Josephine Baker 1906-1973:
Josephine Baker was a American singer, dancer and night club performer who achieved fame in Paris in the 1920s. She was also known for being a civil rights advocate and for fighting racism. What is less known is that she was also a lesbian or bisexual woman.
Josephine Baker's Early Life:
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, MO. She was sent to work at an early age to help support her family. In her work as a domestic, she was most-likely abused by her employers. When she was only 13 years old, she married Willie Wells, a marriage that did not last very long and the first of several marriages.
Josephine Baker's Lady Lovers:
Josephine Baker was about 13 when she started dancing. She began dancing in night clubs and giving street performances and by 1919 she was touring the US with on the Black vaudeville circuit.
While on tour she because the protegee of star blues singer Clara Smith. Or in the lingo of the time she was Smith's "lady lover." According to the Gay & Lesbian Review and Jean-Claude Baker, her biographer, "The implications were as sexual as they sound, according to Jean-Claude Baker’s informants, so people connected with the show knew exactly what was going on."
From the Gay & Lesbian Review article about Josephine Baker: "Jean-Claude explains the concept of 'lady lovers' through the words of Maude Russell, who first met Josephine when both worked at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia and who later appeared with her in Shuffle Along: 'Often ... we girls would share a [boardinghouse] room because of the cost. ... Well, many of us had been kind of abused by producers, directors, leading men —if they liked girls. ... And the girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.'"
The Many Lovers of Josephine Baker:
Josephine Baker was a sex symbol of her time and she had many notable lovers, both male and female. She had lovers in Europe and in the United States and she dated both Black and White men and women. Many of her biographies fail to mention her female lovers.
A Life in Paris:
Josephine Baker was an instant hit in Paris when she performed there in 1925. She performed in a show called La Folie du Jour wearing just a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe. This is when she earned nicknames The Black Venus and The Black Pearl.
Josephine Baker and The French Resistance:
Josephine Baker married a French Man and earned her French citizenship. When World War II broke out, she worked for the Red Cross. She entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East and worked for the French Resistance, sneaking messages in her music box. She was awarded two of France's highest military honors for her efforts.
Josephine Baker and the Civil Rights Movement:
Josephine Baker was active in the US Civil Rights movement and visited the US often during the 1950s to lend support to the movement. She participated in demonstrations and walked with Martin Luther King Jr.
in the March on Washington.
During her career she was often outspoken about racism and when she returned to the US to perform in she insisted on only playing integrated venues. Because of her, many performance halls changed their policies about integration.
Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe:
Josephine Baker had several husbands, but her last was Jo Bouillon, a French jazz bandleader. Together they adopted 12 children from around the world.
Their relationship was not harmonious, however. In fact, Bouillon was gay and had many male lovers that he flaunted and the two would have public shouting matches about their various affairs with the same sex.
Josephine Baker and Her Gay Fans:
Josephine Baker had a big gay following, perhaps because her show was flamboyant and campy. Her audience also connected with her vulnerability and her willingness to share her pain. Although she had many gay friends, Josephine Baker was not always a friend to the gays. She had her moments of homophobic outbursts and certainly was never out about any of her affairs with women while she was alive. Her biographer says that she sent one of her children to go live with his father when she caught him having sex with another young man, so as not to "contaminate" the other children.
So while it is clear that Josephine Baker did have female lovers and would most likely be considered bisexual by today's standards, she didn't wholly embrace that side of herself.
Josephine Baker died of cerebral hemorrhage in Paris on April 10, 1975.
Sources: Biography.com, The Lesbian Almanac, The Gay and Lesbian Review