A complete biographical look at the complex life of a world-famous entertainer
With determination and audacity, Josephine Baker turned her comic and musical abilities into becoming a worldwide icon of the Jazz Age. The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy provides the first in-depth portrait of this remarkable woman for young adults. Author Peggy Caravantes follows Baker’s life from her childhood in the depths of poverty to her comedic rise in vaudeville and fame in Europe. This lively biography covers her outspoken participation in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, espionage work for the French Resistance during World War II, and adoption of 12 children—her “rainbow tribe.” Also included are informative sidebars on relevant topics such as the 1917 East St. Louis riot, Pullman railway porters, the Charleston, and more. The lush photographs, appendix updating readers on the lives of the rainbow tribe, source notes, and bibliography make this is a must-have resource for any student, Baker fan, or history buff.
About the Author
Peggy Caravantes is a former English and history teacher, middle school principal, and deputy school superintendent. She is the author of 16 books for middle grades and young adult readers, including American Hero: The Audie Murphy Story and Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.
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The Many Faces of Josephine Baker
Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy
By Peggy Caravantes
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Peggy Caravantes
All rights reserved.
Her Own Journey
With only the clothes on her back, 13-year-old Josephine Baker, along with Clara Smith and the Dixie Steppers, climbed aboard a train headed for Memphis, Tennessee. As the train moved through East St. Louis, Illinois — one of America's worst slums, filled with dilapidated and sordid housing — Josephine pressed her nose against the car's window. Dense clouds of coal smoke mixed with the stench of dying cattle. Piles of garbage filled the overcrowded streets. Remembering her years there, Josephine vowed: "I'm leaving here a nobody but someday I'm gonna be somebody ... and you ain't gonna get to see me ... 'cause I ain't ever coming back here again!"
And so began Josephine Baker's journey to fulfill her dream of becoming a star.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in the St. Louis Female Hospital, she was the daughter of Carrie McDonald, a washerwoman, and Eddie Carson, a drummer in St. Louis gambling houses. The two dated, and about a year after they met, Carrie gave birth to Josephine. The round, roly-poly infant reminded her of Humpty Dumpty. When Carrie had first heard the egg's name said aloud, the words sounded like "Tumpy." That became the nickname that stayed with Josephine throughout her childhood.
Carrie became pregnant again when Josephine was 16 months old. With the birth of Richard Alexander on October 12, 1907, the happy-go-lucky Eddie deserted Carrie, leaving her to provide for the babies. She struggled for a couple of years to earn enough money to keep the household running, but she was unsuccessful. Eventually, she married 23-year-old Arthur Martin, a brawny factory worker, thinking he would provide for her and the two children. Unfortunately, his moodiness and quick temper often cost him jobs, so Carrie took in laundry to support the family.
For the next several years, the family of four lived in a succession of run-down, rat-infested dwellings. Josephine's stepfather often failed to pay the rent. Each time a landlord evicted the family, they searched for another place to live. The financial situation grew worse with the births of two more girls, Margaret and Willie Mae. The hard life discouraged Carrie. She often took out her frustration on her oldest daughter, who resembled the father who had deserted them. In later years Josephine recalled, "Mama said things to me I'm sure she couldn't mean, that she hated me and wished I were dead."
At age six, Josephine attended first grade at Lincoln Elementary School, which served poor and middle-income black students. Her only school clothing was a blue dress trimmed in white, and she wore it every day for the entire year. The other children mocked her lack of shoes. To get them to laugh about something else, Josephine became the class clown. She crossed her eyes, stuck out her tongue, and made silly faces. Mostly, she wanted to get out of the overcrowded classroom of 50 students and be free to roam the streets of her neighborhood. In the next few years, Josephine attended school only about one day in three; she didn't learn to read and write until adulthood.
