The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy by Peggy Caravantes was a short biography that, as a juvenile work of 185 pages, didn’t go into as much detail about her life as I would have liked, but I didn’t expect as much due to its target reading audience. Caravantes covered Baker’s early life in St. Louis and her multiple marriages. Her dancing talent led her to Paris where she found a new life and stardom, free from the institutionalized segregation and racism she encountered in the States.

Caravantes recounted Baker’s devotion to animals and wrote about her expanding menagerie which included a cheetah, a pig, mice, and a snake among other exotic creatures. I surely would have wanted to know how she cared for them, and if she travelled with mice–keeping them cooped up in hotel desk drawers–I can’t imagine the state of the room, or the mice themselves, when it was time to check out.

Even after achieving worldwide fame, upon return visits to America to perform, she was still shunned from hotels and restaurants. These blatant acts of discrimination against her compelled her to fight for racial equality and she was even invited to speak during the March on Washington in 1963.

Since Baker couldn’t have children of her own, she established her own “rainbow tribe” by adopting twelve children of different nationalities, ethnicities and religions. To keep the brood in harmony she elected to adopt first only boys but two of her dozen children were girls. She struggled financially to maintain her animals and to raise her children in a state of luxury, and often had to be on the road to pay for everything. Baker’s mothering skills were devoted to goodness and love via elaborate acts of generosity, and never showed her children any discipline. Thus they ran the roost of the house as untamed terrors. With wild animals and children lording it over the Baker household, life there must not have been easy:

“She did not discipline them because she wanted them to like her. If one of them misbehaved, she got a nurse or a nanny to apply the punishment. Joséphine showered the children with so many presents that they nicknamed her Maman Cadeau, or Mother Gift. Then she would leave them again to go perform. It was all or nothing in her relationship with the children, whose lives were most stable when she was gone.”

Caravantes covered Baker’s role as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II. As an entertainer with more freedom than others to travel during wartime, she was in demand to make appearances. One of the most famous stories about her role as a spy concerned her smuggling out of military secrets which were written on her sheet music in invisible ink. She was a good choice to recruit, since in occupied France, the Germans were less likely to think of Baker as anything other than a celebrity.

The end of the book, which was written in 2015, gave an update about each of Baker’s children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *