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Josephine Baker: The Famous Entertainer Who Became a World War II Allied Spy

While working with the French Resistance, Josephine Baker smuggled secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

The popular image of Josephine Baker is of a daring entertainer, one who often shocked audiences by defying all the conventions of the day. But behind the tabloid fodder of  her dramatic stage performances and glamorous lifestyle — including a pet cheetah — there was a complex woman that many of her fans never saw. Baker was a French Resistance spy, a civil rights activist, and an adoptive mother to a "Rainbow Tribe" of a dozen diverse children that she hoped could model racial unity. "She never thought that anything was impossible," observes Bennetta Jules-Rosette, author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image. "She could do things we would consider ahead of their time, because she never thought she would fail."

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, and her show business career started early: her mother had a song-and-dance act and would carry her baby daughter onto the stage starting when she was about a year old. However, the family struggled financially, and Baker began working as a live-in domestic for white families at age 8 and, by age 12, she dropped out of school. By thirteen, she had run away and was working as a waitress and living on the streets. At fourteen, Baker married for the first time, and divorced her first husband the following year. She found work with a street performance group, the Jones Family Band and married again in 1921 at age 15. That marriage was also short-lived, but by the time it ended, she had developed a reputation under the last name Baker, so she kept it for the rest of her life.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Baker went to New York City and began to build her career; within a few years, she was "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville." She then had an opportunity to tour in Paris, where audiences were thrilled by her risqué performances and compelling stage presence. She joined the Folies Bergère and became famous for her "Danse sauvage" wearing a banana skirt. But she wanted to be known as more than an "exotic" or "primitive" act, so she took vocal coaching and transformed her personas, both on stage and off it. Shirley Bassey, who lists Baker as one of her great influences, once said "she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique'.... I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."

Baker's success in Paris, however, didn't translate into success at home. After poor reviews of her performances in the U.S. in the late 1930s, she returned to France, marrying Jewish Frenchman Jean Lion and becoming a French citizen in 1937. After France declared war on Germany in 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, France's military intelligence agency, as an "honorable correspondent". Throughout much of the war, she maintained a busy performance schedule which provided an excellent cover for her covert activities as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the Free French Air Force.

She helped support General Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement by gathering information for the Resistance at high society events held at embassies. Her fame gave her the unusual ability to visit neutral nations during the war as she worked as a spy for the French Resistance, smuggling information about German installations and troop movements in invisible ink on her sheet music or pinned on notes inside her underwear, trusting that her fame would prevent extensive searches. For her service to France during the war, Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Medal of the French Resistance with Rosette,  and de Gaulle named her a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, the country's highest decoration.

Following the war, Baker was eager to return to her performing career, but she also had a newfound desire to champion civil rights causes. In 1963, she became the only official female speaker at the famous March on Washington, telling the vast crowd, while wearing her Free France uniform, "You know I have always taken the rocky path. I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you." During her work with the Civil Rights Movement, Baker formed an adoptive family she called the Rainbow Tribe; she hoped that her two daughters and ten sons would show that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Coretta Scott King even asked Baker to consider taking King's place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement; however, Baker declined, saying that her children were "too young to lose their mother."

Baker performed until the end of her life in many of the most prominent venues in the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York, the London Palladium, and the Gala du Cirque in Paris. On April 8, 1975, she held a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, which was financed by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and opened to rave reviews. There was so much demand for seating that fold-out chairs were added to allow more ticket sales. Four days later, she was found in her bed, surrounded by newspaper reviews praising her show, in a coma from a cerebral hemorrhage; she died the same day. After her death, Baker's adoptive country honored her for her wartime service once again when she became the first American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. And, in the end, her death likely would have satisfied her; "I shall dance all my life," she once said. "I would like to die, breathless and spent, at the end of a dance."

Books And Resources about Josephine Baker

Jazz Age Josephine

Jazz Age Josephine

Written by: Jonah Winter
Illustrated by: Marjorie Priceman
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Josephine Baker lived life by her own rules: singing, dancing, and letting people know that she didn't care about the status quo! Author Jonah Winter follows Josephine from a poor childhood in a heavily segregated city to the world's stage, all in rhyming text that dances across the page. The infectious rhythm of the story captures Baker's verve for life and the endless energy that allowed her to tackle some of the most entrenched attitudes of her day.

