George Hruby once again connects the dots between a small nine-year-old boy and the famous early 20th century, American-born, Parisian entertainer and icon, Josephine Baker. Follow their journey as they both finally come together in the early 21st century by an extraordinary set of circumstances.
In his own words ….
* * *
Living not far from the Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri, a young eleven-year-old Black girl watched in horror for several days as chaos and terror evolved all around her in her neighborhood. It was during the summer of 1917. Since May, white men in neighboring St. Louis, Illinois, located just on the other side of the mighty Mississippi River, had been attacking Blacks in the East St. Louis neighborhood. They attacked Black men on the streets, in streetcars, and burned many Black businesses there. As many as 3000 White men had been involved in the attacks.
Across 72 hours, between July 1st and July 3rd, thousands of Whites burned down homes and businesses of Blacks in St. Louis, Illinois, sending hundreds fleeing for their lives over the river and into the town of St. Louis, Missouri. Nearly 250 Blacks laid dead across the river in Illinois, including Black women and children. They had been shot, others burned, and yet more lynched.
A young eleven-year-old Josephine Baker watched and listened as black men, women, and children, some bloodied, clothes torn, hacked, broken bones, crying, screaming, went running through her neighborhood streets. They screamed stories of atrocities committed by the Whites against them across the river. Josephine had been born of a Black mother and a White father. A German immigrant for whom her mother had worked for. Josephine was caught between both worlds that somehow left her now in this moment, inside the low-income housing area of the Mill Creek neighborhood, on Targee Street. Now called Johnson Street, she lived at 212.
Her neighborhood was full of rooming houses, brothels, and apartments. There was no indoor plumbing. Dressed poorly and with only a 5th grade education, by the time she became a teenager, she was living off of the streets. Living in cardboard shacks and scavenging through garbage cans, she earned a living by dancing on street corners.
By the age of 13, she was working as a waitress, married, and divorced, in less than twelve months. The same year, in 1921, she married again to another man named Willie Baker. Although she divorced him just a few years later in 1925, she would keep his name for the rest of her life.
By 1921, at fifteen years of age, she left Missouri for the big city of New York, touring with a vaudeville act where she performed as a dancer. It was a few years later when she was only 19 years old, that this little girl from the slums of St. Louis, Missouri suddenly found herself performing in Paris, France.
Over the next ten years of her life, Josephine became an overnight sensation in Europe. Known for her erotic dancing and being almost completely nude on stage, she became one of Europe’s top show attractions. In her twenties, Paris found her very erotic, beautiful, sensual, and sexually provocative for a woman of her time.
The French novelist, poet, and film director, Jean Cocteau, was absolutely infatuated with the young Josephine. He did much to help her including promoting her career upward.
The great Surrealist, Pablo Picasso, painted and drew to her.
Earnest Hemingway drank with her on multiple occasions at numerous bars in Paris at the time. He was once quoted as saying about her, that Josephine was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Indeed, everyone in Paris seem to have fallen in love with this young girl from America. That ‘love’ quickly grew across Europe where throngs of admirers and devoted fans became infatuated with her beauty, charm, and out-going personality.
While Josephine was a major sensation throughout Europe, there was still a part of her that desperately yearned to have the same success back home in her America.
In 1936, she returned back to the United States. She opened in a revival of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. The American critics issued devastating reviews to the American-born, treasured, Parisian star. Referred to as a “negro wench” by Time magazine, she was immediately replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee. Josephine returned to her beloved Paris but had become disillusioned, lost, and broken in spirit with her once American home. She gave up her U.S. citizenship and was now more than proud to become a French citizen in 1937.
France had now become her permanent home as well as her love and passion. It embraced her and there, even though she was Black, she was accepted as an equal to everyone else. Something she knew that she could never know as a Black woman in America. It was where racism had always prevailed and where she now knew, always would.
A woman who ruled with both her heart and mind, Josephine joined the French Intelligence Agency in WWII to help her country during the German Occupation in WWII. Gathering information from all over Europe including from the Germans and Japanese, she was able to funnel intelligence information back to France concerning enemy positions and movements. Putting herself at tremendous risk on numerous occasions, she was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. In addition, she was awarded several distinctions from the French Government including the Rosette de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre.
Now a war hero, for the next three decades, she received many warm welcomes as she toured all over the world. Still sympathetic to the problems suffered by Blacks in America at the time, she involved herself in the civil rights movement in the U.S. While on tour in 1952, she had an incident at a prominent club in New York City where she felt that she had been discriminated against. After publicly chastising a famous White columnist concerning the incident, the United States revoked her visa, sending her back to France and forcing her to cancel a string of U.S. engagements. It was nearly ten years later before the U.S. ever issued her another visa to enter the United States.
