Friday Fun: Josephine Baker and Her Rainbow Tribe

Something a little bit different for this Friday Fun post. Josephine Baker achieved her greatest success outside her country of birth, the United States. She moved to Paris when she was still very young, and it was there that she became idolised as the Black Venus of cabaret performance in the 1920s and 30s. She was also active in the French Resistance during the war and in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 60s. Part of her activism was her well-intentioned but rather misguided ambition to raise a Rainbow Tribe. Unable to have any children of her own, she adopted a total of 12 children of different ethnicities to prove they could grow up together in harmony. She also deliberately raised them with different religions. At her magnificent estate in the Dordogne Chateau de Milandes she created something of a theme park, including a hotel, a farm, rides, and the children singing and dancing for visitors, included in the price of admission.  That sounds to me horrendously like a zoo, and she certainly was not beyond typecasting the children to ‘represent’ their ethnic group, but she no doubt meant well. She later had to sell the chateau as she got into massive debt, and was taken in by her friend Grace Kelly, by then Princess of Monaco. The chateau is now open once more to visitors.

The rainbow tribe in the mid 1950s.
Chateau de Milandes in the present-day, from its own website.
Josephine Baker with her fourth husband and her children. From YouTube.
The front aspect of Chateau de Milandes, a genuine 15th century French chateau in the Dordogne.
Josephine at the chateau with the children in the 1960s.
The dining room at Chateau des Milandes. From TripAdvisor
Finally, another of Josephine Baker’s houses, in Le Vesinet, Paris, bought when she first achieved fame in the 1920s. The house is privately owned and not available for visiting, but this is where Josephine walked her pet cheetah.

11 thoughts on “Friday Fun: Josephine Baker and Her Rainbow Tribe”

  1. This does feel like a very uncomfortable idea today, to put it mildly, although Madonna’s adoptions popped into my mind as I was reading your first paragraph.

    1. Yes, and Angelina Jolie… it seems to be an ongoing trend. And I can understand wanting to help, but there is a performative element to it too which makes me uncomfortable.

  2. Between you and Emma, it’s a real festival of learning today! Lovely château (especially in the second photo), but that “rainbow tribe” idea… weird even if well-intended.

    1. At least one of the children later described it as feeling like a ‘pet’ and I think that when they all became teenagers and Josephine divorced her fourth husband, it all broke apart. Here is some info about the aftermath, which is very sad:
      As Baker’s finances crumbled, she moved the Rainbow Tribe to Monaco to live in a less grand home paid for by Baker’s friend and patron Princess Grace. Here the kids, now entering their teenage years and, in some cases, chafing at their public lives, began to resist Baker’s authority. Baker looked for ways to farm the children out to others. Bouillon, Baker’s husband at the time of the adoptions, was now her latest ex; some of the kids went to live with him. Others went to boarding schools. Baker sent a small group—including Marianne (adopted from France), whose teenage love affairs drove Baker to distraction—to live with a longtime Baker fan in the U.K. In perhaps the saddest and most puzzling outcome, when Baker found out that Jarry (adopted from Finland) was gay, she chastised him in front of his siblings before sending him away to live with Bouillon in Buenos Aires.
      Yet on the whole, the grown-up members of the tribe remember their childhood at Les Milandes with fondness, although are a bit more wary of Josephine’s controllingness. Finally, one of them said: ‘She was a great artist, and she was our mother. Mothers make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.’

  3. I’ve always loved Josephine Baker, Marina Sofia, so as soon as I saw the title of your post, my ears pricked up. I’m not at all sure how I feel about the ‘tribe,’ to be honest. Being an adoptive mother myself, I have empathy for the desire to adopt. But I do wonder about the motives, etc.. and the PR angle. It does make me a bit uncomfortable…

    1. Yes, the monetization of the whole venture makes me wonder… although I realise it can’t have been easy to feed 12 children plus all the staff necessary to run such a household.

  4. There may have been some good intention but much like Madonna… they were more interested in collecting trophies and never seriously considered the ramifications of their actions.

  5. How fascinating! I guess there was a good motivation there, but unfortunate consequences and not so much thought about how the children would be affected. In those days, I think their viewpoints weren’t considered so much…

  6. Goodness! Sounds awful, though I’m sure she probably had good intentions. I wonder what happened to them all and what they felt about it when they became adults.

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