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.
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