In 1963, during a civil rights march in Washington D.C., she gave a speech with Martin Luther King standing by her side. She gave many speeches to organizations then, always referring to France’s ability to treat all of its citizens equal regardless of color. However, there were American Blacks at this time that did not like Josephine, citing that she was “too French” and did not belong in the American Civil Rights Movement. In one of her speeches, she said, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”
It was during this time that Josephine began adopting children from all over the world to form what she would call “The Rainbow Tribe.” When she was through, she would be the mother to 12 children – ten sons and two daughters. Her husband at the time, composer Jo Bouillon, divorced her after the 11th adoption, pleading with her to stop the adoptions as they could not afford any more children.
Josephine and her 12 children resided at her grand Château des Milandes. Located in Dordogne, along the river of the same name, it was east of Bordeaux. The grounds were large and opened to the public for an admission price. The Château featured rides, a farm, and even hotels. Lucky visitors could sometimes get a glimpse of the children, some of whom would perform for the visitors by singing and dancing.
Despite all her successes, she had been somewhat retired at this stage of her life. With no more money coming in and with her husband now gone, the walls of financial constraints slowly came closing in on her. Now broke, in 1968, she was evicted from her beloved home, Château des Milandes. With nowhere to go and 12 children in tow, her long close friend, Princess Grace Kelly, offered Josephine and her children an apartment in in Roquebrune, near Monaco.
Josephine had no choice but to return back to the stage once again. However, with children to feed and bills to pay, she took off with energy, enthusiasm, and innovative ideas for a new tour. That same year, she was already back performing in Paris at the Olympia. She played at other locations in Paris and internationally including in Belgrade and in the U.S..
By 1973, Josephine was now 67 years old and again performing internationally. At Carnegie Hall that year, she received a standing ovation from the American audience. However, by the next year, she began giving rambling speeches between songs at her concerts. She had also started having problems remembering all the lyrics to her songs.
On Tuesday evening, April 8th, 1975, in Paris at the “Bobino,” a music hall theater located next to the current Train Station in Paris (14th arrondissement, Montparnasse area), hosted a spectacular 50-year anniversary celebrating Josephine Baker. Financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Kelly, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it became Josephine’s grandest performance. Performing before a sold-out audience, some of those in attendance that night were Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Sophia Loren. It was said that it sold out to overflow and that foldout chairs had to be brought out to accommodate the attendees.
She received beaming reviews in the press from all over the world for her performance at the Bobino.
Just 4 days later, on Saturday, April 12, 1975, she was found in her residence, having slipped into a coma due to a cerebral hemorrhage. She was rushed to a nearby hospital where she later died that day. Found lying all around her on her bed had been the scores of wonderful newspaper and magazine reviews she had been receiving from her recent show.
Days later, her funeral procession would take her one last time pass the Bobino in Paris with her name still up in lights.
* * *
Rivers are forever and so is their history. Now living in France, I one day found myself lost in both. I managed steering a canoe down the Dordogne River in France as it serpentined through time as it went. The river pulled me pass prehistoric caves, castles, chateaus, and open fields where medieval villages once were. But, as my life has proven over and over again, I am brought face-to-face with legends from time, in the most romantic, intimate, and poetic ways indeed. This day would prove no different.
Paddling down the Dordogne River in a canoe, I was headed with the current, downstream, when just above the treetops to my left, I saw the tops of turret towers peeking out on the horizon. Made of stone, they looked so grand against a sky of blue while peering out from a wall of green, behind the tall trees that tried to conceal them. It was a huge and grand chateau. While there were many along this river to see, this one peaked my attention for some reason. It seemed to pull me for some reason. As I got closer and closer to where it was at, I was desperately trying to get a peek at it. It remained well hidden behind tall evergreen trees that lined the river along the estate.
As my canoe funneled down the river towards it, I suddenly was taken back as I saw a concreate boat ramp leading down into the water from the chateau.
The ramp area was lined with huge oak trees all around it and stringed light-bulbs hanging over what appeared to be a small picnic area under shade. All of this, right on the river beneath the grand chateau that I now could see. It was a magnificent structure to behold with towers at the corners that seemed to pierce the sky.
