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When Paris went bananas—Part 2

No-one topped the Top Banana

If you would like to read ‘When Paris went bananas—Part 1‘ here it is.

The Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties were known as les années follesin France. American ragtime was all the rage and a negro from Missouri with raw talent was dancing an erotic version of the Charleston.

She wore… well, almost nothing, really. Except a g-string strung with a few bananas. Her near-naked outfits made her top of the pops. Josephine Baker dolls sold like hotcakes. So did her costumes, and beauty products. French women imitated her hairstyle. They took up sunbathing and used walnut oil to darken their skins.

From the slums of segregated Missouri to top billing at the Follies Begere is quite a trajectory. But raw talent and a determination to succeed entrenched Janet Baker at the top of French cabaret in 1920’s Paris. And she never looked back. Until the end, as we shall see, she remained unreservedly the top banana.

But when she returned to America for a starring role in Ziegfield Follies, she clashed with the harsh side of American segregationist policies. Despite her wildly popular European fame, she was refused entry to a host of hotels and restaurants. Jim Crow law prevailed.

Back in France, everything changed when World War 2 broke out in 1939. Most expats couldn’t wait to get home. But Josephine Baker stayed on and became an agent and courier for French Military Intelligence. Her notoriety and contacts got her access to senior Nazis in the German Army of Occupation.

On a tour of  French colonies in North Africa, she helped establish a liaison centre with British intelligence in Casablanca. And she arrange for Spanish Moroccan passports to be made available for European Jews.

Throughout her life, Baker remained a passionate supporter of civil rights.

When she visited America again in the 1950s, she wrote numerous articles about racial equality. 

She also refused to perform in segregated venues – even when she was offered significant fees.

In the 1950s, she acquired a chateau in the Dordogne and began adopting orphaned children from various countries around the world. It was her bid to combat racism and demonstrate that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers”.

In 1963, she stood alongside Martin Luther King at the March on Washington and campaigned with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Unfortunately, in her later years, Josephine Baker fell on hard times and was all but bankrupt. Unscrupulous contractors, her penchant for lavish spending, and her limitless generosity forced her to sell her chateau.

Princess Grace of Monaco, who had stood by her during a racist incident in America, stepped in to save the day. She sorted out the creditors and saw to it that Baker had a roof over her head.

Then, with the help of Prince Rainier, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Princess went on to back and plan a revue celebrating 50 years of Baker’s career on the stage in Paris.

‘Josephine a Bobino 1975’ was a smashing success. Demand for seats was overwhelming. Folding chairs were added to the isles to accommodate patrons. The first-night audience included Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Sophia Loren, Shirley Bassey, and Mick Jagger. Paris went mad.

The ‘Top Banana’ was back on top

Sadly, it proved to be her last hurrah. Four days later, she was found in her bed surrounded by glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines. But had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a few days later.

 More than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession on its way to L’Église de la Madeleine. The French government honoured her with a 21-gun salute, and she became the first American woman in history to be buried in France with full military honors.

Place Joséphine Baker in Montparnasse was named in her honour and Château des Milandes is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministery of Culture.

All in all, not a bad record for a mixed-race kid from segregated America who started life on the wrong side of the tracks. And who set Paris alight in the Roaring Twenties. When she danced in front of strategically placed mirrors that showed off, according to some reports, what her banana G-string was trying to conceal.


How aware were you of the various lives of Josephine Baker? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments section below.


Image Credits:
1. Josephine Baker via Pinterest
2. Original Charleston dance via YouTube
3. Josephine Baker via wikipedia
4. Josephine Baker & the ten orphans via wikipedia
5. Josephine Baker and Grace Kelly/ Princess Grace via Backlots.net
6. Josephine Baker funeral with Grace Kelly via Tumblr
7. Place Josephine Baker sign in Paris



