Josephine Baker

Dancer, singer, actress, spy, activist
Born 3 June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Died 12 April 1975 in Paris, France

An Exotic Entertainer
Transcends the Bawdy Stage
to Earn a Place in History.

How does one connect a showgirl par excellence from Paris via St. Louis and Broadway to the Weimar Republic? To put it another way, why does a celebrity the likes of Josephine Baker figure in current historical surveys of the Weimar era? The answer lies in the intricate powers of revisionism and the creeping influence of pop culture on historical inquiry.

As best we can uncover, Ms. Baker performed in Berlin several times in the mid-to-late Twenties, very much naked and very much the avant garde symbol of jazz music, exotic blackness, and proto-feminist mystery. Count Harry Kessler mentioned her in his memoirs. Although the pinpoints on our timeline can stand some sharpening, we do know that Ms. Baker toured Europe in 1925-26. Historian Iain Cameron Williams of the United Kingdom provides the specifics: "Josephine Baker arrived in Europe (Paris) on September 22, 1925, as a member of Revue Negre, which opened in Paris on October 2, 1925," Mr. Williams wrote to Planet Deutsch in autumn, 2004. "After a short run in Paris, Josephine Baker went into a revue at the Follies-Bergere called Un Soir de Folie. In January, 1926, Josephine Baker left Paris and traveled to Germany with the Revue Negre cast, where the show opened in Berlin."

Until Planet Deutsch received the corrective notice from Mr. Williams, we had reason to believe that Ms. Baker also was the star attraction of the barnstorming revue Chocolate Kiddies when it tantalized Berlin audiences in the late Twenties. Not so! Josephine Baker never danced as a Chocolate Kiddie, we are informed. Another famous U.S.A. entertainer, Adelaide Hall, was leading lady of the show. The year was 1925.

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Our error was cut from a flawed historiographical pattern. "Sadly, in history books Adelaide Hall and Josephine Baker are often mistaken for each other," Mr. Williams wrote. "Even some of the drawings of Adelaide Hall by the great French artist Paul Colin are miscredited as being those of Josephine Baker, when in fact they are of Adelaide Hall. Adelaide's and Josephine's stage work during this early and influential period in black history often overlapped. They both appeared in the American production of Shuffle Along and both starred in Paris and across the Continent during the same period. Josephine Baker never appeared in the Chocolate Kiddies revue. It was the performances of Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall that got the Berlin public hot under the collar."

According to Mr. Williams, the Chocolate Kiddies revue was formed in 1925 in Harlem, New York, specifically to tour Europe. The American cast arrived in the port of Hamburg onboard the S.S. Arabic on May 17, 1925. The stars of the revue were Lottie Gee, Adelaide Hall and the Sam Wooding Orchestra.

Mr. Williams continues: "The revue opened at Berlin's Admirals Palast Theater on May 25, where it ran for eight weeks (65 performances) to rave reviews and sell-out audiences. On July 28, Chocolate Kiddies opened at Hamburg's Thalia Theater where it ran for four weeks (32 performances). The tour then traveled to Sweden (August), Denmark (September) and back to Germany (September/October, Hanover, Magdeburg, and Dresden), then on to Czechoslovakia and Hungary (November) and Austria (December). Lottie Gee defected from the tour in July prior to the show opening in Hamburg, after which Adelaide Hall became the leading lady of the revue. The show opened in Berlin to rave reviews. Tickets for the show became the hottest and most sought after in the city."

[ Underneath A Harlem Moon ... the Harlem to Paris years of Adelaide Hall" by Iain Cameron Williams is published by Continuum International Publishing Company, ISBN 0826458939. Chapter Six is devoted to the Chocolate Kiddies tour, including photographs and a tour itinerary. ]

We do accept without overt skepticism the observation by Dr. Nancy P. Nenno of Charleston, South Carolina, that Ms. Baker captured the full attention of Berlin pop culture in its Weimar heyday.

"Currently I am engaged in a book-length study of Josephine Baker entitled Ultra-Primitive/Ultra-Modern: Josephine Baker and the Racial Imaginary of the Weimar Republic," Dr. Nenno writes on her website at the College of Charleston. "A beloved icon of Parisian (and Berlin) modernity, Baker's life and legend are ideal entry points for investigating the Weimar fascination with the black body. Not only did Baker serve as an inspiration for numerous artists, but her image and person were fictionalised and parodied in diverse media and cultural venues. For most German audiences, Baker's image and name were readily identifiable and legible. Indeed, they became a shorthand for a diverse array of discourses that were projected onto the black body."

