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Your Fake Historical Girlfriend: Josephine Baker

An iconic stage presence and a Resistance spy, civil rights activist, and mother of twelve? Meet your newest historical girlfriend!

Your Fake Historical Girlfriend: Josephine Baker
BASIC STATS

Fake Historical Girlfriend Name: Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald)

Name says: “Freda” is a perfectly sensible name, which is probably why energetic entertainer Josephine went by her middle one. “Baker” comes from her second husband, to whom she was married when her career started taking off. She kept the name for the rest of her life, including through her next two marriages.

Date of Birth/Death: June 3, 1906—April 12, 1975 (68 years old)

Era says: America was starting to shorten hemlines—and then their haircuts—at the turn of the century, so Josephine was born at a perfect time to be a Roaring Twenties stage star. On the other hand, it was America before the Civil Rights Movement.

Place of Birth:Boxcar Town,” St. Louis, Missouri

Place of birth says: The South is not the sort of place you’d want to be born as an ambitious black woman in the early 20th century, but by golly, Josephine got out of there and became one of the most famous members of Paris’ Lost Generation. This was a far cry from her dirt-poor upbringing, with one dress, no shoes, and an overworked mother who sometimes told Josephine that she hated her and wished she was dead.

YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND

Where She’s Been:

As many young women did, she used marriage as a way to get out of her dire home life—at age 13—but her first marriage ended quickly when her 25-year-old husband became abusive. Josephine left St. Louis for New York City, during the Harlem Renaissance, but it wasn’t until she got to Paris in 1925 that her career really started to take off.

What She’s Done:

Vaudeville and Broadway Revues: Starting out dancing on a street corner doesn’t seem like the most auspicious beginning, but it managed to get Josephine recruited for traveling vaudeville shows, including the Dixie Steppers. She also did “blackface comedy” at local clubs, which scandalized her mother, but gained her much desired attention. Her next triumph was as a chorus girl in Broadway revues, where she employed her dancing skills and physical comedy to stand out from the other girls.

La Revue Nègre: This is where Josephine made one of her most iconic contributions to the stage—the “danse sauvage,” also known as “the banana dance.” (You may have seen Beyonce pay tribute, back in 2006.) It consisted of Josephine gyrating wildly while wearing a skirt made of bananas…and not much else. The audience loved it.


Look at those bananas shake!

(In fact, so did Wayne’s World—in an SNL skit, Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey named her as #8 babe of all time. “#8, Josephine Baker. Remember, I said all time. Josephine Baker was a babe in the 20s who, although a victim of the prevailing racial mores of her native United States, became the toast of Paris, known primarily for her exotic Banana Dance.”)

First Black Female Film Star: Although her movies never gained popularity in the US, she was the first black female to star in a major movie.

Resistance Spy: You’d think that fame would be enough, but no—this lady also helped spy for the resistance in Paris and Morocco, attending parties with heads of state, touring for the troops, and using tactics like pinning notes in her underwear and writing on her sheet music with invisible ink.

Civil Rights Activist: Josephine was famous for refusing to play for segregated American crowds—but did you know that she also worked for the NAACP, and stood alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the 1963 March on Washington? After MLK Jr. died, his widow Coretta Scott King asked her to be the head of the Civil Rights Movement, but she declined, citing that her children were too young to potentially lose their mother.

Speaking of her children, Josephine adopted a total of twelve, from different ethnicities and nationalities, calling them her “Rainbow Tribe.”

Why You’ll Want To Time Travel:

Mrow: Josephine owned a pet cheetah, named Chiquita, that she would walk along the streets of Paris and take onstage with her when she performed. Chiquita would sleep alongside her in her bed. (Dammit, I want a pet cheetah!) (She also owned a pet goat, monkey, and pig, but monkeys fling their poo, and pigs and goats are fairly attainable goals.)

Ssssneaky: “When Josephine heard that snake was the newest fashion in Paris, she did not realize the term referred to snakeskin and not live reptiles. She purchased a real snake that she named Kiki and wore it as a necklace with her favorite black velvet dress. The snake stayed quiet because it was warm, but when she started to dance, it woke up and stuck out its tongue.” –The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy

Princess Grace: One night, when Josephine was refused service in an American club due to her race, Princess Grace (Kelly) saw what had happened, rushed out, and swore never to return—thus beginning their own friendship.

Paint Me Like One of Your Banana Dancers: According to one of Josephine’s sons, she was bisexual, and among her many partners, had a relationship with artist Frida Kahlo.

Overall, Baker was a fascinating character. Her biographies paint her as a tempestuous woman, full of talent and vigor, but also suffering no shortage of heartbreak, illness, and financial ruin. Over 110 years later, though, her legacy lives on: whether it’s Beyonce paying tribute to the banana dance, Rihanna copping her style, or simply her showing up in Midnight in Paris, Josephine remains iconic.

For further reading:

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy, by Peggy Caravantes

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson (children’s book)

Let’s all pop some champagne and do the Charleston in honor of our newest Fake Historical Girlfriend!

So, do you think you'd be friends with Josephine? Who wants to go in on a chateau in Paris and a pet cheetah?

Don't forget to check out our other Fake Historical Girlfriends. Who do you want to see featured here next? Let us know in the comments!

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.