If Simon Cowell had seen a half-naked black lady dressed in bananas, frantically tap-dancing while going cross-eyed, he’d have had his hand slapped down on the red buzzer within a few seconds!
But in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Josephine Baker was the highest-paid coloured performer in the world.
Born in poverty in St Louis, Missouri, on the 6th June, 1906, Josephine had a miserable life, hungry, overworked and surrounded by racial hatred.
She married Willie Wells when she was 13 and divorced him within a short time. Then she married Willie Baker in 1921, but that didn’t last very long either, although she kept his name all her life.
At the age of 15, she joined the St Louis Chorus Vaudeville show, and soon after that, she packed up and moved to New York, appearing as the last girl in the chorus line.
Traditionally, the end girl used to pretend to forget what she was supposed to be doing and act comical, until the encore, when she would perform perfectly, to great applause.
Josephine was billed as ‘The Highest-paid Chorus Girl in Vaudeville.’
On October 2nd, 1925, Josephine appeared in a new show at the Theatre Champs- Elysses. Then she starred at the Folies Bergere, where she performed her Danse Sauvage, wearing the soon-to-become-famous skirt of artificial bananas.
Within a short time, Josephine was the most successful American performer in France. She often appeared with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.
Hemingway described her as ‘The most sensational woman anyone ever saw.’
She also learnt to sing, and appeared in several films.
In 1935-6, Josephine returned to the USA, but despite her European popularity, she was still the victim of racism there.
Back in Paris, Josephine married Jean Lois in 1937 and became a French citizen.
Then in 1947 she married French composer Jo Bouillon.
In September 1939 soon after WWll began, Josephine was recruited as a spy. Behind her celebrity appearance, she could get away with a lot of things, and collected useful information which she passed on to the Resistance, and the British.
After the war, for her underground activity, Josephine received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
In 1951 Josephine toured the USA. Despite being a raving success and having a white husband, she was refused bookings in 36 hotels because she was black.
In the Stork club in New York, all the staff were ignoring her and refusing to serve her.
Grace Kelly noticed what was going on and walked up to her, grabbed her by the arm and stating, ‘I’m never coming in here again!’ marched out with all her entourage.
The two ladies remained lifetime friends.
Anyway, let me tell you about the castle.
The Chateau des Milandes was built in 1489 and had many owners.
In 1932, a Dr Males bought it, but his wife didn’t like it.
Josephine met the Doctor on a boat trip, and she rented the Chateau from him from 1937, until she bought it in 1947.
She fell in love with the Milandes, calling it her Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Now she began adopting children of different nationalities. What a wonderful life they must have had, living in the castle!
While working with the Civil Rights Movement she began adopting children, calling them her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. Josephine wanted to prove that children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers. She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Les Milandes visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy ‘The Rainbow Tribe’ was. Josephine raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. Josephine lived with her children and an enormous staff in the Château de Milandes, in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband French conductor Jo Bouillon.
Sadly, Moise has since died, but the other children often visit the Chateau which must bring back such lovely memories for them!
As we left our car in the car park and walked towards the Chateau, it was hard to believe that this imposing building was over 700 years old. Everything was so immaculate, it looked as though it had just been built a few years ago!
Angelique, the daughter of the present owner, Mme de Labarre, welcomed us and, after a brief introduction, left us to wander round on our own as she had to rush away somewhere!
There, amongst the Medieval décor, Josephine’s costumes and posters are on display, while her voice fills the background like a black Gracie Fields.
Two suitcases were found in a cellar, full of costumes. They have now been restored.
Dior dresses stand side by side with revealing outfits that leave nothing to the imagination. And there, in a glass case, is the famous banana skirt. Who’d have believed that a weird prop like that would end up as a star exhibit 80 years later in a French Chateau?
Apart from the Chateau, Josephine splashed out madly, buying most of the neighbouring village, including a farm, a luxury hotel, restaurants, an art gallery, and lots more.
Half a million people visited Les Milandes annually for the ballets, jazz evenings, etc.
Jo Bouillon desperately tried to control his wife’s spending. But she totally ignored his advice.
Eventually he left her and moved to Argentina.
In 1964 the Chateau was put up for auction. Josephine managed to fight this off, with the help of her friends. Then in 1968, it was sold for a tenth of its value.
A clause in the contract said that Joesphine could stay in the castle for another year.
But the new owner planned to evict her. Josephine sent the children to stay with her sister in Paris, and barricaded herself in the Chateau.
One morning she went to collect water, and on-site workers locked her out.
There’s a very sad photo of her sitting on the steps, where she spent the night.
Weak, and in shock, she was taken to hospital and, hearing about it, the new owner allowed Josephine to move back into the Chateau.
In 1975, she appeared at the Bobino theatre to celebrate her 50 years in show business. It was a huge success, with lots of celebrities in the audience. But in the afternoon on the 2nd day, she was found unconscious in her Paris apartment.
Rushed to hospital, she died of a brain tumour on 12th April, 1975.
She was buried at Roquebrune and Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco said, ‘The Queen of the music hall could not be buried anywhere else than a place fit for a princess.’