When most people think of Josephine Baker, they imagine her dancing in some glamorous Paris venue at the height of the jazz age. While this image certainly isn’t wrong, it tends to reduce the remarkable, complex woman behind it to a problematic caricature.
This is something that should be worked against. Baker, an African-American who lived most of her life in Paris and became a French citizen in the 1930s, was not *just* a dancer and performer who drew thousands to see her (often controversial) revues around the French capital.
She wasn’t *just* a star member of the Parisian arts scene of the 1920s and 1930s, centered around Montparnasse and the theatres of the Grands Boulevards.
A Renaissance Woman
She was a prominent civil-rights activist who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington beside Martin Luther King and was a longtime member of the NAACP.
She notably refused to perform in American clubs that enforced segregation between black and white audience members.
During her lifetime, Baker fought tirelessly to help secure equal rights for African-Americans.
She was also a key member of the French Resistance movement during World War II, gathering intelligence for the forces of “Free France” led from London by the General Charles de Gaulle.
In the aftermath of the war, De Gaulle made Baker a Chévalier of the French Legion of Honor. She was also awarded with a top military award called the Croix de Guerre for her role in resisting occupation under the Nazis.
She was a deeply accomplished actor, musician, activist, and intellectual who refused to be pigeonholed or reduced to a racist caricature– although these caricatures sadly continue to inform how she is remembered.
After 50 years of performance and activism, Baker died in 1975 in Paris. Having once famously sung “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris” (I have two loves, my country and Paris), she was decidedly at home.
At her funeral, military officials performed a 21-gun salute– the first such honor to have been given an American woman laid to rest in France.
France and Parisians have gratefully adopted her in turn as their own, and Baker has left a deep imprint on the city and its cultural history.
To more easily find her traces there, I suggest paying a visit to some (or all) of the following places. To dig a bit deeper, see this in-depth, meticulously researched look back at Josephine’s life and legacy in the capital at Entrée to Black Paris.
Le Théatre des Champs-Elysées: Birthplace of “La Revue Nègre”
In 1925, Baker and a troupe of performers hailing from Harlem in New York City debuted the “La Revue Nègre” show at Paris’ Théatre des Champs-Elysées, cementing a popular fixation in France with “la négritude” (blackness) that had taken hold during the decade.
Avant-garde artists had become preoccupied with what they (not unproblematically) called “l’art nègre” (negro art), after Franco-Spanish painter Picasso had found inspiration in the forms of African sculpture.
While it’s easy for us to see today that the period’s ideas of blackness standing in for “exoticness” and frank sexuality are simply racism dressed up as fascination and fetishization, the history of La Revue Nègre is nevertheless important to Paris, and to Baker’s story.
She dazzled audiences by dancing the Charleston for the first time, symbolizing for some the potential liberation of women in a period when clothing had become looser and movement less inhibited.
Her performances at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées– a venue that remains open but mostly puts on classical plays and musicals–cemented Baker’s status as an artist and style icon.
It’s important to cast a critical eye on the often racist manner in which these performances were received and depicted at the time.
Posters and other promotional materials from the period often turned to dehumanizing caricatures and racist tropes. This is true of Paul Colin’s series of lithographs from 1927, entitled “Le Tumulte Noir”.
Nevertheless, the lasting cultural impact of Baker’s artistry during this early period is important to note. Her emergence as a dancer and performer helped define and shape the spirit of the “jazz age” in the capital.
To learn more about how the Revue Nègre show was depicted by artists of the time, see this page on Colin’s lithographs. Also see this book from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Karen Dalton for a deeper look at the topic.
Getting There: 15 Avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris (Metro: Alma-Marceau or Franklin D. Roosevelt)
The Folies Bergères: La Folie du Jour Show
Following Baker’s successful run at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, she opened a new revue at a widely popular theatre and cabaret in the bustling Grands Boulevards district, Les Folies Bergère.
Still open today, the club saw Baker debut her iconic “banana skirt” in 1925, as part of a new show called “La Folie du Jour”.
