Tag Archives: France

Glamour shot - Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker – Entertainer, French Resistance Agent, and Activist

 

Born in 1907, Freda Josephine McDonald, Josephine, as she was later called, was destined to be an entertainer. Born  to dancer Carrie McDonald and possibly Eddie Carson, (her father’s true identity has never been confirmed) who was also in show business, Josephine made her first appearance on stage at the age of one when the couple brought her onstage during the finale of their act.

After Carson abandoned McDonald and her young daughter, Carson took in laundry to help make ends meet. She soon married Arthur Martin, a kind but perpetually unemployed man. Josephine, at age 8 took work as a live in domestic for wealthy white families to help her mother put food on the table. After being abused by one of the women she worked for, Josephine left and made money on the streets of St. Louis as a street corner dancer. She married at age 13. The marriage lasted less than a year, and Josephine joined a street performance group called the Jones Family Band. Josephine, a naturally skilled dancer, added comedy to the troop’s act by acting silly and clumsy, but then crushing her dance routines at the finale.

At 15, Josephine married Willie Baker. Again, unhappy in marriage she divorced him four years later when her vaudeville troop decided to leave St. Louis for the bright lights of New York City. Josephine and the troop performed at the Plantation Club, and in successful Broadway reviews like Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, often in blackface.

Josephine’s distaste for conventional married life, and her ardent desire to become an entertainer, pained her mother, and the relationship between the two women became permanently strained. 

Josephine Baker Banana skirtAs she became more popular in New York City, Josephine was soon offered an opportunity to tour in Paris, France. She opened in La Revue Nègre at age 19 at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees, where she enjoyed instant success. The French loved her provocative dancing and singing in her barely-there costumes, and word spread about the beautiful and funny ingenue. After a tour of Europe, Josephine returned to France to star in the Folies Bergère. Wearing only a thong strung with a skirt of fake bananas, Josephine performed the “Danse Sauvage,” the dance number that would catapult her to fame. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

She starred in two French movies in the early 1930’s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. With her growing wealth she moved her family from St. Louis Missouri to France, and purchased an estate in Catelnaud-Fayrac called Les Milandes. There, she acquired an assortment of animals including monkeys, cows and horses, dogs, and a pet cheetah she named Chiquita. Chiquita, wearing a collar of diamonds, often performed with her, but when she once jumped into the orchestra pit threatening the musicians, Chiquita had to go. 

Baker became romantically involved with Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian born opportunist who passed himself off as a Count. Although pretentious about his own reputation, under his influence, Baker’s star began to rise. Abatino became Baker’s manager, and under his careful guidance Josephine started training with a vocal coach and her talent went into overdrive. She took the lead in a six-month long run of a revival of the opera, La Creole, cementing her reputation as a first-class performer. She and Abatino decided to take her act back to Josephine’s home, the United States, to perform for the  1936 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. 

While the French and the rest of Europe drank in Josephine’s intoxicating performances and personality, the audiences of the United States did not. Her Ziegfeld Follies run proved nothing short of disastrous with low box office sales and rejection from the press. The New York Times called her a “Negro Wench.”

Heart-broken, Josephine returned to France and renounced her American citizenship. In 1937 she became a French citizen and married French industrialist Jean Lion, but the marriage only lasted two years. 

In 1939, France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland. Baker was recruited by French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent.” She gathered information for the French while at high society parties in Europe. She also carried secret messages to England written in invisible ink on her sheet music, as well as transporting notes with classified information pinned to her underwear. During this time, Baker also entertained British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. For her efforts, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaul.

 

Josephine Baker - Glamour ShotBecause of peritonitis and then septicema caused by a miscarriage, Josephine had to undergo a hysterectomy. When she recovered, she returned to her French chateau with yet another husband, French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, whom she’d met during her tour of Africa. Unable to have children of her own, Josephine adopted children from all over the world, twelve in total. She called them her “rainbow tribe,” and sought to prove that people of different races could live in harmony. Her Les Milandes estate now included hotels, a farm, and rides. The children sang and danced for paying visitors to the estate. However, the expenses of the farm, chateau, and her growing family put pressure on Josephine’s marriage and Bouillon left shortly after Josephine adopted her eleventh child. 

Although a citizen of France, Josephine supported the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s in America. Again touring the U.S., she and her husband, Jo, were refused reservations at several hotels, and were denied service in restaraunts because of racial discrimination. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences. A club in Miami finally met her demands, and this time touring America, Josephine enjoyed some success.

In 1968, Josephine lost her beautiful estate because of unpaid debts. She had to be physically removed from the property. Her friend Grace Kelly, whom she’d met while at The Stork nightclub in New York City, where they’d refused to serve Baker because the color of her skin, again came to her rescue and offered her a villa and financial assistance. Kelly had by then become princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco.

In 1975 Josephine starred in a retrospective revue, celebrating her 50 years in show business at the Bobin in Paris. Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis financed the endeavor. The show opened to rave reviews and was attended by notable personalities and celebrities including Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days later, Josephine was found unconscious in her room surrounded by newspapers depicting glowing reviews of her performance. She later died peacfully in her sleep. The autopsy report stated cerebral hemmorage as the cause of death. 

From the poverty stricken streets of St. Louis with little education, Baker became the first person of color to become a worldwide entertainer. She socialized with the most influential artists, writers, painters, entertainers, and intellectuals of her time. She served the resistence of her adopted country France, and she impacted the civil rights movement of her native country, America. She was an empowered woman who used her talent and celebrity to better the lives of others as well as her own. 

