Highlighting Black + LGBT Pioneers: Josephine Baker

Josephine Bakers life story is unbelievably queer. The first indication of this is found in the St. Louis city records. Her mother, Carrie McDonald was admitted to the exclusively all white Female Hospital after becoming pregnant whilst working for a German family. This was 1906. America was segregated, patriarchal and typically Black women would have their babies at home with a midwife. So the fact is the only way Ms. McDonald could’ve been there is with the help of a white man, possibly Josephine’s actual father who is listed on her birth certificate as “Edw”. The secret died with Carrie, who refused to the end to talk about it. She let people think Eddie Carson was the father and he played along influencing and immersing Josephine in music as Carson was a vaudeville drummer.

Forced to work as a domestic home of white families at an early age ended Josephine’s childhood and left her vulnerable to sexual predatory advances to which we will never know the full consequences. One thing that is clear is that this put her in touch “with sexuality…in an adult way’ and helped Josephine discover one way of escaping poverty. At the age of thirteen she was the subject of a neighborhood scandal which involved “playing house” with a fifty-year-old steel foundry worker known as ‘Mr. Dad’.  A few months after her mother ended this arrangement and an underage Josephine was married to Willie Wells with the blessings of her family, friends and the minister who performed the ceremony. The marriage soon ended.

Josephine first danced in public on her city streets in St. Louis for nickel and dimes then was later recruited by Bob Russell and the Russell Owens Company to tour the black for vaudeville circuit. She received the job through the influence of Clara Smith’s. Josephine became her protégée and “lady lover”.

During the Harlem Renaissance she headed to NYC at the age of 15. Soon after she married William Baker the son of a prominent Philadelphia restauranteur but her relationships with women continued:

“...the concept of “lady lovers” through the words of Maude Russell, who first met Josephine when both worked at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia and who later appeared with her in Shuffle Along: “Often … we girls would share a [boardinghouse]room because of the cost. … Well, many of us had been kind of abused by producers, directors, leading men—if they liked girls. … And the girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.” These comments make lady lovers sound like little more than some kind of healing program for sexually abused women performers—one way of deflecting attention from the facts of what was going on. But they point to a subset of black performers, both male and female, whose sexual orientation was directed toward their own sex.” [1]

She left and divorced William Baker but kept the surname when she ran away from the racial discrimination she found in the St. Louis. Baker renounced her American citizenship because of her utter disgust in America’s official stance against blacks. She became a French citizen in 1937 after her marriage to her husband Jean Lion.

“Just how many lesbian affairs Josephine engaged in, and with whom, will probably never be known with any certainty. Jean-Claude’s (one of her unofficially adopted son’s) biography mentions six of her women lovers by name: Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, and Mildred Smallwood, all of whom she met on the black performing circuit during her early years onstage in the United States; along with fellow American black expatriate Bricktop and the French novelist Colette after she relocated to Paris. Bricktop in particular served as an early mentor who showed her the ropes around Paris for the first few months after her move to Europe.”[2]

In Paris, France her first job was “La revue Negre” and the next noteworthy performance was at the Folie Bergere where the “banana dance” became legend. Artists and philosophers dubbed her the “Black Venus” Bronze Venus” “Black Pearl” “Creole Goddess”

Pablo Picasso said of her: "Tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.".

She immediately became a French favorite, but during the Red Scare era of the 1950’s was falsely accused of being a communist and no longer allowed in the US. She used her platform to combat racism by refusing to perform in clubs that practiced racial segregation. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King offered her unofficial leadership in the United States movement but Baker declined out of concern for her family’s safety.

With her last husband, Jo Bouillion, Josephine adopted 12 children in part because she was unable to have any of her own but mainly because she believed in equality for all, despite differences in nationality, race or religion. They were called “Rainbow Children”.

Josephine’s queer life was imperfect and problematic. She had streaks of homophobia directed at her adopted son, Jean-Claude who is gay.

“Nobody else performing in Europe during the 1930’s moved like she did. Later, here in the U.S., it would be called ‘vogueing.’” Another reason she connected with gay audiences is that she challenged the rules of acceptable sexual behavior in public, something that would have been a big draw for those whose sexuality was stigmatized as socially unacceptable or even criminal.” [3]

In 1961, she received France’s highest award the Legion of Honor but by the late 1960’s she was having financial difficulties was not performing. Things began to turn around when Grace Kelly offered Josephine her home in Monaco. She performed at Monoco’s summer ball in 1974 and went onto stage a week of performance in NYC called “An Evening With Josephine”. Celebrating her half-century on the stage in a Paris revue Josephine was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and did not regain consciousness. She died on April 10, 1975.

Amongst many more soundtracks appearances, she was a featured actress in the following films:


Princesse Tam-Tam

Moulin Rouge

The French Way