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3 Comments




  1. Jp
    1 month ago

    https://youtu.be/sE0NVLL0pKU I. had the immense privilege and the honor to have worked with Miss Baker in 1975 @ Bobino. I was the youngest dancer in the cast . The show was called “ Josephine “ It was based on her life story celebrating her 50 years in show business from her humble beginning in St Louis to her triumphant comeback to Bobino. She used to call me “ her little page “ (Son petit page )cause of my age ! I just turned 18 th on April 1st 1975. luckily for me I have tons of memorable pics from the show as well as unforgettable stories of this short but amazing run. ! She was extremely engaged with all of the dancers .Wanting to know everyone ‘s names .Josephine really truly care about people She was a true legend immensely talented beautiful ,elegant ,generous , humble and compassionate. Josephine had many lives and reinvented herself many times throughout her long career. Miss Baker had the perfect combination of charisma and humanity . She would bring oranges for the entire company saying “ My children you need lots Vit C for strength and energy “ She was so right cause the rehearsals were long and grueling ,,,. Bobino ‘s stage was too small to accommodate a cast of 8 boys 12 girls 3 comedians 1 little girl who played young josephine and 1 gorgeous dancer who perform the famous banana dance ! So they had to transformed the stage by expanding it including moving the orchestra to the balcony and putting additional seats in the theater and building brand new dressing rooms to accommodate such a big cast all while we were practicing in the lobby of The theater for at least 10 days ! It was bit chaotic to say the list and quite cold being mid -February But no one seemed to care it was so exciting to be part of this legendary show ! Even though None of the big Paris music ‘halls like Le Casino de Paris ,Le Moulin Rouge or les Folies Bergère wanted to take the risk producing Miss baker mostly for insurance purposes There were already rumors circulating of her failing health but a small theater by Paris left bank called Bobino took a chance …Josephine liked to rehearsed late at night after we were done practicing. She even enjoyed having her favorite dish Spaghetti bolognese around 1 am at a restaurant right across the theater. I was one of the lucky one to have diner with her and only few members of the cast at Jean-Claude Brialy ‘s restaurant called L’ Orangerie where Josephine would reminisce on her career. Saying humbly “Well I was lucky I just had a great body and nice smile “ !!! I Could believe how down to earth she was. I will never forget the very first time I saw her performing once the stage was finally ready. That night She was in the audience watching us dancing with huge smile on her face applauding many times throughout being so proud of the cast. After all she was watching part of her whole life story in front of her eyes. … In fact during the promotion of the show a French journalist asked her. “ How does it feel to see your life story being played in front you and starring in your own life musical ? She replied “ it’s wonderful At least i will see what they think of me when I am still alive !!!! I When we were done the director Andre levasseur said “ josephine c ‘ est a vous “ she jumped on stage and belt a song from the Brazilian number called” Que c‘est bon de vivre” She seemed to be completely possessed by the rhythm of the Afro Cuban sound very reminiscing of “Princess Tam-Tam “ all those years earlier …Her moves were so unbelievable. Her body was in perfect shape specially in her Chanel suit !!!! There is No way you would have guessed that this beautiful lady was in her late 60 ‘s. A goddess still !!!! What thrill for me. A true master CLASS ,,,,,,We rehearsed the show for about 1 month and half . We actually did more than 4 performances. We started with one week of previews on March 25 th special Press night on march 31 st to glorious reviews ! We had another full week of performances with a big opening gala on April 8 th with stars like Grace Kelly’s Sophia Loren & Alain Delon neither Shirley bassey diana Ross or Liza Minnelli ever attend any of the performances !!!!! . We had another show on the 9 th but She felt into a coma on the 10 th and past in the early hours on the 12 th. I was invited to her funeral at l ‘eglise de la Madeleine The service was extremely beautiful and so very emotional I went to Monaco cemetery recently to pay my respect for this Grande Dame 46 years later. Josephine paved the way for the Diana Ross Madonna Beyoncé and many other artists. A true legend. Unparalleled. ??????. La Bakair Forever. ? ? ?


    • Ray Johnstone
      4 weeks ago

      Bonjour Jp,
      Wow! is all I can think of to say.
      Thanks very much indeed for your amazingly detailed and obviously heartfelt description of your stage career and the memories of your experiences alongside the famous Josephine Baker.
      What a fabulous personality she had! And what an achievement. Her stellar rise from the segregated Deep South to the pinnacle of world entertainment — a live show in Paris — was no easy feat. And hats off to her for never forgetting her humble start in life.
      Thanks again for reading my article and for your wonderful insights into so many aspects of her career and for sharing them with us. I’m sure that many readers of My French Life will share my gratitude.
      Merci encore.
      Amicalement.
      Ray


      • Judy MacMahon
        4 weeks ago

        Thank you JP and Ray
        I loved this mini-series on Josephine Baker!
        And JP your personal account is inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to share it with us!
        Judy MacMahon