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

Mary Queen of Scots – The Mystery of the Casket Letters

Mary Queen of Scots
(Wikipedia)

Did Mary, Queen of Scots, play a role in the death of her second husband, Lord Darnley? The mystery may never be solved. What would prompt a Queen, carrying the child of her husband, to kill him? According to history, the reasons are varied and some even say, sound. The evidence that put her life on the line lies within the mysterious Casket Letters.

Mary, the only child of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, ascended to the throne of Scotland at six days old. Marie de Guise sent her infant daughter, Mary, to France to be raised in the French court, while she ruled Scotland as Queen Regent until Mary became of age.

At 16, Mary wed Louis, the dauphin of France, aged 15, as arranged by her mother and Henri II, King of France. Months later, Henri died due to injuries from a lance wound to the eye. Louis, the eldest child of the King and Catherine de Medici, took the throne. An odd pair—Mary, vivacious, beautiful and tall, and Louis small, awkward, and fragile—the two had great affection for one another. At Louis’s death a year after their marriage, Mary went into deep mourning.

Widowed, the teenaged Mary left France, the only home she’d known, and returned to Scotland. Required by her status to produce an heir, Mary needed to wed, again. The obvious choice–her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Both the same age, the two got along well at first, but Darnley’s fondness for drinking and other women didn’t set well with Mary. Also, he craved power and demanded she grant him the Crown Matrimonial. Knowing that to meet his demands would make Darnley King of Scotland at her death, she refused.

Lord Darnley
Henry Stuart – Lord Darnley (Wikipedia)

During her unhappy marriage to Darnley, Mary befriended the Italian courtier, also her private secretary, David Ricco. Unhappy in her marriage, yet faithful to her duties, Mary became pregnant with Darnley’s child. Jealous of their relationship, Darnley accused Mary of an affair with Ricco, claiming she carried Ricco’s child and not his. At a small dinner party Mary hosted for her ladies-in-waiting and Ricco, Darnley had Ricco savagely stabbed over 50 times, while some of Darnley’s men held Mary at gunpoint. The incident made it impossible for Mary to continue with Darnley.

After the birth of her son, James, Mary sought help from James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and other Scottish nobles to remove Darnley from power, and Mary’s life. Divorce not an option for Mary, a Catholic Queen, she had to come up with something else. Darnley got wind of Mary’s plans and fearing for his safety, fled to Glasgow to hide out at his family’s estate. He soon became ill, with what might have been small pox or syphilis. Poison could not be ruled out, either.

Mary pleaded with him to come back to Edinburgh. He agreed to stay at Kirk O’Field, a former abbey at the outskirts of the city. Mary visited him daily while he recuperated, and it looked as if there might be a reconciliation. However, on a February morning in 1567, Darnley was found dead in the gardens of the estate. An explosion devastated Kirk o’Field the night before. Mary, her half-brother James (Earl of Moray), and Bothwell were implicated in the murder. Bothwell stood trial. Acquitted in the absence of evidence, he declared his aim to marry the Queen of Scots, and received support from several lords and bishops.

Bothwell and Mary eventually married, 12 days after Bothwell’s divorce from his wife. Again, Mary suffered an unhappy union, and the marriage proved unpopular with both Catholics and Protestants. It is unclear whether Mary loved Bothwell or not, if he somehow coerced her to marry him, or if she came to the marriage as a willing partner. Some records indicate that Bothwell raped her after he abducted her from Stirling castle, some time before they wed.

The Peerage, twenty-six confederate lords, turned against Mary and Bothwell, and raised  an army against them. Mary and Bothwell attempted to confront the lords with force, but Mary’s troops deserted. The lords granted Bothwell safe passage from the battlefield, but they took Mary to Edinburgh, and forced her to abdicated to her one-year-old son, James.

casket
(Canadian Content Forums)

Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, assumed the role of Regent, and to keep his power, turned against Mary. He handed over over “the Casket letters” to Queen Elizabeth, who now had the upper hand in her quest for Scottish rule. The Casket letters consisted of 8 unsigned letters from Mary to Bothwell, two marriage contracts, and love sonnets, nestled in a foot long silver casket bearing the monogram of King Francis II, Mary’s first husband.

Elizabeth wrote to Mary, imploring her for the truth. Mary denied writing the documents, but the situation did not help Mary’s cause, and many thought the letters proof of her plotting with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Years later, on 11 August 1586, after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, (the Babbington Plot) Elizabeth had no choice and had Mary arrested. With the controversy of the Casket letters, and then the possibility that Mary might have plotted against the Queen of England, Mary stood as a constant threat to Elizabeth’s power, her throne, and her very life. In February of 1587, Elizabeth order Mary’s execution—a gruesome beheading that took several strokes of the axe.

Did Mary have a hand in the death of Lord Darnley? If so, one could hardly blame her after the brutal murder of her friend and confidant, Ricco. Mary’s upbringing might lead people to believe she knew all to well the importance of maintaining royal power at any cost. She grew up in the court of Henry II, under the care of Catherine de Medici, France’s most famed wicked woman. Yet, no matter how fierce her desire to maintain control of her crown and her country, Mary never demonstrated the same ruthlessness of d’Medici, or even her own husband, Darnley.

Perhaps in his eagerness to wed the Queen, Bothwell used her to plot the death of her husband, and then take power himself. Did Mary love Bothwell, or did he serve as a means to an end? Did someone in Mary’s confidence betray her with the mysterious Casket letters? Historical data is never perfect. The mystery of the Casket letters and their implications in Mary’s guilt will, most likely, never be solved.

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!