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Famous Friendships: Josephine Baker and Grace Kelly

Josephine Baker and Grace Kelly: two American women born into two different versions of the 20th century American story. Josephine Baker was born into poverty but became a tremendously successful dancer and singer, now most remembered as the woman who danced the “Danse Sauvage”, wearing nothing but a skirt of bananas in Paris during the 1920s. Grace Kelly had been born into a wealthy family, raised in convent schools, became a Hollywood star, eventually marrying Prince Rainier III, and becoming Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. Their childhoods and early experiences could not have been more different, and show two starkly different realities of the American 20th century.

Despite coming from starkly different origins, fate brought them together one night in 1951 at New York City’s famed Stork Club, and it marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

From St. Louis to Broadway

Josephine Baker (née Freda Josephine McDonald) was born in St. Louis, Missouri into poverty and remained in poverty throughout her childhood. Josephine was sent to school, but her education was frequently interrupted as she was often sent to work. By all accounts, she suffered a harrowing childhood. By the time she was 10 years old, tensions around race relations in St. Louis had escalated, resulting in the destructive 1917 race riots. A passion and talent for the performing arts--particularly Vaudeville--would eventually provide her escape, leading her into the Jazz Age under the bright lights of Broadway and eventually to the infamous Folies-Bergère in Paris.

Her performing career started at the Booker T Washington Theater in St. Louis, where she played music on a homemade banjo outside the theater, joining a group called The Dixie Steppers. This traveling troupe eventually took her to Philadelphia where she began to create the persona and sense of comedy that would lead her far. Philadelphia is also where she married Billy Baker, who gave her the last name that she’d carry for the rest of her life.

With her comedic chops, Josephine left both Philadelphia and Billy behind in 1921, and joined an all-black show playing on Broadway, Shuffle Along. Josephine’s talents were readily apparent there, and she quickly became the highest paid chorus girl on the scene.

A Star is Born in Paris

At just 19, in 1925, she left New York City and found even greater success on the Paris stage. Eventually, Josephine became the star of the famed music hall, Folies-Bergère, where in 1936 she shocked the masses by dancing in a skirt made from a string of artificial bananas--and little else. It was the epitome of Années folles.

Josephine continued to rise in the ranks of Paris society, as well as in notoriety, fame and wealth. She left behind the United States, pursuing a career in France and eventually becoming a French Citizen. During World War II, she was one of France’s greatest assets as a member of the French Resistance, using her performance tours as a cover, carrying messages hidden in invisible ink to members of the underground throughout Europe. She also climbed the ranks of the French Free Air Force, ultimately receiving two prestigious honors for her work in the war, the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance. After the war, this act of defiance led her to shift her attention from the stage to focus on social and political matters, and in particular to the fight against racism.

While Josephine was at the height of her career, Grace Kelly was just a child, growing up in a well-to-do Irish-Catholic family in Philadelphia. Even in her youth, Grace Kelly admired Josephine Baker as one of the biggest stars of the day. Her admiration continued throughout her own journey from Philadelphia, to Hollywood, and later to Monaco.

A Pivotal Night at The Stork Club

On October 16, 1951, Josephine arrived at the Stork Club--one of Manhattan’s most esteemed supper clubs at the time--eager to celebrate her final performance at the Roxy with the company of her friends. Grace, seated nearby, was a rising star in Hollywood, but not yet as well known as Josephine, and so seeing Josephine at the same restaurant must have been a thrill. However, while other tables around Josephine’s were quick to receive their steak and champagne, it would be an hour before Josephine would be served. Many accounts state that the club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley, actually asked, “Who let her in?” and was the root of this blatant discrimination. Once Josephine realized what was happening, she went out to make a call by payphone to a friend at the NAACP about the insult. However, after seeing what had transpired, Grace stood up, joined Josephine, and the two of them--along with others--left the restaurant in protest. It was an important moment in history for obvious reasons, and it was also the beginning of their friendship.

The following day, picket lines formed outside of the club in protest of Josephine’s treatment. Josephine Baker filed charges of racism against the Stork Club, and the NAACP supported her by organizing more picket lines.

Walter Winchell’s Retribution

Josephine was also particularly upset with famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was there that evening holding court at Table 50, saying he should have used his position to speak up for her, and calling him a racist. Winchell was outraged at this allegation (his best friend owned the Stork Club) and in retribution accused her of being friendly with the Nazi party and an anti-semitic rabble rouser. The public turned against Mr. Winchell as a result of the exchanges between Winchell and Baker, and his career was damaged. But Mr. Winchell also caused problems for Josephine: he spoke to the FBI, claiming that she had Communist sympathies, and she remained on their radar for 17 years.

Luxury—and Trouble—in Exile

Relief from the FBI’s targeting came in the form of an invitation from Juan Perón, inviting Josephine to Argentina. She lived there and in Europe for a time, being barred from re-entering the United States. She and her then husband, French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, had already been busy restoring a 15th-century castle in southwestern France known as “Les Milandes.” Les Milandes was home for Josephine’s twelve children of different origins whom she had adopted over the years. She called this family her "rainbow tribe”, hoping to show the world that children of different nationalities and races can live in peace.

Josephine led a luxurious life at Les Milandes, yet in the end, she was heavily in debt. Thus, in the late 1960s, when Josephine was evicted from Les Milandes, it was Princess Grace who stepped in to help. In May 1968, Josephine’s estate was foreclosed. Seeing that her friend was in trouble, Princess Grace tried to smooth things over with her creditors. She was unsuccessful in saving her house, but ensured that Baker's children would be provided for by the Red Cross in the small principality and set her up with a villa outside of Monaco.

A True Comeback Queen

Meanwhile, Josephine had been allowed to return to America, and in 1963, she was the only official female speaker for the March on Washington. In 1973, she gave a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall that brought the entire audience to its feet. It was officially known as “Josephine Baker and Her International Revue.” According to the New York Times, it was “a mixture of theatrical glamour and personal warmth, focusing on the Baker body, memories of the Baker career, the Baker philosophy of universal love.”

That evening at the Stork Club brought together two women who would lend support to each other throughout their lives. As two Americans in Europe, their shared American heritage and experience of fame brought them together. And in April of 1975, with the help of Jackie Onassis, Princess Grace funded Josephine’s comeback show "Josephine" in Paris at the Théâtre Bobino, celebrating 50 years of her career. On opening night, when Josephine was 68 years old, she put on the show of her life---ever the superstar! After only three more performances, she was found laying among her rave reviews in the papers, having suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage. She died quietly in hospital on April 12, 1975.

Bidding Adieu to a Legend

On the day of her funeral, more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to witness the procession, and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman in history to receive French military honors. Josephine was buried at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo, where she was mourned by her friend Princess Grace. Princess Grace stood front and center at Josephine’s burial in Monaco, a true testament to their friendship.


Photo Credits: Grace and Family,


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