Josephine Baker played many roles in her astonishing life: entertainer, WWII spy, civil rights activist, recipient of the French Legion of Honor, entrepreneur, and probably the one most challenging – Mother.
In 1947 she and her fourth husband, French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, purchased the Château des Milandes in southwest France, after renting it for 10 years. It was here that her Universal Brotherhood dream project took shape. After suffering several miscarriages in the early 1940s while on tour entertaining troops in Morocco, she discovered she could not bear children. The couple set in motion her plan to build their own family by adopting children of different nationalities. In an article in Le Monde in 1953 she declared:
“I will make every effort so that each shows the utmost respect for the opinions and beliefs of the other,” Baker claimed. “I want to show people of color that not all whites are cruel and mean. I will prove that human beings can respect each other if given the chance.”
This ideal reflected the exact opposite of what she had grown up witnessing. Josephine Baker was born June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, a city seething with racial tension. The East St. Louis riots of 1917 remain one of the bloodiest race riots of the 20th century, leaving nine white and hundreds of African-Americans dead. Josephine’s talent for dance was her ticket out, first to New York then ultimately to Paris, where her race was a complement to her talents.
There was far less red tape encountered when adopting internationally in the 1950s, and all the more so because she was famous. Josephine had the means and the connections while on tour to bring home children in need of a family. Her first child came from an orphanage in Japan. Soon the Baker-Bouillon family grew to 10 sons and two daughters: Japanese-born Akio, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Colombian-born Luis, French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), Ivorian-born Koffi, Algerian-born Brahim, and Venezuelan-born Mara, Moroccan-born Stellina and French-born Marianne.
“No one had seen a black woman adopt a white child before. Or raise them in a castle. Or house them in a theme park. Or use them in advertisements. Or portray them as soldiers in a struggle for justice.”
– Matthew Pratt Guterl, author of Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe, in The Telegraph.
The public and the press came from far and wide to record the evolution of Josephine Baker‘s Brotherhood experiment. Photos are easily found online showing off her multicultural family as they grew.
“We went on trips everywhere”, recalls son Jarry. “We learned a maximum about countries, religions and cultures.” Josephine brought in instructors to teach the children their birth languages. When they were older, she encouraged them to visit their home countries, where they discovered an unbridgeable gap between their upbringing and their birth culture. Jarry was the only one who chose to maintain a relationship with his birth family.
The family’s financial survival relied mainly on the income from the Milandes enterprise Bouillon and Baker had created. They owned much of the village, and their theme park boasted a hotel, golf course, restaurant, petting zoo, and a large swimming pool in the shape of the letters “JB.” Although it attracted thousands of visitors each weekend, the vast numbers of employees and upgrades ultimately drained their resources.
By that point, most of the 12 children had reached puberty and teenage years. There were clashes between their need for independence and Josephine‘s need to steer them, to continue using them to display her point. What’s more, her lack of financial acumen left her vulnerable when in 1961 she divorced her husband, who also managed the business. Jarry was the first to flee home, taking up residence in Buenos Aires, where his father had settled. Five of his siblings followed.
Due to insurmountable debt, in 1969 Josephine lost what she called her fairy-tale castle. Close friend Princess Grace of Monaco offered her a villa in Roquebrune near the principality where she could live with the children. Now a 63- year-old single mother with children to support, Baker had to don her sequined gowns and elaborate headdresses more frequently.
On April 8, 1975 Baker began a series of shows at the Bobino Theater in Montparnasse that celebrated her 50th anniversary on the Parisian stage. The guest list included Princess Grace, Sophia Loren, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Sir Mick Jagger. Four nights later, she was discovered in her bed, in a coma, surrounded by newspaper reviews praising her comeback. She died four days later.
Twenty thousand fans followed her funeral procession on April 15 to the majestic Madeleine Church. Josephine Baker was the first American to receive a 21-gun salute and to be buried in France with military honors.
Son Jarry said, “She was our Mom. We understand more than we did before. Just like when we were kids, if there is a problem between us we solved it right away. We don’t count ourselves as adopted, we are the sons and daughters of Josephine Baker.”