Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975) was another African American entertainer who became a world-wide sensation. Like Eartha Kitt, she came from the humblest of origins. She didn’t know her father, who was probably white. When she was only eight years old, she was sent out to work for a white woman who abused her. By the age of twelve, she was living on the street, scavenging garbage. Street corner dancing garnered handouts and eventually a position with a vaudeville troupe.
By 1925, she was wowing the crowds on the Champs Elysées. Her erotic dancing, when she sometimes wore just a string of artificial bananas, created a sensation. If the attire wasn’t enough to attract interest, there was always her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who occasionally escaped mid-spectacle. No wonder Ernest Hemingway called her, “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She married a Frenchman and became a French citizen. She was an “honorable correspondent” during the war; her popularity gave her access to Axis officers and she passed on any juicy tidbits she overheard. After the occupation of Paris, she worked for the Free French and smuggled secrets throughout Europe written on her sheet music in invisible ink. She was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her bravery.
She also followed the American Civil Rights movement and made her own gesture of racial integration by adopting twelve children of many different nationalities. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. She spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. While her financial health knew enormous peaks and valleys, her popularity and influence remained undiminished. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage four days after a sold-out concert before an audience that included Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, Liza Minelli, Diana Ross, and Shirley Bassey. She was buried with full French military honors, the first American woman ever to receive such an accolade. Listen to her big hit, J’ai deux amours at and watch the banana dance.
Today’s expression, la musique adoucit les mœurs, (lah miuseek a-doo-see leh mirse) literally means “music soothes attitudes.” Mœurs has several definitions, but this is probably the best for this context. It’s closest to the English expression by William Congreve, “music has charms to sooth the savage breast.” I think Josephine Baker was more eager to stir up emotions than soothe them, however!