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Although our study of Weimar Berlin indicates that the Girlkultur nightcrawlers were enraptured by naked bodies in general, it stands to reason that a world-class showgirl of black African racial heritage would excite the jaded eros of northern European sensualists and bohemians. Just imagine the fantastic flavor of alternative eye-candy she offered in contrast to the procession of nude Caucasian women so commonplace on the stages of cabarets, beer halls, and hotel lounges of the day. Ms. Baker's chocolate skin and striking figure presented an enticing physical novelty, but her celebrity was fired by more than a sultry banana dance. Her pop star soared on innovative choreography, a charismatic stage presence, and a supporting cast of hot jazz players and singers from distant, exotic America.

"Like all legends, that of Weimar Berlin is a heady mixture of fact and fiction, much of it concocted long after (and partially because of) its pitiable end at the hands of the Nazis," Alexandra Richie writes in her splendid book, Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin (Carroll & Graff, 1998). One aspect of the legend "concentrated on the new decadence: the smoky jazz clubs and naked dancers, the Haus Vaterland and the Wintergarten, which in the popular imagination took on a certain seedy glamour and romance of their own.... For a few brief sparkling years the city attracted a sheer concentration of talent which has not yet been equaled in Europe. Berlin heralded a new vision of modernity, and introduced it to Germany."

In today's climate of sexual abandon, amoral secularism, and cross-cultural decadence, is it no wonder that Weimar plays so well in the academy of Western intelligentsia? Why do the custodians of history weave a nude dancer into the fabric of the narrative?

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"The one thing which tied shows at the Metropol, the Apollo, the Haller Revues at the Theater am Admiralspalast, the Klein Revues at the Komische Oper and the Charell Revues at the Grosses Schauspielhaus together was the presence of naked women," Ms. Richie writes. "Any women would do, whether single nudes, chorus lines or pairs of erotic dancers, and there were literally hundreds of revues.... The revues revealed the acceptance of nudity and prostitution and the fact that for most jaded Berliners of the late 1920s sex was just another commodity."

Ms. Baker in the wandering eye of history transcended the commodity of sex even as she danced naked on the stages of Europe. Is her transcendence of the vulgarity and lust-lorn salaciousness of her craft solely the result of her role as an entertainment superstar on the nocturnal playgrounds of Weimar Germany? It can't be. Becoming the darling of a few influential painters and writers in Berlin just isn't sufficient reason for her historical persona to endure. Josephine Baker earns her mention in the history of Weimar because of the life she lived long after the Republic fell. She epitomizes the revisionist paradox, in which fluid perception, tied inextricably to the now, is linked by the idea of history to fixed moments in time, forever receding. She was a dame with staying power and the courage to act upon convictions that reached well beyond the vanities, far beyond the stage door.

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Josephine Baker, angered by institutionalized apartheid and racial discrimination in USA, expatriated herself to Paris in 1925. Soon she was a star. Her immense talent as a dancer and her shrewd exploitation of the genre of the nude revue brought her fame and riches. By some estimates she was the highest paid performer in Europe in the late Twenties. Her tours of Vienna, Munich, and Budapest were scandalous and profitable.

"Virtually an instant hit, she became one of the best-known entertainers in both France and much of Europe. Her exotic, sensual act reinforced the creative images coming out of the Harlem Renaissance in America," according to Jone Johnson Lewis,'s Women's History Guide. (Ms. Lewis provides a thoughtful set of links to information about Ms. Baker.)

Beyond Weimar, Ms. Baker's life was a daring adventure of radical politics, wartime intrigue, self-sacrifice, civil rights activism, and marital upheaval. Her daring-do as a spy and courier for France's freedom fighters in World War II won for her coveted medals (including the Croix de Guerre) and a new homeland. Her "Rainbow Tribe" of a dozen adopted children demonstrated an abiding commitment to the maternal side of feminism. In the battle of the sexes, she waged multiple campaigns, divorcing four husbands. Her unbowed stance against Jim Crow America earned her the wrath of mainstream power brokers (famed columnist Walter Winchell was her chief antagonist), a 300-page dossier in Mr. Hoover's F.B.I. file cabinet, and a place on the podium next to the Reverend Martin Luther King when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963.

Not bad for a saucy young thing in a G-string and a girdle of bananas the audacious chocolate darling of Weimar, who matured into a grand woman of the world, unbowed and defiant.

By Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles
February 12, 2003
October 5, 2004

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