Josephine Baker (Little People, Big Dreams)

Josephine Baker (Little People, Big Dreams)

Written by: Isabel Sanchez Vegara
Illustrated by: Agathe Sorlet
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

It was obvious to everyone that Josephine Baker was born for the stage — but she got tired of the racism she experienced every day, and the limitations it placed on her career. Instead, she traveled to Paris, where audiences were spellbound by her singing and dancing. When World War II broke out, she used her fame as an excuse to travel — and operate as a spy for the French Resistance. And for the rest of her life, she spoke out against racism and for equality for all. This exciting book from the Little People, BIG DREAMS series celebrates a groundbreaking entertainer and activist who lived a truly authentic life.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Written by: Vashti Harrison
Illustrated by: Vashti Harrison
Recommended Age: 6 - 10

Throughout American history, there were bold, daring black women who broke all expectations and boundaries to make the world a better place! In this engaging picture book, author/illustrator Vashti Harrison introduces young readers to forty trailblazing women, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Maya Angelou, and filmmaker Julie Dash. This inspiring book, filled with stunning full-page illustrations of each of the featured women, reminds young readers that every great leader began as a little leader, taking their first steps towards something big. Fans of Harrison's work can check out the sequel, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around The World, or the Leaders and Dreamers box set, which includes both books. Younger readers can also enjoy the board book Dream Big, Little One for ages 2 to 5.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Written by: Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrated by: Christian Robinson
Recommended Age: 7 - 10

This picture book targeted at older readers gets into greater detail about Baker's life. In free verse, author Patricia Hruby Powell discusses some of the events that most affected Baker personally, from her first trans-Atlantic boat ride to her refusal to dance in segregated halls. Christian Robinson's colorful illustrations capture the grim realities of Baker's childhood poverty and the glitz and glamor that surrounded her at the peak of her career. It's an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman.

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy

Written by: Peggy Caravantes
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Josephine Baker became an icon of the Jazz Age with her comic and musical abilities, but there was much more to this complex woman than appearances indicated. Peggy Caravantes follows Baker from a childhood in poverty, through her rise to fame, her work as an Allied spy during World War II, her outspoken support of the US Civil Rights Movement, and her adoption of 12 children to form her "Rainbow Tribe." She doesn't shy away from showing the places where mysteries about Baker still lie: as she points out, Baker often rewrote her own history to suit her purposes. This book from the Women of Action series captures all the contradictions of this flamboyant and unique figure from entertainment history.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

Written by: Pénélope Bagieu
Illustrated by: Pénélope Bagieu
Recommended Age: 15 and up

Both past and present, if you're a girl who dares to go against the world, you have to be a little brazen! Celebrated graphic novelist Pénélope Bagieu profiles the lives of 33 women from a variety of social, ethnic, cultural, and historical backgrounds, always with a sense of wit and humor that will draw readers into their stories and leave them eager to learn more. Sometimes infuriating but always inspiring, the stories of the obstacles these women overcame will inspire the next generation to become a little brazen themselves.

Josephine: The Hungry Heart

Josephine: The Hungry Heart

Recommended Age: Adults

Baker's glamorous and heroic exterior was known by many, but those closest to her saw other aspects of her personality: angry outbursts, ferocious feuds, and deep ambivalence about her background and her country of birth. Jean-Claude Baker was "adopted" by her as a 14-year-old when he waited on her in a Paris hotel, and then he met her again in the last years of her life. After she died, he devoted years of research and thousands of interviews to creating this authoritative biography of the Josephine Baker behind the stage persona. The resulting portrait is compelling, fascinating, and inspiring.

Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image

Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image

Recommended Age: Adults

Baker's life and career had a remarkable impact the world around her. In this intriguing book, Bennetta Jules-Rosette tells Baker's story through the lens of cultural analysis, exploring how Baker's performances also acted as political and sociological statements that spoke directly to the most prominent issues of her day. Jules-Rosette captures how far ahead of her time Baker's ideals were, and shows how her work affected film, fashion, art, and music for many years afterwards. This unique portrait shows how Baker's image and mythology were as important as her actual story.

Little People, Big Dreams Learning Cards

Little People, Big Dreams Learning Cards

Manufacturer: Rock Point
Recommended Age: 3 and up

Bring 20 outstanding women, including famous scientists, writers, activists, artists, and adventurers, to vivid life with these fact cards from the internationally best-selling series Little People, BIG DREAMS! This set includes 40 colorfully illustrated cards, 2 for each woman — one with information about her childhood and one about the impact of her adult life. With the personal details and biographical facts from these cards, kids will gain a deeper understanding of these incredible influencers and be inspired to recognize how their own big dreams could change the world.

Little People, Big Dreams Matching Game

Little People, Big Dreams Matching Game

Manufacturer: Rock Point
Recommended Age: 3 and up

Develop your memory skills and learn more about inspiring women with this game featuring artwork from the internationally best-selling Little People, BIG DREAMS series! This game features 20 women, including famous scientists, writers, activists, artists, and adventurers; kids will match their faces to win! The game also includes a 9X9 inch biography card with a synopsis of each woman's life, and rules to play the game as a traditional concentration game, a storytelling memory game, or a solitaire game.

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