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Rheta Grimsley Johnson: More than a song and dance woman

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

CHATEAU DES MILANDES, France -- She called it her "Sleeping Beauty Castle," and that name is apt. If you saw this storybook chateau in the U.S., you'd figure Disney built it. You'd drive a thousand miles to look at it. 

 

From my French rental in the Dordogne, it is less than 10 miles. The problem is distinguishing it from all the other nearby castles. 

 

It's another tale you think of, however, when you tour the late Josephine Baker's dream home. Her rags-to-riches and back-to-rags story is reminiscent of Cinderella, but without the glass slipper and happy ending. In the kitchen, a black-and-white photograph shows a beleaguered Baker sitting on the chateau steps, locked out of her beloved property that was sold in 1968 to pay her debts. 

 

But, I'm talking too fast. While the superstar Baker still had her fortune, she did a lot with it. 

 

Born in a St. Louis ghetto to a laundress and a drummer who soon deserted the family, Josephine Baker was a determined black youth who left the U.S. for France before age 20 to sing and dance. Think equal parts Beyonce and Eleanor Roosevelt. 

 

By age 24, Josephine Baker was a Folies Bergere superstar -- receiving ovations from Paris audiences, appearing in movies and countless revues. Baker was the first black woman to have a major movie role or to achieve worldwide fame. She started her own cabaret and dressed in high fashion that got noticed even in the fashion capital of the world. She was hard to miss with a cheetah on a leash. 

 

I knew little about Baker before touring the chateau, which she rented for 10 years before buying it in 1947. I knew, of course, about the famous banana belt made of cloth and sequins. There was more than one of those skimpy costumes. 

 

I did not know the extent of Josephine Baker's humanitarianism. 

 

She was a French Resistance fighter, with arms hidden in her castle's cellar and a radio installed to communicate with exiled General de Gaulle. She carried important information for the Counter-Intelligence Services written in invisible ink on her sheet music. "It is France that has made me who I am. I will be forever grateful to this country," she wrote.  

 

Because she was an entertainer, Baker traveled about more freely than most French citizens, which she had become in 1937. She performed for free for the American troops in Morocco and toured all over spreading the idea of a Free France. She risked her life. 

 

In the U.S., she was an ally of Martin Luther King and refused to perform for segregated audiences. At one point, her causes got her tailed by the FBI. Over the years, her reception in her birth country was mixed -- sometimes hostile, sometimes enthusiastic. When she was refused admission to New York's Stork Club, no less than Grace Kelly linked arms with Baker and walked out of the building. The two became lifelong friends. 

 

Baker, who was married four times but never gave birth, adopted 12 children from different countries and religious and ethnic backgrounds and invited the public to tour her chateau and watch how well the siblings got along. She called it her "village du monde." 

 

She built parks and mini-golf courses in the shadow of the chateau and equipped it with art deco-designed bathrooms. 

 

Baker died at age 68, still famous and performing. Her chateau is privately owned and a major tourist attraction. The French revere her.

 

 

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