How the Remarkable Life of Josephine Baker Is Still Inspiring Others to This Day

A controversial performer, a civil rights icon, a war spy, a sex symbol and a devoted mother: these are just some of the lenses through which one could view Josephine Baker, but trying to label her would do injustice to the multitudes she contained.

A controversial performer, and a war spy. A sex symbol and a devoted mother. Josephine Baker was an American who captured the French imagination, both to stardom and military honors.

This legendary woman made her mark on the world, through performance, heroism in war time, and civil rights activism. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker dropped out of school at 12 years old. By the age of 15, she had already been married twice. 

Baker worked as a domestic servant, but thrived as a performer, dancing her way to New York City and eventually Paris, France.

Dr. Monique Wells, owner of Entree to Black Paris, leads tours on Baker and the African American experience in France. 

"She came when she was 19," Wells told Inside Edition Digital's TC Newman.

"So a teenager in a new country where she didn't speak the language, but she's got talent," Newman said.

"Exactly. And she had more than talent. She had a charisma," Wells replied. "But she had what the French would say, 'that je ne sais quoi.' I don't know what that made her, just, you just had to pay attention to her. And she was literally catapulted into stardom overnight."

In 1925, Baker starred in a show at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The cast was made entirely of Black performers and the show’s name contained a racial slur.

"Even though the billing and the images and everything that surrounded this show were everything that African Americans today and even at that time would consider pejorative," Well said, "The freedom that the cast of that show experienced here was like nothing that they would ever have dreamed in the United States."

The show stirred up controversy from the beginning, as Ophélie Lachaux from Théâtre des Champs-Élysées said, "They had asked her to take off her top, to dance half-nude, suggested she does a Savage Dance, something very sensual and smooth, because they wanted to stir up a scandal."

But scandal paved the way to stardom. Baker left that show to star at the legendary Folies Bergere, and her beauty led to a cosmetics line created by a savvy talent manager.

"He launched a series of cosmetics called Baker Fix because the white French women wanted to be like Josephine," Wells said. "And so, she was wearing her hair all slicked down and everything. So he started to market this hair pomade so that white women could slick their hair down like Josephine and they wanted to be dark like her. She's trying to be light. OK. But they wanted to be dark like her."

Baker became one of the most successful performers in France, but never reached that level of fame in her home country. This could partly be due to the fact that during her few visits to the U.S., she refused to follow the Jim Crow-era rules.

"She had also visited the United States to do a performance run, where she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences. And she made quite a stir with that," Wells said. 

Pap Ndiaye, director general of the National Museum of Immigration, said Baker was one of many Black American expats who settled in France. 

"She was part of a whole generation of people who moved to France," Ndiaye said. "Now, it does not mean that racism did not exist in France, but the French racism has often been more subtle, not as brutal as the American forms of racism."

Through marriage, Baker obtained French citizenship and renounced her American passport.

“So we are talking about a woman who grew, politically speaking, while in France," Ndiaye said. 

Baker performed on stage and in film during the 1920’s and '30s, but her world changed when France entered WWII in 1939. When the Nazis invaded, Baker fled Paris to her home in the south of France.

Baker was the epitome of everything Hitler hated. She was a rich Black woman in an interracial marriage with a Jewish French man. But her celebrity made her ideal for the covert French Resistance during WWII. Initially, Baker passed along intelligence she charmed out of high ranking individuals.

She smuggled notes across Europe written on her sheet music and even pinned top secret information to her underwear. As a star performer, she knew she would not be strip-searched.

"She not only risked her life to smuggle information and to listen in on conversations and report information on the enemy. She also performed to raise money for the war effort and she returned to Paris a hero," Wells said. 

For her service, General Charles de Gaulle gave her several awards, including naming her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest order of merit for military and civil action.

Baker was a performer and a spy, but in her heart, she was a mother. Unable to have biological children, she adopted 12 kids from around the world, naming her dozen “The Rainbow Tribe."

"She wanted her family and her life to illustrate that it was possible for people of all races and creeds to live together in harmony," Wells said. 

In 1963, Baker wore her French uniform and medals to speak before Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington.

She told the crowd, “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.”

"She had not forgotten the US and that as French as she was, she was also very much American," Well said. "Never in denial of her roots, never in denial of the plight of her people. Here is this woman proudly wearing a French uniform with medals and saying, 'I have never forgotten you, I am with you and you cannot fail.'"

Baker was once a wealthy woman, but mismanagement and over-generosity led to bankruptcy and losing her home. She kept performing to support her family, and in 1975, in the midst of performing in a show financed by Princess Grace of Monaco, Baker had a cerebral hemorrhage and died. She was 68 years old. 

Her funeral reportedly attracted over 20,000 mourners lining the streets of Paris to pay their respects.

And in 2021, Baker became the first American and the first Black woman to be honored at the Pantheon, a monument where the remains of France’s national heroes are interred.

"The fact that a Black woman born in the United States who fought in the human rights, who fought fascism at the cost of her own physical life sometimes, is something that is good news in current day France, I think," Ndiaye said. 

A casket, carrying soil from St. Louis, Paris, and Monaco was carried in by military officers, while pictures and video were projected on the Pantheon walls. The soil, symbolizing the significant places in Josephine Baker’s life, was requested by her children, in order to leave Baker’s remains where she was originally laid to rest. 

French President Emmanuel Macron called Josephine Baker "a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer, a Black woman defending Black people but first of all, a woman defending humankind. American and French. Josephine Baker fought so many battles with lightness, freedom, joy." 

And what will Baker be remembered most for? "Josephine will be most remembered for her unshakeable belief in the brotherhood of mankind, humankind," Well said.

Related Stories