When we last left Mary Church Terrell, it was 1898, she was 34 years old, standing on a stage and receiving thunderous applause after having given a speech entitled, The Progress of Colored Women to an audience at the National American Women Sufferage Association. (You can read her speech here, at blackpast.org.) (more…)
When Madam C.J. Walker solved one of her own personal problems, she also created an opportunity to leave behind a life as a laundress for one as a successful businesswoman, philanthropist and civil rights activists and she was able to take thousands of women with her. Alaia Williams from the 18 to 49 Podcast graciously fills in as guest co-host with Beckett to talk about the life of this trailblazing role model who began to change her fate by changing the condition of her hair.
Rags to riches stories don’t happen without a lot of hard work, the ability to fill a need, hard work, perseverance and- yeah- hard work. Madam C.J. Walker’s life was all that and more. When she was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta Louisiana, her given name was Sarah Breedlove – and she was the first person in her family who was not born a slave. Not a slave doesn’t mean that the family had any wealth- they didn’t. They were scraping by at best, the children didn’t go to school and, at worst, by the time Sarah was seven, both of her parents had died.
In this episode we continue our chat about the many acts in the life of Josephine Baker. When we went to intermission, Ms Baker was touring the world as an entertainment superstar with the help of her manager/fake husband/fake Count, Pepito Abatino. The one place that she had left to embrace her was her native country, the good ol’ US of A. When the house lights went up we were biting our nails! Would her homeland love and appreciate her as much as the people of other continents? Could Josephine go home?
(It’s 1934 and Josephine is taking the stage at the Ziegfield Follies in New York expecting a warm and loving response)
Josephine didn’t have to get far onto US soil before she faced racial prejudice. As a ‘married” couple she and Pepito could share a hotel room, but not an entry door into the hotel. Her performances were not met with a warm reception for a variety of reasons: she danced with white male partners, her level of undress made audiences uncomfortable, and the songs that she was required to sing were not suitable for her voice. Her part in the show was your basic hot mess. Josephine blamed Pepito and sent him away, back to France ending their ten year relationship…and quite possibly his life. He was hospitalized and died of unknown causes a few weeks later. Stomach cancer or a broken heart?
Josephine got out of her contract and the US as quickly as possible. Shortly afterward she married Jean Lion, a wealthy French businessman. With this marriage she legally became a French citizen and had hopes of becoming a mother. Jean apparently had high hopes of her becoming his most fabulous accessory, a trophy wife. But first, Josephine must say good-bye to her public and set off on a farewell tour.
The only thing that fully got the good-bye and farewell part is the marriage; it doesn’t last long.
But our newly minted French citizen had some very important work in her future. WWII began and she volunteered to assist the war effort for her country. Her touring continued from country to country with one major difference: She was doing it as a spy for the French Resistance. She used her lifestyle of hobnobbing with those in the know to get intel and smuggled it back with her hat boxes and costumes, and eventually raised in ranks within the French Free Air Force.
As always we go into much more detail in the podcast but essentially her spy duties came to a halt when she was hospitalized in Casablanca for 19 months.
But that wasn’t the end of the war efforts of our heroine! Once recuperated, she went back on the road, this time helping to spread a message of brotherly love by entertaining racially integrated audiences of soldiers. Ultimately she received two prestigious awards for her work in the war, the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance. And by the end of the war, she entered her fourth marriage, to her band conductor- Jo Boullion.
The war ws over, but Josephine still has some fight in her. At this point in her life, she directed it toward the fight for racial equality. She not only had lofty goals she had big…no, massive plans.
First she and Jo remodeled an old castle she named Les Milandes, in the south of France, into a tourist destination with a theme of brotherly love. This pricey undertaking required some capital, so off she went on another world tour. This time she was confronted with more racial barriers and opportunities for her to use her celebrity. One, an incident in New York’s famous Stork Club that involved then popular newscaster, Walter Winchell, got her banned from reentering the US for many years. (It’s a doozie, and we gossip on about the details in the podcast)
Next up, Josephine embarked on a plan to finally put herself in the role of a lifetime: Mother. She and Jo began to adopt babies of all colors and nationalities from around the world. They named the TWELVE children, The Rainbow Tribe.
But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for this unique family.
(Open on Jo driving away from Les Milandes, Josephine and 12 stunned children left in his wake)
Josephine and Jo didn’t see eye-to-eye on many things. Ahem, many – but one important one being the children: How many? How to raise them? When was enough enough? When Josephine was on tour, the children were raised by Jo and a series of nannies at Les Milandes. Mama would breeze in, sometimes with a new brother or sister- take a few pictures, love on them all, then go back on the road. The costs of the constant renovations to the castle were astronomical, and eventually she was so far in debt she couldn’t get ahead. Jo couldn’t understand her, deal with her, take it- whatever his reasons, he left – although they never divorced.
On one hand she had this falling down resort that is getting her more and more in debt each day and is filled with her very large family.
On the other hand, she was doing civil rights work all over the world as she was touring . She even spoke with Martin Luther King, Jr at the March on Washington as the only official woman speaker.
So what hand won?
Not Les Milandes. She got physically tossed out of it. But that’s again, not the end. Over the next few years, in not so short order: Princess Grace rescued her, helped set her up in a sweet villa in Monaco and funds a comeback show.
Opening night in Paris. It’s April, 1975 and Josephine is 68 years old. Does the old girl still have what it takes, or has Paris already seen the best she had to offer years before? Is she a washed up has-been, or a timeless superstar?
When the reviews came in the roaring cry was… Superstar!
Josephine was back on the stage, the cheers of the crowd ringing in her ears- she was a success.
The next day, no one could wake her as she lay among her rave reviews in the papers. She would never awake again. Within the week she was declared dead of a brain hemorrhage on April 12, 1975.
TIME TRAVEL WITH THE HISTORY CHICKS
You can visit Les Milandes without ever leaving your house! This is a really fun website and one of the few where we don’t mind music. Les Milandes Website.
If you are leaving your house and headed to New York, maybe you can dine at Chez Josephine, NYC.
Although her life really reads like a movie, this is the one movie that we could get our hands on: 1991 The Josephine Baker Story starring Lynn Whitfield.
We know you like your books and here are the ones that we recommend for this woman:
Have your own compare and contrast fest with these three biographies:
As always, our music comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at Music.mevio.com