Josephine Baker in 1942.
Josephine Baker, born as Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Her career was primarily centered in Europe, mostly in France. She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics,
Early Life and Career
Baker’s mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman who had given up her dreams of becoming a music-hall dancer. Baker grew up in a series of rat-infested hovels and had only sporadic schooling. She married for the first time at age 13. Stung by discrimination based on her skin color, she left at the age of 19 to perform as a burlesque dancer in the music halls of Paris. Her risqué dance routines, often clad in little more than a string of pearls and a rubber banana skirt, made her a Jazz Age sensation. After branching out into singing and acting in films, she became Europe’s highest-paid entertainer. She became a French citizen after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937, Baker and Jean Leon separated.in 1940.
World War II Espionage.
As war drums reverberated across Europe in 1939, the head of France’s military intelligence service recruited an unlikely spy: France’s most famous woman—Josephine Baker. Jacques Abtey had spent the early days of World War II recruiting spies to collect information on Nazi Germany and other Axis powers. A celebrity of Baker’s stature made for a most unlikely spy candidate since she could never travel surreptitiously—but that’s exactly what made her such an enticing prospect. Fame would be her cover.
Baker agreed to spy for her adopted country. She used her charm, beauty, and stardom to seduce secrets from the lips of fawning diplomats at embassy parties. She started her espionage career by attending diplomatic parties at the Italian and Japanese embassies and gathering intelligence about the Axis powers possibly joining the war. Showing no fear of being caught, the neophyte spy wrote notes of what she overheard on the palms of her hand and on her arms under her sleeves.
During World War II, Josephine Baker served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force. This was not her only contribution to the war effort. She also used her talents for espionage, acting as a spy for the French Resistance. She smuggled military intelligence using invisible ink on her sheet music. This allowed her to pass on valuable information without arousing suspicion. Her celebrity status and her performances provided her with the perfect cover for these activities.
In 1944, Baker joined a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army as a second lieutenant. It is estimated that she brought the equivalent of 10 million euros ($11.2 million) to support the French Resistance.
After the war, she was awarded the French Committee of National Liberation, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle. On November 30, 2021, she was posthumously inducted into the Panthéon in Paris, the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France.
Baker married French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon in 1947. Baker, who was still childless in her forties, went on to adopt children from all over the world of all skin colors, which Jo Bouillon helped raise. Their marriage lasted for 14 years before ending in divorce.
After beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973, Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, at the age of 68, and was buried with military honors.
Josephine Baker’s life was a testament to her resilience, talent, and dedication to the cause of freedom. From her humble beginnings in St. Louis to her rise as a global superstar and her courageous service during World War II, Baker’s story is a powerful reminder of the impact one person can have when they refuse to be defined by the circumstances of their birth.
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