The fabulous Josephine Baker

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Josephine Baker was the American-born femme fatale of ‘20s and ‘30s Paris. Lithesome and catlike, she was the most successful European stage star of her era. Also, the most prominent African American one. Mike Zampa looks at the past of this extraordinary woman…

In the 1940s, Ms. Baker moved to our neighborhood – the Dordogne River valley. Her Chateau des Milandes, a turreted, fairytale chateau above the river, is a Perigord landmark. It’s 20 minutes and several enormous price ranges from us. Visitors flock there for the castle tour, or for Josephine’s story.

Frenchmen called Ms. Baker exotic. They meant erotic but the kids were listening. She danced at the Folies Bergeres. Her costume: one strand of pearls, one tiny skirt trimmed in plastic bananas. That was it. But there’s more to Josephine Baker than a scandalous wardrobe. This is what I’ve learned:

She left the U.S. at age 19 seeking fame and racial tolerance in France.
She became a singing/dancing/screen legend and World War II spy.
She raised her “rainbow tribe” 12 adopted children, in luxury then lost Les Milandes, dying destitute.
She’s the sixth woman, and first black woman, to be immortalized in the Pantheon.

At the Chateau des Milandes, you can see where Josephine Baker cached arms for Resistance fighters. Photos show her in military uniform with French generals. Storyboards explain how she smuggled secret messages in sheet music.

If you really want to understand Josephine Baker, though, listen to the music.  Early cuts were high-pitched, warbling. Later, the voice became dusky, deep, suggestive. Edit Piaf may have been the songbird of France, but Josephine Baker was its siren call.

France has long celebrated African American jazz legends, from Billie Holliday to Sidney Bechet and Miles Davis. Ms. Baker was the pioneer. She opened a door for everyone else and did it on her terms.

Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who, along with his wife, splits time between Southwest France and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read about the Chateau des Milandes