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Singer and dancer Josephine Baker was probably the closest thing the Jazz Age had to a Britney Spears-type character. The African American diva, who was known as "La Baker" in her adopted France, was a worldwide celebrity and devoted civil rights activist who first rose to fame by dancing in a "skirt" of artificial bananas and very little else. (Have a look at the dance for yourself.) While Baker's activism and military service were commendable, they often took a back seat in the contemporary media to her bizarre personal life. Let's take a look at five things you might not have known about Josephine Baker:
1. She Was a Spy
When World War II rocked her adopted France, Baker didn't simply move to a more peaceful country. Instead, she stuck around and did her part for the war effort. Since she had initially publicly supported Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, the Axis powers mistakenly thought she was "one of them," and Baker took full advantage of this misconception.
In fact, her fame made her the perfect spy. When Baker would travel Europe while touring, she obviously had to carry large quantities of sheet music with her. What customs officials never realized, though, was that a lot of this music actually had secret messages written on it in invisible ink. Fawning immigration officials never thought to take too close a look at the diva's luggage, so she could sneak all sorts of things in and out of countries. On some occasions, Baker would smuggle secret photos of German military installations out of enemy territory by pinning them to her underwear.
This invaluable intelligence work eventually helped Baker rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, and when the war was over she received both the Croix de Guerre (a first for an American woman) and the Medal of the Resistance in 1946.
2. She Was Worth Dueling Over
Lots of stars have devoted fans, but how many would be willing to fight a duel for their favorite diva? In 1928, a Hungarian cavalry officer and an Italian count did just that in Budapest. According a contemporary account from Time, "the ogling and attentions of Hungarian Cavalry Captain Andrew Czlovoydi became too fervently gallant to be stomached by La Baker's manager, Count Pepito di Albertini." Rather than just ask Czlovoydi to knock it off, the Count took the reasonable step of challenging the soldier to a swordfight duel.
Fittingly, the two duelers met in a cemetery for their showdown while Baker cheered on the Count from a perch atop a tombstone. According to Time, the two men battled with swords for a solid ten minutes before the Count took a light blow to the shoulder. At that point, Baker intervened and forced the two men to set aside their differences.
3. Angelina Jolie Had Nothing on Her
Celebrities adopting children from underprivileged backgrounds may be old news at this point, but what Baker did in the 1950s is still shocking and fascinating. In an effort to combat racism and provide an example for the rest of the world to follow, in 1954 Baker started adopting orphans from all corners of the world.
Baker started by adopting a Korean child, Akio, then followed up with Japanese Taruya, Finnish Jari, and others until she had assembled a family of 12 children from a variety of countries and ethnicities. Baker dubbed these kids "the Rainbow Tribe," and housed them in her chateau in southwestern France.
As part of her efforts, Baker also turned the chateau into a sort of resort/theme park with a multicultural theme. It didn't catch on quite as well as Epcot did. By 1968, the operation was hemorrhaging money, and Baker's creditors had to sell the mansion out from under her.
4. She Was Tight With Grace Kelly
Although Baker lived and worked in France, she still made frequent touring trips back to the United States. During one 1951 visit to New York, Baker found herself at the Stork Club at the same time as rising actress Grace Kelly. When the racist staff refused to wait on Baker, Kelly, who was dining with a large party of her own, flew into a rage and walked out of the club in support of Baker.
From that moment on, Kelly and Baker were close friends. In fact, when the Rainbow Tribe's chateau was on the rocks financially, Kelly—who by that time had become Princess Grace—tried to bail Baker out with her creditors. When Baker ended up losing the house, Kelly didn't abandon her hard-luck friend. Instead, she arranged for the singer to have a villa in Monaco.
5. She Had Quite the Menagerie
Baker was just as big on collecting animals as she was about acquiring children. When a club owner gave her a pet cheetah named Chiquita to use as part of her dance show, Baker was delighted. In fact, she liked Chiquita so much that the cat stayed with her long after the act ended; eventually the cheetah traveled the world with Baker, always riding in her car and sleeping in her bed.
That wasn't Baker's only pet, though. She had a goat named Toutoute who lived in her dressing room at her nightclub, and at the same club she had a pet pig named Albert. Albert was no ordinary pig. Not only did he live in the club's kitchen and munch on food scraps, but Baker also liked to gussy him up with fancy perfumes. At one point Albert got so hefty from living this high life that he couldn't make it out of the kitchen's door any longer, so the door's frame had to be broken down.
'5 Things You Didn't Know About…' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.