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.

International Women’s Day: More Personal Heroines

Last year I mentioned some of my personal heroines, some fictional, some very real, who inspire me every day, not just once a year on the 8th of March.

Here are some more in the same vein, that are worth exploring further. Women I want to emulate in terms of courage, determination, talent, single-minded focus, resilience… but not fate (in most cases).

Women in a man’s world:

AmyJohnson
From Wikipedia.

Amy Johnson: British ‘aviatrix’ (in the language of the time)

Many have heard of Amelia Earhart, but she was just one of a group of pioneering women pilots active in the 1920s and 30s. Amy Johnson was the first woman pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930. She set numerous other long-distance and speed records, including beating her new husband’s record flight from London to Cape Town (he was also a pilot). Unafraid of a bit of rivalry, then! (Or was he? 6 years later, they divorced.) She was part of the Air Transport Auxiliary during WW2 and died in 1941 on a mission. Some suspect it was a ‘friendly fire’ incident.

From the National Air and Space Museum.
From the National Air and Space Museum.

Bessie Coleman: First black pilot to hold an international licence, she was the tenth of 13 children born in a sharecropper family in the American South and had to study aviation in France, since no one would train her (as a woman and a black) in the US. She became a big airshow sensation in the 1920s, was known as Queen Bess and even appeared in a film. Sadly, she died far too soon, at the age of 34, in a flight accident while preparing for a show.

 

From wired.com
From wired.com

Lise Meitner

Austrian physicist of Jewish origin, who did not share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded in 1944 to Otto Hahn for nuclear fission, although she was a long-time collaborator on this project. She was born in Vienna in 1878.  Although women were not allowed to attend university at the time, she was encouraged and supported by her parents to complete a private education and a doctorate in physics. She then moved to Berlin to study with Max Planck and soon became his assistant, then the first woman to become head of the physics department at the university of Berlin. Sadly, with the rise to power of Hitler, she had to flee abroad and eventually settled in Sweden, but died in the UK.

Women in ‘traditional’ women’s roles

Josephine with some of her rainbow tribe, from 50shadesofblack.com
Josephine with some of her rainbow tribe, from 50shadesofblack.com

Josephine Baker

The Bronze Venus was born in very humble circumstances in Missouri and had to work to support herself from a very early age. Cleaning houses, babysitting, dancing on street corners – she was like an early Piaf, and was discovered for a vaudeville show at the age of 15. It was in France, however, that she became a sensation in the 1920s-30s. During the war, she was recruited by the French intelligence services and the Resistance. After the war, she was involved in the American Civil Rights movement and adopted twelve children of different origins, which she called her ‘Rainbow Tribe’, to prove that all religions and races can live together harmoniously. She raised her children in her chateau in Dordogne until 1965, when financial troubles forced her to sell.

From Barnes and Noble website.
From Barnes and Noble website.

Penelope Fitzgerald

No surprise just why I admire Fitzgerald so much – not only was she an outstanding, subtle, erudite writer, but she also embarked upon her literary career rather late (at age 58). So there is still hope for all of us who are a bit slow in getting started… In her case, there were some sad reasons behind this: her husband was an alcoholic and a bit of a con man, which led to him being unable to work.  This meant they were reduced to a life of poverty and temporary accommodation, while she worked hard to support the family through teaching, running a bookshop and writing for magazines. She remained a supportive wife, but it was after her husband’s death that she truly blossomed and published most of her books.

Portrait by Marie Eléonore Godefroid.
Portrait by Marie Eléonore Godefroid.

Madame de Staël

Born into a Swiss banking family, raised in France, married to the Swedish ambassador at the court of Louis XVI by the name of Staël-Holstein, she became famous not for her beauty but for her wit, talent and political intrigue. She survived the Revolution but had to spend quite a bit of time in exile for her outspoken opinions and created a literary salon in her Swiss chateau in Coppet, as well as in Paris. She was a vocal opponent of Napoleon’s, but is best known for her several novels and critical works which marked the transition to the Age of Romanticism. She travelled extensively and led a remarkably free love life, although she is quoted as saying: ‘Love is the whole history of a woman’s life, but an episode in a man’s life.’ But she also said: ‘One must choose in life between boredom and suffering.’