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Born at the beginning of the 20th century, Josephine Baker was extremely popular in Europe, especially in France, for dancing in a banana costume on stage. However, her legacy carries much more weight than that, as she was known for being non-compromising and very outspoken when it came to the issues of racism, discrimination, and her adopted kids. Here are some of the most interesting facts about the life and legacy of Josephine Baker.
1. Dancer at nighttime, a spy at wartime
Josephine Baker was the ultimate spy material. She took advantage of this fact during the Second World War where she was able to make a difference for her beloved France, where she lived.
Being so famous, really a world-class celebrity before there were celebrities as we know them today, Josephine toured all across Europe. Considering that she was an adored star, she was never in a position where the officers would look into her luggage in a detailed inspection, so she was able to secretly carry messages written with invisible ink on the sheet notes. She could also carry various different things attached to her wardrobe or even on her person, such as the secret photos of German military operations.
Josephine’s efforts during the war afforded her a coveted status of lieutenant in the French Air Force and ultimately the Medal of the Resistance. She was also given the Croix de Guerre, being the first American woman to ever receive one.
2. Men were prepared to die for Josephine
When Josephine Baker, or Le Baker, as the French liked to call her, was in Hungary in 1928, a cavalry officer Captain Andrew Czlovoydi and Josephine's manager Count Pepito di Albertini wanted to settle their differences over Le Baker, in a classic showdown.
Apparently, during her stay in Budapest, the infatuated Hungarian captain was a bit too obvious in his approach to be stomached by her Italian manager. The count completely skipped over the part where he would ask the office to stop the ogling and went straight to challenging the unsuspected admirer to a real duel. Captain Czlovoydi accepted the challenge and agreed to sword fighting.
The actual duel took place at, fittingly, a cemetery, while Josephine stood on a tombstone rooting for the Italian count. It lasted for about 10 minutes until her manager got struck in the shoulder.
3. Josephine Baker's children
Baker always believed that children from different backgrounds and ethnicities could live together as a family and she was eager to show this belief to the world.
Keep in mind that this is the middle of the 20th century and adopting children, especially many children, was not exactly the norm. She wanted to do her part in the fight against racism and decided to do so by adopting a total of 12 children from orphanages all over the world. She gave them the name ‘’Rainbow Tribe’’ and they lived with her in her castle in France. She’d often take them on tours with her and was especially proud to show how well they live together.
4. Friends with a princess
Although Josephine’s talent wasn’t received in the United States the same way she was in France, her job took her back home frequently, nonetheless. While visiting a famous club in New York during one of her stays, the staff didn’t want to serve her. As it just so happens, Grace Kelly was in the same club at the same time and saw the incident. She took Josephine's side and furiously left the club.
They became great friends. So much so that the princess stayed by her side even during financially trying times for Baker.
5. What does a cheetah, a goat, and a pig have in common?
The answer is - all three were adored by Josephine.
It’s not a secret that Josephine loved animals just as much as she loved children. Her famous cheetah Chiquita was given to her to be a part of a show, however, once the show ended, Josephine decided to keep her and took her traveling. The wild cat enjoyed car rides and lounging in Bakers bed.
Baker loved to be surrounded by so much animals that she even had a pig that she named Albert and a goat called Toutoute in one of the clubs where she was performing. The pig got eventually got so big from all the food he was indulging in, that they had to knock down the kitchen door frame so that he could make it out.
6. Four marriages and French citizenship
Josephine Baker was really young when she first married. She met her husband Willie Wells while she was 13 years old and waiting tables in clubs. The marriage didn’t last long but two years later she got married again, this time to a Will Baker, whose last name she kept after divorcing him.
The third marriage was to a French national Jean Lion and it happened in 1937. She got her French citizenship during this time but that couldn’t stop the marriage from falling apart. Ten years later, in 1947 she married for the last time, again to a Frenchman, Jo Bouillon.
7. Fierce against racism
Josephine Baker was famous for refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences. Not only that but her constant articulations against racial discrimination made her one of the most famous black women in the world.
One of the triggers for this direction in her life was witnessing the injustice African American people endured in the US after she came back from Europe. She was considered to be almost like royalty in Europe, but back home she couldn’t even get a cup of coffee served to her. She remained a civil rights activist until the end.
8. The fifth marriage - or was it?
Following her fourth divorce, Baker made the decision to marry the American artist Robert Brady. However, the pair did not marry as much as they traveled to Mexico, found an empty church and said their vows. Not exactly legally binding but clearly enough for both of them considering they kept the relationship going until she died. Their adventure wasn’t something she spoke about in public for fear of being mocked but it is now clear that it was an extremely important part of her life.
9. Josephine Baker and Game of Thrones
No, she wasn’t a character in Game of Thrones, although we think she’d be an amazing inspiration for one, what they do have in common is that both were produced by HBO.
The Josephine Baker Story was a film released by HBO in 1991 and it was a great success. Her life story depicted on the big screen won five Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe. She probably never imagined that she’ll gain that much respect and admiration in her home country as she did in France and other European countries.
10. And then Frida saw her
It is a known fact, confirmed by one of Josephine’s sons, that Baker loved women as much as men. However, little is known about her affair with Frida Kahlo. The film made about Frida’s life reveals that she and Baker met in 1939, in a club where she was performing.
Both very impressive, strong, self-sufficient women, it isn’t so far-fetched that they would be attracted to one another. There is no official record to confirm how long the relationship lasted, or whether it lasted at all, but as much as they would be impressive together, each of them deserves their grand place in history.