During part of her first-grade year, Josephine stayed with her Grandma McDonald and Aunt Elvira, who lived in the same neighborhood. Elvira, who headed the family, was a large copper-skinned Cherokee woman with a booming voice and two braids of long black hair. She spent her time either weaving shawls or performing tribal dances in the house. The loud sounds she made when dancing scared Josephine, who always ran outside. In contrast, Josephine enjoyed being with her grandmother, who showed her the love for which she longed. She baked cookies and cornbread for the little girl and told her stories about her great-great grandparents who were slaves brought from Africa to America. She sang to her, told her Bible stories, and repeated over and over Josephine's favorite story, Cinderella.
Josephine wished she could be like Cinderella and change from her dirty, tattered clothes into beautiful gowns with sparkling jewels. She created a fantasy world and acted it out in the basement of her grandmother's house. From some of Mrs. McDonald's old clothes, Josephine created costumes for the plays she performed for the neighborhood children. She made benches for her audience by placing boards across boxes. She charged each person a penny to watch her sing and dance. As part of the performance and to get the laughter she craved, Josephine crossed her eyes and grinned broadly — techniques she used in show business as she grew older.
One Sunday, Josephine was walking from church to her grandmother's house when she stepped on a rusty nail that punctured her bare foot. It became infected, and her leg swelled to an alarming size. Her foot was so painful that her mother took her to the hospital, where the doctor wanted to amputatethe leg. Josephine became hysterical at the thought of never walking or dancing again.
"No! No! Please don't cut if off," she shrieked. The doctor agreed to drain the wound first. Ugly, smelly, infected blood oozed out, but the technique saved her leg.
After leaving the hospital, Josephine returned to live with her parents and her siblings. Another child to feed increased the family's money problems. After Josephine's leg healed, Carrie told her that because she was the oldest child, she must earn money to help support them. At first seven-year-old Josephine went around the neighborhood looking for jobs. She offered to sweep steps or clean snow from sidewalks. Few people hired her. Then Carrie found her daughter a job as a maid for a widow named Mrs. Kaiser. In exchange for the child's work, the woman would provide her clothing and food. With that job, Josephine's childhood ended.
For a short time, Mrs. Kaiser was good-hearted to the young girl; she bought Josephine a dress and a pair of shoes. But the kindness didn't last long: the widow was a bully and began treating Josephine like a slave. The little girl worked hard at the woman's large country house, but because of Missouri's compulsory education law, she also had to attend school. So Josephine rose each day at 5 AM in order to complete all her tasks as a maid before going to school. For breakfast she ate cold potatoes and then carried coal, lit a fire in each room, chopped wood, scrubbed steps, and swept the rooms. She returned from school to peel potatoes, wash dishes, clean the kitchen, and do laundry. For supper, the woman provided the child cold cornbread and molasses, which Josephine shared with a white rooster she named Tiny Tim.
When Josephine's chores ended around 10 PM, she picked up Tiny Tim and stumbled to the cellar. There, she slept in awooden box with the dog, Three Legs, who gave her fleas. She scratched and scratched. Her scratching annoyed Mrs. Kaiser, who beat the child to make her stop, but first the widow made the girl remove her clothes so that the blows would not wear out the fabric. As Tiny Tim grew fatter from sharing Josephine's pitiful dinners, Mrs. Kaiser began eying him as a potential meal for herself. One day, she told Josephine to kill Tiny Tim so he could be prepared to eat. With tears streaming down her cheeks, the child grabbed the bird between her legs and cut its neck with a pair of scissors. The squawking and the warm blood covering her hands traumatized Josephine. She wanted to run away but knew it would be useless because she was so young and had nowhere to go.
Exhaustion, lack of food, and fear took their toll on the child. She became thinner and thinner and developed a rasping cough. One day, she felt especially ill and forgot to watch the water she was boiling to wash dishes. Some of it splashed over on the stove. Mrs. Kaiser grabbed one of the girl's hands and plunged it into the pot of boiling water. Josephine later described what happened next: "I scream, I scream, Mother, Mother, help me. I escape to the next house screaming like a lunatic. I fall in front of the door. All my skin and my fingernails are boiled, ready to fall off. The blood is cooked. When I wake up, I'm in the hospital."
