Adopting the World: Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe

By Merlind Theile

Long before Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Madonna made headlines with their adoptive families, 1920s star Josephine Baker tried to combat racism by adopting 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds from around the world. Today the members of her "rainbow tribe" are still searching for their identity.

He is trying to describe what it was like to grow up here, to trace the vestiges of his childhood, but not much of that remains in this chateau that was once his home.

Today Akio Bouillon, a slight, affable man of Japanese origin, can only serve as a guide through an exhibit that pays tribute to his dead mother. In the former living room, a dozen of her robes are now displayed on headless mannequins, and in the study lies a semi-nude wax figure of Bouillon's mother, with a string of flowers draped around the neck. The "banana skirt" that made her famous hangs in a glass case; strips of gold material in the shape of bananas are attached to a narrow belt. His mother was the singer and entertainer Josephine Baker.

Bouillon, her oldest adopted son, turned 57 in July. He walks across creaking floorboards and into Baker's bathroom, with its black tiles and Dior bottles, and then into a series of rooms filled with photos, posters and her jewelry. Somewhere in this labyrinth is the small room where Bouillon slept as a child. Today, the bed is cordoned off from the hallway with a velvet rope, and a sign admonishes visitors not to touch anything.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Global Mother

He stands in front of the bed, smiles faintly and says that it was a nice childhood, for him and his 11 siblings.

Bouillon points to a poster on the wall, made from an old, black-and-white photo. It depicts little Akio, age 6, smiling at the camera, holding a white cat on his arm.

It is the only image visitors see of Baker's 12 adopted children, and Bouillon is the only one of them who still travels, once a year, to Château des Milandes in France's southwestern Périgord region. One of his brothers has already died, and the other 10 siblings avoid the chateau, which was purchased by strangers long ago. They don't want their photos to be exhibited here. They are tired of being put on display.

Vision of a Better Life

Jarry Baker, the third adopted son, hasn't been to the chateau in two decades. Now 55, he is a short, blonde man of Finnish descent with reddish cheeks. He moved far away, to New York, because it was the place where he could be himself.

Every day at noon, he takes the train from New Jersey to the Port Authority station in Manhattan, and walks a few blocks to "Chez Josephine" on 42nd Street, where he works as a waiter. The restaurant pays tribute to his dead mother, with pictures, photos and posters on its walls. The restaurant is near Broadway, and many of its customers are artists and gays.

Jarry Baker, who is also gay, likes the place. He was the opposite of what his adoptive mother had expected, and that was his undoing.

Misfortune often begins with visions, and Josephine Baker had her own vision. She did something that many celebrities would later emulate: She adopted children from poor countries to give them the opportunity of a better life.

Adoption is supposed to be an opportunity for children like Maddox, a boy that actress Angelina Jolie adopted in Cambodia, and Mercy, a girl from Malawi the singer Madonna recently adopted after the country's highest court approved the contested adoption -- even though Mercy still has a father in her native village. Madonna told the court that she could offer Mercy a better life -- a common argument. The stars want to set an example and use their celebrity status to do good. Sometimes it's about big ideas, promoting understanding among nations or putting an end to racism.

Looking for a Way Out

Perhaps Josephine Baker began adopting children as a way to compensate for her own unhappy childhood. Her life offered her many reasons to yearn for fame and family. Her mother, a black laundress from St. Louis, Missouri, was impregnated by a white man, and she kept his identity a secret. In the United States in 1906, a relationship, let alone marriage, with Josephine's father would have been unthinkable.

The mother had three more children and raised them on her own. From the age of eight, Josephine had to work, for example in kitchens where she cleaned and washed dishes. At 11, she witnessed race riots directed against African-Americans in which dozens of people were murdered, the sort of thing that was not uncommon in the southern United States at the time. When she was 13, her mother found her a husband so that she would be taken care of.

But Josephine wanted a way out of her life in St. Louis. She had taught herself to dance and sing as a child, and she wanted to be on stage.

She joined a vaudeville troupe at 14, and at 15 she married her second husband, William Baker, the son of a Philadelphia restaurant owner.

She would later keep his name, because she wanted to be known as Josephine Baker. She worked hard, danced on Broadway and was determined to become a star.

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