Adopting the World Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe

By Merlind Theile

Part 2: The Lust for Pleasure

In 1926, she bent over in her banana skirt, practically nude, in a revue at the Folies-Bergère in Paris. The audience was ecstatic. It was the roaring 20s, and in Europe's cities, where people celebrated with abandon, Josephine Baker, as a nude, exotic woman, satisfied their lust for pleasure.

Baker was a sex symbol, a role she relished, sleeping with men and women -- thousands, as she would later say. But none of this love-making gave her what she wanted most. She married a third time, but she still couldn't get pregnant. She was infertile.

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She threw herself into her work, discovering a new passion in World War II. She supported the French resistance movement, and was given a uniform and awarded many decorations. By then, Baker was rich and famous, and yet there was still a gaping hole in her life.

The war ended. Baker, now in her 40s, was no longer a sex symbol. She needed a new role. Like Madonna decades later, she felt the need to constantly reinvent herself.

In 1947, Baker married her fourth husband, French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon. She bought a Renaissance castle in Périgord, the Château des Milandes, with more than 30 rooms, surrounded by 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of land.

Fighting Racism

She was practically royalty by then, but she was still black. When she visited the United States, she could only enter some hotels through a back entrance.

She was determined to fight this racism. And now she owned a chateau. A plan began to take shape in Baker's mind.

In early 1954, she gave a talk in Copenhagen. She wanted to make a gesture of humanity, she said, explaining that she wanted to "adopt five little boys" -- one from each continent.

When Baker traveled to Japan in the spring to pick up her first child, Akio had been in an orphanage for 18 months. He had been abandoned in Yokohama shortly after birth, on a rainy day in September 1952. A woman had walked into a small shop carrying a bundle in her arms and asked if she could leave the baby there for a moment so that she could get an umbrella.

Baker adopted Akio and another baby and took them to Château des Milandes, where more than 100 employees were hired to transform the estate into a center of brotherliness, and a place where celebrities and weekend guests could meet. The main attraction would be Baker's new family, in its splendid array of skin colors. Baker called the family her "Rainbow Tribe." It was front-page news.

In that same year, she adopted her third child, a 12-year-old Finnish boy from Helsinki with pale skin and light-blonde hair. His name was Jari, but he would later call himself Jarry after she rejected him.

Child number four was a black baby from Columbia. Child number five: a white baby from France.

Growing Family

Baker's husband, Jo Bouillon, managed her affairs at Les Milandes and struggled to raise the children. His wife was constantly on tour, bringing home a new child from practically every trip. But she was only interested in adopting boys, fearing that romantic attachments could develop between the children.

Then, in 1956, came the sixth and seventh children: a male baby and the first female infant, both from Algeria.

Enough, Bouillon told his wife. Who is going to raise them all? he asked.

A rotating assortment of nannies looked after the children until Baker fired them. She would occasionally storm around the estate, furiously ordering gardeners to replant shrubs, only to slap them afterwards for having done so. She redecorated the chateau, hosted wild parties and took off again.

Child number eight, a white boy from France, arrived in 1957. Baker told the press that he was from Israel. She had been missing a Jew in her tribe.

Demanding Affection

In photos taken at the time, the chateau looks more like an orphanage than a real home. The children slept in a room in the attic, in eight small beds lined up in a row. Whenever Baker returned home, even if it happened to be at 3 a.m., she would wake the children and demand affection.

Jari, the Finn, was a quiet boy, but Akio, the eldest, was the quietest of them all, not speaking at all until he was four.

Today, he knows quite a lot about the trauma of adopted children, and about the special care they need, especially if they are from faraway countries. They are doubly homeless from the beginning, not knowing where they belong, and some crumble under the strain. They are more susceptible to addiction and emotional disorders than children who grow up with their biological parents.

Every adopted child needs the full attention of his or her new parents. By this time, Baker had eight children, and there were more to come.

The ninth child, a black baby from the Ivory Coast, came in 1958.


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