Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Josephine Baker: Singer, Dancer, Spy, Hero

If you read my memoir Kinky Gazpacho, you know Josephine Baker was my childhood idol. I ran away to Spain, because Josephine ran to France. She hailed from the Midwest (St. Louis) as did I (Milwaukee). She was a talented singer and dancer, and I never met a microphone I didn't love. As far as I was concerned, by age 12 I knew my life would be lived in the footsteps of La Baker, minus the whole banana skirt incident.

For me, Josephine Baker represented everything a Black woman could do when unfettered by the constraints of a racist society. She lived her life fighting against expectations. I know she was far from perfect -- because really who is -- but it seemed that everything she did was a protest against the system. Her family of adopted children from every nation. Her expat existence in Europe. And her work as a spy for the French resistance. In my mind, Josephine Baker was James Bond, Wonder Woman, Mary Poppins and Diana Ross all rolled up into one. And I wanted to be just like her.

So, I just found out that the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC is hosting a special lecture: Josephine Baker: Singer Dancer, Spy on Wednesday March 6. The description of the program states:

From Broadway to the Rue Fontaine, the extraordinary Josephine Baker
was the toast of the international nightclub circuit. Born in the United States, the talented African American singer-dancer moved to France to escape racism in America and became an enormous star. She triumphed at the Folies Bergère and enjoyed the acclaim of European society. Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Her café society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and report back what she heard. She heroically stayed in France after the invasion working closely with the French Resistance to undermine the Nazi occupation. Her espionage exploits are just one chapter in Baker’s extraordinary life.
Join Jonna Mendez, former CIA chief of disguise, as she reveals
Baker’s intelligence work and places it in the context of her exciting and celebrated life.

If I lived in DC, I'd be there in a hot second. Those of you who do live there, somebody please go and tell me all about it.


(Hat tip to Harvetta at Presse Books for the info.)


Alexandra Zealand said...

This looks like a great program - I probably won't make it, but I will definitely pass the info around.

I was just looking for books on Josephine Baker, and we've only got one true biography in our collection - The Josephine Baker Story, from 2000. Have you read it?

glamah16 said...

Love her. Read anything I can about her. I always think the modern day Angelina Joile tries to model herself after Jospehine Baker. The scandalous sex symbol who does humaitarian work, and adopts a whole rainbow tribe. Just a thought. said...

All to often "Josephine Baker: the artist & performer" gets lost in the mix of "Josephine Baker: the revolutionary black woman". I am not downplaying this in any way, but there is something very important that people ALWAYS forget - she was a singer, above all else. She was a music-hall diva of the highest order. Most people don't even really know what her occupation was ... they are often filled with visions of her rainbow tribe, Les Milandes, her banana skirt, etc. There is nothing more divine that La Baker at about aged 50-67, dressed in a form fitting gown with a grandiose head-dress on her crown, descending a grand escalier & singing "Paris mes amours" or "Avec" (2 of her later life standards). People also forget that her voice went through quite a transformation as she aged - dropping almost 5 octaves from the twittery instrument it was in her younger life. Unfortunately, footage of La Baker at the height of her vocal & artistic powers (circa 1955-1975) is hard to come by, but recordings aren't, thank God. There are 3 albums in particular that highlight her in this era: "The Fabulous Josephine Baker", "...en la Habana" & "Chante Paris". It would be nice if someone would, for once, highlight this aspect of her, which is ALWAYS forgotten. Sigh :( In light of this fact, I have uploaded some of her performances & recordings to my youtube page (mrlopez2681).