What touched me the most about what I saw was not just the grand chateau but, the boat ramp leading into the river underneath the small army of oak trees. It filled my head with childhood memories of growing up in San Antonio, Texas. There, I grew up seeing countless boat ramps leading into rivers and lakes, and always under the cover of endless oak trees. Even the string of light-bulbs hanging among the oaks was something I saw all the time in Texas. I had never seen this again in my life until right now at this very moment along the Dordogne River in France. Indeed, it was a flashback from my past. As quickly as I had caught a glimpse of this beautiful and majestic chateau, the fast moving current of the river took me onward and away from it. It became lost again behind endless rows of evergreens along the river. The scene floated away into my memory except for that fleeing moment when I caught a quick photograph as I passed by.
The late Steve Jobs, the CEO and co-founder of Apple, Inc., once gave a commencement speech to the graduating class of Sandford University in 2005. In it, he referenced “connecting the dots.” It referred to the fact that everything that happens to us, every choice and decision we have ever made in our lives, has led us to this very moment where we are at …. right now.
For me, this story is about connecting the dots with my own life, and how it led me to embrace yet another figure in history … Josephine Baker.
My father struggled as a young enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, supporting a family of four children. This was in an era where married women stayed at home and tended to the house and children. This was in a time in America when households could still be ran from one income-earner in the family. America was still prosperous from the huge WWII industrial boom. My father, on an enlisted man’s salary owned two brand new cars and a wonderful brand-new home for all of us.
I was taught hard-work ethics as a child and by nine years old, already had my first job. I was a “paper-boy.” Today, that job is pretty much extinct. But in those days, before the internet, there was something called ‘newspapers.’ There were many and they were everywhere. It was how we learned of everything in those days. Even with the invention of television, newspapers were still everywhere. At just 9 years old, I had become the youngest paperboy ever hired in my district and possibly, by the Newspaper Company.
The job was seven-days-a-week. The routine was simple. Each day after school, we ‘paper-boys’ picked up our newspapers at the local convenience store. The newspaper company had someone drop and stack the newspapers in bundles and labeled for each route. Each boy had a specific delivery route that he was responsible for. We all had our prized bicycles upon which we had our paper-bags. This was more-or-less large saddlebags that were thrown over the rear of your bike or across your bicycle banana seat which was popular in that day. Or, you threw the paper-bags over yourself. You then folded and rubber banded your newspapers for throwing purposes. They were then stuffed into the bags and off you rode. I would bicycle down my neighborhood streets throwing each newspaper with deadly accuracy, right onto each and every porch of our customers. Part of our newspaper’s motto was “Porch-Delivery.” On Saturdays and Sundays only, we had to have the newspapers delivered before sunrise.
I stayed a newspaper boy till about the age of twelve. I had developed a routine from the very beginning. Every day when I went to go pick up my newspapers, I would grab one, sit down, and read the day’s news. Both international and local. My curiosity to know of the world and about life was unquenchable at that age. Everything fascinated me. My brain was a sponge. And so, I read.
It was during these years that I ran across headlines and stories about a woman named Josephine Baker. Sometimes there would be a picture of her accompanying the story.
I found the fact that the newspaper was even running a story about her fascinating. Why? Because, even then at my young age, I knew the way things were. Texas was the State that was the western boundary of the U.S. Southern Bible Belt. The American “South.” And as Josephine Baker was written about, she was identified as a “Negro” entertainer. And as a young white child growing up, I wondered why they were writing about her. In those days, it seemed that the only stories to make the papers about blacks were about ones arrested, lynched, wanted for crimes, or ones causing civil-rights problems in the area.
However, as I read headlines about Josephine Baker, what they wrote was different with her. She was an entertainer from America. Very famous in the 1920’s and 30’s. A recognized and respected entertainer. And, somewhere along the way, she now lived in France. She never came back to America except on visits. She seemed very popular still to Americans as she still made headlines in the U.S. even though she was a permanent staple of Europe.
This is all I would ever know of Josephine Baker. From these occasional stories I read on her while I was growing up. I remember reading about her death when she died. However, I knew nothing more of the woman except she was a very popular Black entertainer both in the U.S. and in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century.
As the Universe would have it, I would later find myself in my 50’s and living in France. I had just moved from Paris to Bordeaux. I was living in a small place on Rue Judiaque. It was just down the street from a place called Place Gambetta. A nice little square complete with large trees, grass, flowers and even a small waterfalls and manmade creek. I found this scene in Gambetta Square so surreal given the fact that 276 people were all guillotined there in an 11-month period during the French Revolution.