Carrie had to take Josephine home again, but not for long. She soon found another household to employ her daughter. In early January, Josephine went to work for the Masons, a childless couple. They agreed to provide a room and food in exchange for the girl's housework in their beautiful home. The Masons treated Josephine kindly. They provided her with a real bed and enough nourishing food that she gained weight. They allowed her to play with the neighborhood children and to attend school, wearing pretty clothes and shoes that Mrs. Mason bought her.
In their basement, Josephine used worn velvet curtains to set up a theater. Mrs. Mason gave her old clothes and a feathered hat to wear as costumes. She entertained the children in the neighborhood by singing and dancing for them. For the first time in a long time, Josephine felt happy. But her contentment did not last.
For several nights she heard a noise like heavy breathing and thought a ghost had come to her room. She told Mrs. Mason about the sounds. Her employer told her that if the phantom came back, Josephine should call her. That night she heard it again. When the ghost tried to climb into her bed, Josephine yelled, "Oh, it's the ghost, Mrs. Mason, please come quick!"
The woman rushed to the little girl's room and discovered that the ghost was Mr. Mason.
The next morning, Mrs. Mason told Josephine she could not work for the couple anymore. Josephine did not understand why she had to leave and thought the woman was angry because she had been scared. She promised not to yell out again, but her employer did not relent. Josephine asked if she could take her new clothes with her. Mrs. Mason agreed. When Josephine went to the basement to collect them she realized, "Never again would I draw back the musty velvet curtains. Never again would I wear my feathered hat. I would never again be queen. I choked back my tears. Somewhere deep inside me I vowed that somehow I would grow up to be a famous star with beautiful flowing gowns."
Josephine returned home, where Carrie blamed her daughter for losing a good job. The money was more important to her than her daughter's safety, and she ignored what would have happened to Josephine if she had remained in the Mason household. Josephine's stepfather, Arthur, just laughed at the child's naiveté.
These two experiences of working in someone's home scared Josephine. At not quite eight years old, she decided to find her own work and gathered a group of neighborhood children who also needed to earn money. They walked to the part of town where white families lived and sought work there. The children offered to scrub or wax floors, polish furniture, run errands, shovel snow, and babysit. Josephine's height and slender frame made her look older, and she claimed to be 15 years old. She told potential employers that she was stronger than she looked. For each job she got, she made about 50 cents. She kept a nickel for herself and gave the rest to Carrie for the family. When they could not get jobs, Josephine and the other children rummaged through white people's garbage, looking for a chicken neck or fish head or a few discarded vegetables to make soup.
In another attempt to earn a little money, Josephine and her siblings often went to the Union railroad yard, where they picked up lumps of coal and stuffed them in sacks. They later sold the coal pieces for a few pennies each. Josephine became daring enough to leave her brother and sisters on the ground and climb on top of hopper cars. From there, she threw them larger pieces of coal that sold for more money. Pushing the limits, she jumped down only when she felt the rumble of the train starting to move. She recalled, "I throw myself. The train just accelerating ... I fall on the ground."
Josephine spent any spare time visiting her grandmother and her aunt, who one day invited the young girl to come live with them again. Josephine agreed. She was no longer scared of her Aunt Elvira, who didn't seem as big as she remembered. Elvira spoke more softly and acted tired. At her grandmother and aunt's house, Josephine had her own bed instead of having to sleep on the same bedbug-infested mattress with her three siblings.
Josephine had lived with her relatives only a short time when, in the middle of the night, her grandma awoke Josephine. A frantic Mrs. McDonald told her granddaughter to go get Carrie because Elvira was dying. For many years, Elvira had suffered from a heart disease known as chronic endocarditis. Josephine rushed down the street to get her mother, but by the time they returned, Elvira had died. She left Grandma McDonald a small pension, and the older woman went to live with Josephine's family. The extra money improved the financial situation somewhat, and they moved into a one-room shack in Boxcar Town in East St. Louis.
