So it’s time for lady two, and this one fits into the underrated category! Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was an American singer and dancer who is most famous for that banana skirt. But did you know she was also a spy?
Josephine (born Freda Josephine McDonald) grew up in terrible poverty and in segregation, working from the age of 8 to help provide for her family. From this background, she soon rose to stardom and was part of a touring dance company by the age of 16.
Baker moved to France in 1925, still a teenager, and it was in Paris that she really hit the big time as a solo performer. Performing exotic erotic dances, she excited crowds, most famously in the banana skirt, in the “Danse Sauvage,” benefiting from the French fascination with black people at this time. She became one of the best known and best paid performers in Europe at that time, and the first black woman ever to star in a motion picture in 1934.
It was this reputation that afforded her the trust of important Nazi officials when Paris was occupied during the Second World War. She worked for the French Resistance, smuggling secrets by writing on sheet music in invisible ink. At the end of the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military accolades.
In the 1960’s Baker was also an important activist; she flew from France in order to speak against segregation in the US, and was the only female speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, it was Josephine who was asked to take the lead of the Civil Rights Movement, but Baker declined (this role was taken up instead by Coretta Scott King).
There are plenty of articles out there discussing Josephine’s work as a spy and for human rights, and yet I imagine many people, like me, knew nothing about this amazing woman except that she wore a banana skirt. Josephine Baker deserves to be an icon for her performances, as well as her inspiring contributions to society. It was precisely her role as entertainer that made high ranking officers give up their state secrets, and she deserves to be remembered as a dramatic and impressive woman.
Again, massive thanks to The History Chicks for educating me on Josephine, and you can also learn about her in this episode of the Lost Boss Bitch podcast. I also loved this article from AnOther, which is worth a read if you’d like to find out more!