Beginning in 1953, almost 30 years after her first successful performances on the Paris stage, the singer and dancer Josephine Baker adopted 12 children from different countries, ranging from Finland to Venezuela. She installed what she called her “Rainbow Tribe” in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France and charged admission to tourists who came to hear them sing, to tour their home, or to watch them play leapfrog in their garden.
This little-known chapter in Baker’s life is an uncomfortable one. “I would begin to tell the story of Josephine Baker, and people would start to laugh,” says Matthew Pratt Guterl, the author of a new book on Baker’s later life, Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe. “And I would start to wonder what that laughter signified.” Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, has in essence written two books in one: the story of Baker’s family, and a meditation on the meaning of that laughter.
Baker was born in St. Louis but moved to France in 1925. Her danse sauvage, famously performed in a banana skirt, brought her international fame. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross and gathered intelligence for the French Resistance. After the war, married to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, she struggled to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her career waned. Guterl’s book is about this period of Baker’s life, as she built her large adopted family, became ever more active on behalf of the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, and re-emerged into fame.
Baker purchased her estate, known as Les Milandes, after marrying Bouillon in 1947. In addition to the chateau, the property boasted a motel, a bakery, cafés, a jazz club, a miniature golf course, and a wax museum telling the story of Baker’s life. As Guterl makes clear, the place was over-the-top, but its ostentation was a political statement. Les Milandes, with its fairy-tale setting, announced to the world that African-American girls born poor could transcend nation and race and find wealth and happiness.
At the center of the attractions were Baker’s adopted children, from Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, Venezuela. During their school-age years, the 10 boys and two girls grew up in public. Just by existing as a multiracial, multinational family, they demonstrated Baker’s belief in the possibility of equality. They sang songs for paying visitors, appeared in print advertisements, gave interviews to curious press, and played in a courtyard in full view of what Guterl describes as “a wall of faces, watching and taking pictures.”
You can see why this chapter of Baker’s story provokes laughter. First, there’s a deep discomfort at her unapologetic marshaling of children to act out her own utopian racial narrative. Second, we think we understand what’s going on here; we see early incarnations of celebrity eccentricities from our own time. In the big adoptive family, we see Angelina or Madonna; in the celebrity theme park, we see Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. “The language of the strange and famous is readily available to us,” Guterl writes in the book’s prologue. “This same easy familiarity makes it harder to understand Les Milandes, not easier, because we rarely allow celebrity egocentrism to be serious or important.”
What would the Rainbow Tribe look like if we took it seriously? Guterl steps back, seeing the Tribe from Baker’s point of view. Baker was always an activist, wielding her international fame in the service of the civil rights movement in the United States. When she visited the States in the 1950s, she demanded that she be allowed to stay at the best hotels and play to integrated audiences.