A.P. Petty is a published poet and short story writer. She's currently working on her B.A.in English.
How Josephine's Hunger Began
When many people think of a child being adopted, they equate the parents to being heroes. They also see it as a declaration of their love, devotion, and humility to embrace a child who isn't biologically theirs and rear them as natural children.
While it is a heartfelt gesture to see a seemingly humane act, the adoptee's perspective is rarely examined. Josephine Baker's children are no exception. Fifty years before Angelina created her multiracial clan, Josephine Baker did.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, as Freda Josephine McDonald, she was the daughter of a poor black laundress and an unnamed white man. By eight years old, she was working in homes washing dishes and doing laundry alongside her mother. At eleven, she was a witness to the St. Louis race riots of 1917. And, at 13, her mother married her off to escape poverty.
Baker eventually left her husband and taught herself to dance. Her mother disapproved of both. She eventually married a second time by age 16 to Willie Baker, whose surname she'd keep. She joined a black vaudeville troupe and moved to New York City, where she also divorced him.
At this time, Baker was a part of a chorus line who performed in blackface. She got her break when she was able to tour Paris, France. Over there, she garnered critical fame for her exotic dancing, singing, and acting. But, when she returned to America, critics weren't as embracing as French ones. She returned to Paris heartbroken and later married Jean Lion, thus, cementing her French citizenship.
Baker became part of the war effort performing and was also a French spy. She divorced her third husband and married Jo Bouillon, an orchestra bandleader. In the early '50s, during the Civil Rights Movement, Baker set out on adopting children who she would call her Rainbow Tribe. Her first child, Akio, a boy, came from Japan.
Over the next decade or so, Baker added eleven more children from three different continents. Korean-born Jeannot; Colombian-born Luis; French-born Marianne; French-born Noel; Finnish-born Jari; Algerian born-Brahim; Ivorian-born Koffi; French-born Moises; French-born Jean-Claude; Venezuelan-born Mara, and Moroccan-born Stellina. Her goal was to prove that people of different backgrounds and colors could live under one roof in peace.
Baker, her twelve children, and her husband lived in a 15th-century chateau in Dordogne, France. But the chateau was far from a fairytale. Although her children did have tutors and nannies and got to fly with Baker around the world, they slept in the attic with their beds lined together.
Local photographers got to take pictures of the children playing outside and even in the home to show how "harmonious" they looked. Gifts were piled to the ceiling during Christmas, but Baker rarely spent time with them. And whenever she returned home from a tour, she'd wake the children and demand they show her affection.
Before Baker adopted her last child, her husband, Jo Bouillon, relocated to Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was the one who managed Baker's money and gave his children stability. They had arguments about Baker's overspending on parties, animals, and adopting for years. It seemed as though every tour resulted in another child being brought home. He left when it became too much but still assumed responsibility for his children.
Josephine Baker, Zouzou 1934
However, when her children became teenagers, Baker had little experience as a mother. They not only outnumbered her, but they were staying out late or for days at a time, talking back, stealing, and finding themselves sexually. Baker's son Jari was found bathing in the bathtub with another boy. She scolded him and sent him to live in Buenos Aires. She feared he would "infect" his siblings.
As if their world wasn't already chaotic, Baker had specific professions for each child. Akio was to be a diplomat. Jari is a hotelier. The list went on. They would also return to their country of origin and make do there. They wanted to be ordinary people with professions like insurance agents, teachers, or grocers. None of them stuck to Baker's plan.
Near the end of her life, Baker lost her chateau. And this was front-page news. She had to be forcibly removed from the premises because she wouldn't let it go. Her friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, financed an apartment for her and the children to live in. She reinvented herself and continued to perform until her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975. (The only child who didn't attend her funeral was Akio.)
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Baker was a child of her time. She grew up in poverty and scoured the streets for food. She stayed hungry even after she gained stability and prestige. Adopting was a sport for her, and the children were trophies—not human beings. And no one was to question or show resistance to her choices.
Although her intentions were probably in good spirit and she left a legacy behind, as a people, we should examine those impacted by the choices of others. And not just assume heirs of the rich and famous are well off.
Where Are Baker's Children Now?
Most of Josephine Baker's children have married, had children, or live quietly to themselves. Here's what happened to some of them.
- Jean-Claude Baker (April 18, 1943- January 15, 2015). He managed a restaurant in Hell's Kitchen called Chez Josephine before dying by suicide in East Hampton, New York.
- Jari, now spelled Jarry, lives in New York City.
- Akio Bouillon, as of 2009, lives in Paris, France.
- Moises, child number eight, died of cancer in 1989.
- Noel, child eleven, is a schizophrenic living in an institution.
Resources and Further Reading
- Adopting the World: Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe | DER SPIEGEL
Long before Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Madonna made headlines with their adoptive families, 1920s star Josephine Baker tried to combat racism by adopting 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds from around the world.
- Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe | Slate
To prove that racial harmony was possible, the dancer adopted 12 children from around the globe—and charged admission to watch them coexist.
- Josephine Baker | Biography
Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism.
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow | Overland
Many years have passed since the death of Josephine Baker, and the charismatic Broadway chorus-girl turned Parisian music-hall legend, actress, comedian and French fashion icon is still widely remembered for her many achievements.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Malou on March 11, 2020:
My mother used to talk about Josephine Baker a lot. She loved her singing and went to see her in Paris many times. I still have some very very old songs of JB handed down from my mother.
It is so sad that most people today have never heard of her. She was so glamorous with a lovely voice. Definitely a woman of her time. Parisians simply adored her.
brynns on May 08, 2019:
thats so cool
AP Petty (author) from America on July 06, 2017:
She did, Louise! There were quite a few things I didn't know about her and when I wrote this, it all came out. Colorful indeed.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 05, 2017:
That was really interesting to read. To be honest, I've never heard of Josephine Baker before. It sounds like she had a difficult and colourful life. And so many children!