Some now see it as a clever, winking attempt on her part to re-appopriate and reclaim racist sterotypes about people of colour and play with them to troubling effect.
Whether her audiences grasped the potential irony, however, is quite another question. Images of a bare-breasted Baker dressed in the banana skirt were widely exported, made into dolls and became nearly synonymous with the supposed “exoticism” and “eroticism” of blackness.
Baker was adulated as a fashion icon, but racism in France and elsewhere continued to thrive for decades to come– for the most part largely unquestioned.
Getting There: 32 Rue Richer, 75009 Paris (Metro: Cadet)
Le Casino de Paris: “Paris Qui Remue”
Another key venue to visit is the Casino de Paris, where in 1930 Josephine debuted what was perhaps her most successful show to date, entitled “Paris qui Remue” (Paris that Stirs). It featured a live cheetah named Chiquita and saw Baker debut her hit song “J’ai deux amours”.
Read related: Take a Self-Guided Walking Tour of Edith Piaf’s Paris
According to Entrée to Black Paris, the dance hall first opened in 1895 was also where Baker and French performer Maurice Chevalier starred in a revue entitled Paris-London in 1939, as World War II was brewing. Proceeds from the show were donated to charities including the Red Cross.
The Pigalle club and music hall is still open today, and can be easily visited.
Getting There/Address: 16 Rue de Clichy, 75009 Paris, France
Montparnasse: Josephine’s Old Stomping Grounds
Continuing your self-guided exploration of Josephine’s Paris, head southward to Montparnasse, site of a fertile artistic scene during the 1920s and 1930s.
Painters, writers, philosophers, musicians and playwrights flooded the formerly grim neighborhood and inflected it with new life, and in the early part of the 20th century it became home to numerous cafes, brasseries, art studios and theatres where the city’s intelligentsia gathered. Baker was among them.
Your first stop in Montparnasse is the Place Josephine Baker (Metro: Edgar Quinet), a square and plaque named after the performer that was unveiled in the year 2000.
City officials chose the site for its proximity to some of Josephine’s preferred haunts in Paris, including the last place where she performed in April of 1975.
That was at the Bobino (20 rue de la Gaité; Metro: Gaité or Edgar Quinet), an old Montparnasse venue situated in the theatrical micro-district known as Gaité. I recommend stopping by to take a look.
It was here that Baker performed her final show. Audience members reportedly included her friend, Princess Grace of Monaco.
Last but not least, stop by the historic Montparnasse brasserie La Coupole, a “roaring twenties” nightlife spot where Baker spent countless evenings.
Its lavish decor– including murals from famous artists of the period– hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1927, and the dance rooms downstairs that were once the site of debauched Parisian parties recently underwent renovations after years of closure.
Eglise de la Madeleine
Following Baker’s final performance at the Bobino in 1975, she suffered from a sudden and fatal brain hemorrhage at only 68.
Her funeral was held at the Eglise de la Madeleine, a neoclassical church not very far from the theatres and dance halls where her career had debuted decades earlier.
Getting There: Place de la Madeleine, 75008 (Metro: Madeleine)
Day Trip to Le Vésinet and Baker’s Neogothic Villa
If you’re interested and willing to take a short trip outside the city limits, it’s worth considering a visit to the suburb of Le Vésinet, where Baker owned a large mansion and villa with her first husband, known locally as “Le Beau Chêne”.
The 19th-century, neo-gothic mansion is privately owned and not accessible to the public, but it’s still potentially interesting to visit from the outside.
Touring the grounds with an expert guide is probably the best way to appreciate the significance of the site, but you can also make the trip on your own.
Getting There: The easiest way to get there by train is to take the RER (commuter-line) train A towards Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
You can board at Gare de Lyon or Chatelet-les-Halles. Exit at Le Vésinet and either take a taxi to the villa (Address: 52 Avenue Georges-Clemenceau, Le Vésinet 78110) or take a local bus with the aid of Google Maps/directions.