1963, Josephine even took part in a march to Washington, led by Martin Luther King.
The funeral of Josephine in Monaco was attended by Princess Grace herself. Probably at her insistence the great dancer in a banana skirt was buried in the Principality.