by ALEX CARNEVALE
Before he permanently disappeared from her life, Josephine Baker’s white father did her one favor. He paid for her mother Carrie to receive six weeks of treatment in a white hospital in St. Louis. Josephine Baker’s given name, Freda, was German and so, probably, was her father. Three letters on her birth certificate testified to his identity, letters she would not see until the document had to be procured when she left the United States: edw.
When she was five, Josephine Baker’s mother was finally ready to take her and her brother Richard into her own home. They called their mother’s new husband Papa. The poorest neighborhoods in St. Louis were composed largely of Russian Jews, Italians or blacks. Josephine and Richard slept with Carrie’s two other children on one mattress, riddled with bedbugs. For food they raided the trash of a local outdoor market. Oddjobs occasionally made them a dime. With her brother, she tossed coal to the rest of the kids from freight cars.
As Josephine got older, babysitting was a safer way to make money. Sometimes she would be screamed at by black housekeepers for kissing their white babies. Weekends brought the ghetto alive with massive street parties. Josephine told a redheaded street urchin that she considered him romantically. He responded, “You’re a nigger!” and dashed off.
She found consolation in animals, once picking up a snake she found and bringing it into the house, where it was quickly stepped on. Later, she was very close to a pet pig. At seven, her mother sent her away to work in a white family’s house.
Her new mistress beat her ferociously, and then woke her up at 5 a.m. to start work the next day. She did not last long in service, and was sent back. Her next employment was nearly as brief: she screamed when the man of the house tried to fuck her at night. Her mother only asked her, “How could you ruin such a wonderful chance?”
Josephine Baker’s first experience of school was at the segregated institution sometimes called Dumas, often referred to as Colored School No. 1. Richard and Josephine had to pass by white schools to get there, and would be heckled with various slurs on their way. Meanwhile, Josephine’s mother’s drinking had gotten out of control, and she criticized her daughter for the girl’s lighter skin color whenever she could. The girl’s only relief from this life was the local black theater, named after Booker Washington. Her friends there would cover for her when she ditched school.
A local family of musicians offered to take Josephine in for a time, and her mother instantly agreed. The matriarch of the Jones family was a virtuoso on trumpet, and the Jones children played instruments as well. She was relieved to be out of the company of her natural family, which was further ripped apart by her mother’s frequent infidelity, but she was still dreadfully poor. “When I think about the troubled days,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I feel like crying: it is so far.”
Many whites in St. Louis were convinced of their racial superiority; they harassed black woman and men in the streets without fear of reprisal. Riots broke out frequently, killing as many as seventy people of color. Many blacks were driven from their homes into Josephine’s neighborhood. The year 1917 accounted for 38 lynchings in St. Louis.
By the time Josephine was 13, her mother decided it was best to simply marry her off. Her new husband Willie Wells was nearing thirty, and he had a job as a steelworker. Their furnished room cost $1.50 per week. This marriage lasted a better part of a year before Josephine cut Wells’ head open with a beer bottle. Her next job was that of a waitress at the Old Chaffeur’s Club. She performed at the Booker Washington when she was allowed.
This job let her leave St. Louis on a tour, and she could not have been happier to be gone. In Memphis every hotel had bedbugs and the traveling blacks weren’t welcome anyplace decent. The “theaters” Josephine played in usually served other masters: one was a blacksmith’s shop, another a salon. New Orleans excited her more, and Philadelphia the most. She could not follow the cast to New York, since you had to be sixteen to perform there. So she stayed behind in Philadelphia and married a light-skinned dancer named Billy Baker.
After Josephine was old enough to hit Broadway, she made her way to Boston, too, where local families would take in chorus girls. Critics noticed Josephine’s act even in the background. “One of the chorus girls is without question the most limber lady of whatever hue the stage has yet disclosed,” wrote one admirer. In racially divided Chicago the production had to advertise that it did not want. blacks to attend.
Instead of returning to St. Louis, Josephine went to Atlantic City for the summer, where she hit the stage at the ominously named Plantation Cafe. Atlantic City was also deeply segregated, and hotels had signs that read “NO DOGS, NO JEWS.” That no blacks were permitted to enter was implied.
Josephine Baker was living in Harlem when she was discovered by a rich American woman named Caroline Reagan. Mrs. Reagan had an amorphous gender identity – Gertrude Stein said of her that she was “neither fish nor flesh nor fowl.” Lacking any appreciable identity, she looked to black culture to provide one for her. This plan entailed bringing African-Americans to Paris, where they would entertain the French with their very different type of show. Mrs. Reagan offered Josephine $150 a week and was turned down, but $250 sealed it.
In order to get her new black friends to Paris, Mrs. Reagan used all the connections her diplomat husband possessed. Josephine had never been divorced, but that is not what her passport said. She was terrified the amorphous circumstances of her marital past would prevent her from setting sail on the massive Berengaria.
Josephine’s farewell happened at Club Bamville on 129th Street. She was deeply ambivalent about leaving the only country she had ever known. “I can only recall one single day of fear in my life,” she wrote. “One day, which lasted only one hour, maybe one minute… it was over between America and me.” Caroline Reagan described the scene of the Berengaria‘s departure: “A quarter of Harlem was on the docks.”
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.