Josephina Baker, aka "La Baker," was a notorious black performer who left the United States because of oppressive segregation. Claiming France as her new Motherland, Baker performed her signature songs and dance moves (including her famous "banana dance") for new audiences, eventually becoming one of the most photographed and sought after celebrities of her time.
Most people are acquainted with Baker the performer, delighting in her singing, dancing, and acting skills but the woman's waters ran deep and there are many interesting facts about La Baker and her life that aren't common knowledge.
We spoke to lifelong Baker fan Naomi Witzig, owner/curator of the World Erotic Art Museum
in South Beach, and Gelan Lambert, star of the Broadway hit Fela!,
about Baker and learned a few interesting things. Lambert will be the guest speaker at WEAM tonight for the opening of the "Josephine Baker Re-Visited" exhibit, which celebrates Baker's life.
10. She Thwarted A Duel
Cavalry Captain Andrew Czlovoydi was challenged to a duel by La Baker's manager, Count Pepito di Albertini. Albertini's beef? That the Hungarian captain was too googly-eyed over Josephine. The two men met in a cemetery, with Baker cheering on from the sidelines, perched atop a tombstone. After letting the two men fight over her for about ten minutes, Baker intervened, forcing them to stop and form a truce.
9. Baker's Dozen
Before Angelina Jolie, there was La Baker. The sultry songstress also had a heart of gold. She adopted 12 orphans from all around the world in an effort to fight racism by setting an example for others.
8. Baker and Grace Kelly Were Biffles
We don't know if they actually split one of those heart-shaped "BFF" necklace charms, but Kelly and Baker were tight. When a restaurant refused to serve Baker and her party, Kelly stormed out of aforementioned restaurant and the two became instant friends. In later years, Kelly would help Baker financially.
7. She had some really cool nicknames besides "La Baker"
Baker was also called "Black Venus," "Black Pearl," and "Creole Goddess."
6. She Ran An Animal Safari
Baker was bozo for animals. La Baker had a cheetah named Chiquita (who wore a diamond collar) a chimpanzee, a parakeet, a snake, a pig, a goat, some dogs, and several husbands. (Zing!)
5. Baker Had Her Own Tribe
With 12 adopted children and a slew of animals, Baker decided that she had enough members to form her own tribe and due to her celeb status, the "Rainbow Tribe" was known across the world.
4. Just Can't Get Enough
As celebrated as she was, and as sexy, Baker just couldn't get lucky in love. She married for the first time at 13, then went on to marry three more times to American Willie Baker in 1921 (whose name she kept), Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937 (from whom she attained French citizenship) and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947. Four marriages may seem like a lot, but when you consider that she received over 1,500 proposals in her life, getting married four times seems like no big deal.
3. Active Activism
When the Stork Club in New York refused to serve her and her party, Baker teamed up with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell and began an intense media campaign to battle unfair segregation laws. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dubbed May 20 Josephine Baker Day to honor her efforts.
2. She Played For Both Teams
The lovely Ms. Baker was known to have taken several female lovers during her lifetime, starting in the United States when segregation resulted in black performers having to shack up in boarding houses instead of the hotels they played at. Women roomed together and became "lady lovers." On the surface, her trademark song, "J'ai Deux Amours" ("I Have Two Loves") was about her love for both America and France, but Jean-Claude Baker, her biographer, stated that the song actually served as a secret ode to her bisexuality.
1. The Spy Who Loved Me
Baker loved her adopted country of France so much, that she served as a spy during the French Resistance. Her spy duties entailed smuggling secret messages (written on her music sheets) and she was also a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. The French government awarded her with a medal and named her Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
"Josephine Baker Re-Visited" opens tonight and runs through Thursday, February 28. Get 'baked' at WEAM from 11 a.m. though 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Admission costs $15. Call 305-532-9336 or visit weam.com.