Holes riddled the hovel where Josephine and her family lived. In the places where floorboards didn't meet, they hammered flattened chili and tomato tin cans over the holes to keep out the swarms of rats. They plugged the cracks in the walls with old newspapers and magazine pages. Josephine tried to improve the place by planting some geraniums in a little garden in front of the house, but they never had a chance to come up. At night, in chilly weather, Josephine covered herself with a thin, worn patchwork quilt and cuddled two black-and-white puppies she had found searching through garbage cans for food. She nurtured the little strays by feeding them stale bread dipped in milk.
A scary incident one night in July 1917 caused Josephine to recall what her grandma told her when Elvira died. Josephine had been scared to look at the dead body, but her grandma said there was more to fear from the living than from the dead. Josephine learned the truth of that statement when mobs of armed white people invaded Boxcar Town and attacked its inhabitants. Upon hearing the screams and gunshots, Carrie woke 11-year-old Josephine by jerking the threadbare quilt off her. The shivering, frightened girl struggled to get dressed. She and the family raced out of their shanty just as a lighted torch sailed through a window. They huddled in the darkness behind trees and bushes. Throughout the whole ordeal, Josephine refused to let go of her puppies.
By morning, the massacre had ended, leaving most of the black community homeless. All that remained of Boxcar Townwas smoke and ashes. The victims had no homes, and no possessions. Following the riots, Josephine's family moved from tenement to tenement. Carrie took in laundry for both black and white people. Josephine resented having to scrub other people's clothes over rough washboards and having to ride the trolley to deliver the laundry to various neighborhoods. Sometimes her black clients could not pay her — not because they did not want to, but because they had no money. Josephine often returned home with a couple of dollars instead of the $20 she should have collected. Since they could not pay for Carrie's labor, some of the black women offered to help her by carrying water for her, cleaning her house, or sending food.
Yearning to escape the hard work and harshness of her life, Josephine became a waitress at the Old Chauffeur's Club, a hangout for jazz musicians. She waited on customers and washed dishes for $3 a week. Although she still worked hard, she preferred these tasks to doing laundry. In the evenings, Josephine attended neighborhood dances. At one of these, she met Willie Wells, a 25-year-old steelworker. Before long, he asked her to marry him. Josephine had no experience with men, but she wanted to get out of her house. Although Josephine accepted Willie's proposal, Carrie had to approve the marriage since her daughter was only 13, and underage. However, the union was never legal because Missouri had a minimum age of 15 to marry, even with parental approval.
On December 11, 1919, Josephine and Willie took their vows in a traditional wedding attended by family and friends in a neighborhood Baptist church. The bride wore a simple wedding gown provided by an aunt, and the groom dressed in a suit. At the conclusion of the ceremony, everyone went to Carrie's home for a meal of roast pork and baked macaroni. That night the newlyweds moved into a rented furnished room upstairs. After the wedding, Josephine did not work but rather played the role of housewife, although she found it boring. Within a couple of months, she started to knit baby clothes. She told no one that she was pregnant but did purchase a wooden bassinet. Willie was not a good financial provider, and the couple often had trouble paying the $1.50 per week rent. One night the couple had a loud argument, and Willie became violent. Josephine grabbed a bottle, shattered it against the table, and struck Willie. Wounded, with a deep cut over one eye and blood streaming down his face, he dashed out of the room, never to return again.
Excerpted from The Many Faces of Josephine Baker by Peggy Caravantes. Copyright © 2015 Peggy Caravantes. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 Her Own Journey,
2 Show Business Debut,
3 Joséphine Charms Paris,
4 La Folie du Jour,
5 Two Loves,
6 Storms of Life,
7 Joséphine's Challenges,
8 Let My People Go,
9 In My Village,
10 Joséphine and Jo Split,
11 Losing Les Milandes,
12 The Curtain Falls,
Appendix: The Rainbow Tribe,