Adopting the World Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe

By Merlind Theile

Part 3: A Dream Childhood?


On the surface, the children seemed to have a dream childhood. They were living in a castle, like children in a fairy tale. They played with knights' armor tucked into nooks along the spiral steps to the tower, romped in the gardens, built tree houses and frolicked with the dogs. Akio remembers that he and his brothers often caught flying beetles and tied them to strings to keep them from flying away. The children carried them around like balloons.

Every year at Christmas, the presents were piled high to the ceiling in the castle. Monstrous, says Jarry. It was Baker's way of showing affection for the children. Their duty, in return, was to allow themselves to be shown off to the public.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Global Mother

On the occasional Sunday when she was there, Baker would dress the children in white and have them line up in the courtyard, where tourists and the press were waiting behind a fence to take pictures. Jarry says that he and the other children sometimes felt like pet monkeys.

Child number 10, a small indigenous boy from Venezuela, came in 1959. The global mother needed to complete her collection.

Financial Ruin

Today there are regulations governing international adoptions. Before a child is given up for adoption, authorities must verify that all options to keep the child from being removed from the country have been exhausted. This is always seen as the better solution.

The situation was different half a century ago. Besides, Baker was a star. She had influential friends, like Princess Grace of Monaco, and she had money. Not all of her children were orphans. In some cases, she simply bought babies from their destitute parents. For example, to adopt blonde Jari, the diminutive Finn, she simply paid his parents in Helsinki a few thousand dollars and the deal was sealed.

In 1960, she got child number 11: a white infant from France.

It had all become too much for Baker's husband. After years of her escapades and their arguments, Bouillon left the chateau, and in 1963 he moved to Buenos Aires. Without him and his business acumen, the estate was doomed to financial ruin. The children lost their father figure, the only person who had given them some structure in Baker's chaotic world.

In 1964, child number 12, the last child, was acquired: a little girl from Morocco.

Vacations with Castro

Baker traveled the world with the children. They met the pope and vacationed with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The situation at the chateau spun out of control. All the employees, private tutors, monkeys and other animals she had acquired were eating up Baker's fortune. She managed to fend off bankruptcy for a few more years, stubbornly living her dream, an aging regent who tolerated no back talk and treated the children like subjects.

She wrote reports about them, described their characters in detail and drafted plans for their future. Akio was to become a diplomat, Jari a hotelier. Another child was supposed to be a doctor. But none of them were to be artists. She even banned music instruction. After they had received their education and training, the children were to return to the countries where they had come from and make themselves useful there, as Baker's envoys and as the loyal executors of her ideas.

None of the children stuck to the plan.

Teenage Rebellion

They rebelled when they reached puberty. Baker had acquired 10 sons, with only seven years separating the youngest and the oldest, and they turned into a horde of hyperactive teenagers -- going out at night, falling in love, staying away for days at a time, rattling around the neighborhood on their mopeds, getting drunk, taking drugs, stealing and wearing hippy clothes that their mother didn't like. But her slaps no longer intimidated them. They were as wild and unruly as a pack of young wolves, and Baker had little experience as a mother.

She lost the chateau in 1969, and when she refused to leave she was carried out against her will. She sat on the steps in the rain for two days, covered with only a plaid wool blanket. The photo quickly appeared in newspapers around the world.

The children went to boarding schools or, like Akio and Jari, moved to Buenos Aires to live with their adoptive father, whose surname most of them have kept. Akio had a falling out with his mother a few months before Baker's sudden death in 1975. His Christmas present had arrived too late, causing an argument that the two would never resolve. Akio was the only child not to attend the funeral in Monaco, which was hosted by Princess Grace.

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