A very special guest….The day Josephine Baker came to Elvington.
On the 16th of May 1945, RAF Elvington hosted a very special surprise guest on the site of what is now the Yorkshire Air Museum.
It is a few days only since VE Day and the capitulation of Germany. The 2,500 French airmen based at Elvington are restless. The question on everybody’s mind is “When will we go home to France?”.
Preparations, practice exercises and outings in York cannot seem to distract the airmen enough at a time when they are craving for their French roots and culture.
On 16th May 1945, one Parisian visit however will leave an unforgettable memory in the minds of all those who are present.
This is an incredible surprise for the entire personnel in Elvington. Today, a very special celebrity is charming everyone with her presence: Lieutenant Josephine Baker.
Pierre-Celestin Delrieu recalls (in Feu du ciel, Feu vengeur): “Josephine Baker, yes, Josephine Baker came to surprise us one day, in all her charm.”
“Proudly wearing the cap and uniform of the French Air Force, with two gold stripes, we saw Lieutenant Baker climb on an improvised stage inside the largest of the hangars. All the Frenchmen of Elvington wanted to see and hear her.”
“Her beaming smile, her grace, her simplicity, her talent – it must be said – all contributed to victory; because, everywhere she went, she gave confidence to the troops, uplifting their morale.”
It seems that the Theatre aux Armees has finally heard of the Frenchmen in exile in the deep corners of Yorkshire and has sent them Josephine. Her presence, for a few hours only, would give an amazing boost to everyone desperate to return home to France.
Pierre-Celestin Delrieu continues:
“It was a spectacular triumph. The climactic point was when she sang ‘I have two loves: my
country and Paris’. There were cheers, encores and tears on people’s faces. “
“That evening, Josephine dined in the Officers Mess. Inside the lounge, she was mingling, from group to group, relaxed, friendly and informal. I was lucky to have her sit in front of me, for a few moments, and able to chat with her, moved by her presence, moved by everything she represented from France, our country freed nine months ago but still so far from us.”
Who Was Josephine Baker?
Josephine Baker was born in 1906 in St Louis, USA. After a difficult childhood including being sent away to work as a housemaid at the age of 8 and two failed early marriages at the ages of 13 and 15, she moved to Paris in the 1920s, at the age of 19, after being scouted by a talent recruiter. Whereas the USA were very segregated at the time, Paris was opening its arms to many American artists.
She is first known for her provocative ‘Dance Sauvage’ also known as ‘Banana Dance’ which equally shocked and delighted audiences. She is vivacious, gregarious and gains the admiration of all, accepted and adored for who she is. She gains a stardom status, becoming the most photographed person, with dolls made in her image. She becomes a fashion icon. She is a true show woman, leading an extravagant lifestyle. Some days, you can see her walk the streets of Paris with her cheetah sporting a diamond collar.
Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, her song ‘J’ai deux amours: mon pays et Paris’ makes her a symbol of class and glamour. On her return to the USA in the mid 1930s, she is refused entry to many clubs and theatres. She feels insulted, rejected and segregated. She travels back to her adoring fans in Paris and takes on French citizenship through her third husband.
Suddenly, it is the outbreak of the Second World War. As early as 1939, she is recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence. She becomes a spy, using her fame and celebrity to infiltrate networks and gather high intelligence. She collects information about German troop locations from officials she meets at parties. During events at Embassies and Ministries, she charms people while gathering information without raising suspicion. Her café-society fame enables her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she has heard.
After the German invasion of France, she leaves Paris and uses her home in the Dordogne to house people eager to help Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement. She uses her international reputation as an entertainer to move freely and thus help refugees to leave the country. She travels around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carries information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbours and German troop concentrations in the West of France. She uses her sheet music to write coded messages in invisible ink. She pins notes with information gathered inside her underwear, daring anyone to strip search Josephine Baker!
Later in 1941, she travels to the French colonies in North Africa to continue helping the Resistance. In Morocco, she sings on a volunteer basis in front of French and Allied troops stationed in North Africa despite serious health problems. After her recovery (she develops an infection requiring a hysterectomy which leads to her developing peritonitis followed by sepsis), she starts touring to entertain British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa.
The Free French have no organized entertainment network for their troops, so Baker and her entourage manage for the most part on their own and never charge admission or allow civilians to attend her performances.
Dedicated to France, Josephine said: “It was France that made me. I am ready to give it my life today. You can dispose of me as you see fit.” And, indeed, Josephine Baker risked her life fighting for the Free French several times!
It was not until 1961 that she was awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honour from General Valin at the Château des Milandes, her residence in the Dordogne. She also received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance.
Josephine used her notoriety to fight the racism that remained omnipresent at the end of the war. Despite her fame and glory in France, she frequently returned to the United States in the 1950s, participating in demonstrations and boycotts against segregation, and supporting the Civil Rights Movement. During the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. and was among the numerous notable speakers. She was the only woman to do so.
For her, there was only one race: the “human race.”
After the war, Josephine, unable to sustain a pregnancy, adopted 12 children, all of different nationalities and religions, whom she called her ‘Rainbow Tribe’.
“All of a sudden, I felt that through little children, people, probably, would be able to get together in understanding. It might be that the children are a symbol of unity among the people of the world. So I started travelling around the world and picked one up here, one up there, got them together and they form a beautiful united family – a real league of nation”.
Josephine finally obtained the triumph she deserved in the US, performing at Carnegie Hall in 1973, at the age of 66. Her last performance was for the Monaco Red Cross in 1975, in Paris, to standing ovation. She died shortly after of a cerebral haemorrhage following what was a tumultuous, powerful and meaningful life.
20,000 people lined the streets of Paris for her funeral at La Madeleine. She received the honour of a 21 gun salute. She was the first American women to be buried in France with full military honours.
In Elvington, 75 years after her visit, we are still humbled by her graceful presence and the joy she brought to our very own airmen as World War Two ended.
Barbara George, Museum Director, Yorkshire Air Museum, 16th May 2020.