Josephine Baker

Last week I was asked by one of our partners, Irish Cycling Safaris, to provide some interesting snippets about our Dordogne trip. Anyone who’s cycled with me in France will know it’s my favourite of our French trips, and I wouldn’t expect to find it difficult to say a few interesting things about the Dordogne.

I made a note that it was the home of Josephine baker. She’s very famous in the Dordogne, and had a lovely castle there, the Château des Milandes. Because you see signposts for the château everywhere, and every hotel and bar has old posters of Ms Baker, it’s easy to assume that everyone knows who she is. But just in case, I thought I’d look up a few things about her to be accurate, and got a very big surprise. Seems she really was quite something.

What did I think I know? She was a black lady, an exotic dancer, a star of the Folies Bergères, very risqué for the 30s. I think she adopted loads of children and had a lovely château in the Dordogne which is now a centre for birds of prey.

Bits of that are true. Ernest Hemingway described her as “…the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”, and Shirley Bassey paid her an astonishing tribute when she said “…I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.” So as a performer, she cut the mustard, so to speak. But that’s just the start of it.

During the Second World War she used her popularity to work secretly for the allies, smuggling intelligence out through Portugal. After the war she became the first American woman to receive France’s highest honour, the Croix de Guerre – she was also awarded the Legion d’Honneur by Charles de Gaulle.

Baker was an active anti-racism campaigner. She adopted a dozen children from different ethnic backgrounds and countries, and lived at Château des Milandes – I got that bit almost right! As a big star in the US, she refused to perform for segregated audiences, and caused a storm with accusations of racism against The Stork Club in New York. Following this incident Grace Kelly, no less, left the club with her vowing never to return, and never did.

The two remained close friends – in France the royal family of Monaco are very newsworthy. When one of them has a shave it’s all over the French gossip magazines, so being a good pal of Grace was probably quite useful in France. And in fact, Josephine was buried in Monaco following her death in 1975.

She was also a keen supported of the NAACP in the US (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured people). Can you believe that the only woman who spoke beside Martin Luther King Jnr on his March on Washington was Josephine Baker, dressed in her Free French Army uniform complete with Legion d’Honneur? Following King’s assassination his widow asked Josephine Baker to lead the American Civil Rights Movement in her husband’s place, but she refused in favour of her ‘rainbow tribe’ of children.

Can you credit all that? There’s more, have a look at the Josephine Baker entry in Wikipedia. Here’s a more informative article, with some great pictures.

In recent years I’ve taken to cycling past her old château, assuming it was a castle with no historical significance close to the castles of Castelnau and Beynac.

I won’t cycle past it again.

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