“Judiaque” is ‘Jew’ in French. My street was named this as I was living in what had been the Jewish quarter. Then, in WWII, the German Nazis occupied Bordeaux for several years. All the Jews were forced out of the neighborhood and their buildings sold to non-Jew French Nationals. I was amazed to later find out that the house at the very corner of my block, during WWII, had actually been converted into the German Nazi Propaganda Office. No newspaper or magazine then could be printed or published without their authorization out of this very house. It was of course seized from a Jewish family who had been sent off to the camps for extermination.
A big and modern grocery store was just several blocks away and I was there one day to buy groceries. While waiting in a check-out lane, I looked up at the store wall and noticed a large banner featuring tour packages of places to go visit in nearby Dordogne. One showed a magnificent chateau. I was frozen. It was the very same chateau that I had paddled my canoe pass on the Dordogne River that day. The same one with the towers and the boat ramp, oak trees and strung light bulbs. The same chateau that I had managed to snap a photograph of. The large banner hailed it as the former home of the late … Josephine Baker.
I had no idea that she lived not far away from Bordeaux. No idea at all. And suddenly, I was transported back in time to a young ten-year-old-boy throwing newspapers for a living and reading articles about her in the papers then. Without realizing it that day in the canoe on the Dordogne River, my tremendous curiosity of that one chateau peeking over the tree line, had put me right there with that very woman I had read about in the newspapers growing up. I had accidentally stumbled upon her home.
It was only then that as an adult, I began to research who this woman was? Even until her death in 1975, she remained popular in the press. As I began to dig into her story. I remember when I came across archive pics of her at parties she would often throw right at the boat ramp along the river. The same picnic area I saw underneath the tall oak trees and hanging light-bulbs. I read that it was one of her favorite places on the chateau grounds. Indeed, it resembled a part of the American South where we were both from. Maybe that was why she had it built that way along the river. I could only be amazed by this remarkable woman. It turned out that she was so much more than an international entertainer in the early 20th century. She was a remarkable human being.
You are welcomed to do your own research into Josephine Baker and her life. There are several good documentaries about her life too. For me, I am always fascinated at the real person behind their public persona. It was no different about Josephine.
It was at this same time upon discovering that her home had not been far outside of Bordeaux, that a man just happened to bring up Josephine Backer to me. He asked me if I knew that she had performed here in Bordeaux where I lived. It was at a theater that often-hosted different performances featuring orchestras, performers, and a host of different variety shows. It was then called the Apollo Theater. It was big in its day, attracting very many big named attractions during the early 20th century. Eventually, Josephine herself would perform there.
The shock came for me when I found out that the Apollo Theater was only a few blocks from where I was living at the time.
The Apollo Theater in Bordeaux had long disappeared. But the building still remained. The entire interior had long ago been gutted and modernized to reopen as a Cineplex theater. However, the front façade of the original theater along Rue Castelnau d’Auros, had been preserved, complete with many stone carvings featuring examples of the arts. They are still visible there today. Beloved by the French people in her day, I could not imagine that the throngs of movie goers today, entering this same building as a cineplex, could have ever imagined that Josephine Baker herself had once performed within these very walls.
If the walls could talk. I tried to imagine what her voice sounded like within the walls of this building, once-upon-a-time. What it would have been like to watch her sing and dance here. Hear her talk.
Behind the original entrance of the Apollo Theater, was the backstage entrance where the stars and performers came and went. It would have been where Josephine’s car would have let her out at and where she would have entered and exited the theater.
Today, it is where a Thai restaurant called ‘Restaurant Sala Thai’ now exists at 52 Rue Saint-Sernin. I imagine her motor car pulling up to this rear entrance backstage and ‘the’ Josephine Baker herself, would have stepped out and entered. The petite backstage entrance, like the theater’s front facade, displays beautiful stone carvings featuring various faces of the theatrical stage.
Somehow, someway, this extraordinary woman in history, whom I grew up with as a child, reading about her in the newspapers, … had found me once again. I had lost her to my childhood. But, somehow, someway, she pulled me back to her at this point in my life.
We had both left America to find a better way of life. We both ended up becoming residents of our beloved France, refusing to ever return back to our country. A country that was, and still is, filled with so much strife and division. Where people are still judged by their race, religion, and culture. Where primitive tribalism seems to yet prevail. Americans like Josephine and I had had enough. And since 2007, an estimated 15 million Americans had left their country. Fleeing to countries all over the world, like Josephine and I, they searched for a better life, never returning back. And many of them, like Josephine, and even another Black female icon of her time, Tina Turner, giving up their U.S. citizenship’s forever.
And I was here where she had lived and performed. A long journey for that little nine-year-old boy sitting on bundles of newspapers reading about her, to now, living here in her world. A lifetime it took for me to finally find … Josephine Baker.