Dancer, singer, star of stage and screen, Josephine Baker is synonymous with the Jazz Age in Paris. But there is more to her than just that. When World War Two began she became a spy. When France fell she became a résistante. In later years she became a civil rights activist. Somewhere in between all those aspects of a storied life and career, Josephine Baker also found time to sprinkle a little bit of her stardust on the Tour de France.
Our story begins in 1933, a little bit before eight o’clock in the morning of Tuesday the 27th of June. Photographed here, at the Tour’s grand départ, is Baker alongside L’Auto’s editor and the man in charge of the Tour Henri Desgrange and – separating Baker and Desgrange – Maurice Goddet. In the right of the frame is Baker’s manager, Count Pepito de Abatino.
Maurice Goddet is the forgotten son of Desgrange’s deceased business partner Victor Goddet and the overlooked brother of Desgrange’s then heir apparent Jacques Goddet. His airbrushing from official Tour history is partly down to the belief that he is responsible for the selling of the Tour to Nazi sympathisers in 1940, a claim neither fully true nor fully false: like so much else in the Tour’s history it’s complicated.
One can only imagine the look of abject horror that must have passed over the face of Desgrange that morning when Baker casually admitted that she wasn’t a cyclist. “I don’t know how to ride a bicycle,” she told Desgrange and Goddet, “but believe me well, gentlemen, today I regret that.” Perhaps that explains the Father of Tour’s dour expression. While Baker didn’t know an awful lot about bike racing at that time you have to imagine that she knew what she was doing when she chose her ensemble that morning, picking a daffodil yellow jacket to accompany her white dress – a deliberate homage, you want to believe, to the Tour’s already iconic maillot jaune.
Baker’s yellow jacket was not the only way in which she tapped into cycling history, either by accident or design. She attached flowers to the handlebars of the Tour’s riders, an act that recalled a recently published history of the sport which referred to riders as les chevaliers de la bécane, ou la fleur au guidon: the knights of the bike, or the flower on the handlebars. André Leducq – one of the stars of the 1933 French squad having won the Tour in 1930 and 1932 – went on to use ‘a flower on the handlebars’ as the title of his autobiography (Une fleur au guidon).
This was the fourth Tour run under the international teams rule, Desgrange having got fed up with the trade teams after Alycon’s shenanigans in the 1929 race. Having won only a single Tour between 1919 and 1929, the French were batting three for three since the new rules came in. Here we have Baker with the 1933 French squad, who were about to make it four wins on the trot for les tricolores:
On the left of the above picture Charles Pélissier, youngest brother of the mercurial Henri, can be seen playing with Baker’s cat. Or is it a dog? Pussy or pooch, more should be written about Charles Pélissier and the way he might play with people’s pets.
The chemistry in the above composition is almost breathtaking. Pélissier – who by 1933 had already pocketed 14 Tour stages in just three starts – was to the fore as the Tour shrugged off its ‘vagabonds of the road’ past and embraced a new era of style. His pomaded hair and general air of grace earned him the nicknames Valentino and Brummel. It’s no wonder Baker can hardly stop gazing at him. You would too if you were there.
Then again, maybe she was just fascinated by his hair.
Many reports today tell us that Baker set the riders off on their way that morning. Some tell us that she cut the ribbon holding them back. Others that she fired a pistol. Still others suggest that she waved the same flag Georges Abran had waved when he sent the riders of the first Tour on their way 30 years before and which he and others had used ever since (although one presumes that the stick supporting the flag had been changed once or twice and the cloth itself replaced a couple or three times). Whichever method used, Baker probably didn’t. This is from a report in Paris-Soir the day after:
“one of my colleagues swears that the depart was given by Georges Biscot; another claims that it was given by Josephine Baker; another claims that it was given by Henri Desgrange; another claims that it was given by Cazabis; another swears that it was given by Georges Carpentier; and finally another particularly inventive one swears that it was given by Georges Milton, who was sleeping at that time the sleep of the just.”
Biscot and Milton were stars of stage and screen, Carpentier the world champion boxer famously defeated by Jack Dempsey. Cazabis looks like a typo of Lucien Cazalis, the secretary general of the Tour and the man responsible for the race’s first official anthems (1933’s ditty was ‘Le Tour qui passe’ – a real banger). Other stars of stage and screen present that morning included Mauricet (Georges Renaud) and Pierre Nay. From the world of sport there was the fencer Lucien Gaudin and athletes Jules Ladoumègue and Jacques Keyser. The aviator Michel Détroyat was there. Track star Marcel Berthet – he of the Hour fame – was also there, along with fellow trackies Falk Hansen and Lucien Faucheux. Few of these names may be recognisable today but each was well known then. Baker stands out among these men, not just for the longevity of her fame.
As for the issue of who really did give the start, Paris-Soir’s report from the evening before has Biscot waving the flag that set the riders on their way. L’Auto’s reporting from the morning after supports this claim.
Before moving on we have to ask how Baker came to be at the Tour’s start. Was this, like Major Taylor’s appearance at the start of 1901’s Bordeaux-Paris, arranged in advance? Would that it were. But like so much in Baker’s life, her presence at the Tour’s grand départ in 1933 was down to the star taking things into her own hands and making them happen. Like so much in the Tour’s history events were overtaking the race, leaving it to play catch up.
For Baker, the key event was a couple of Italian journalists from Turin’s La Gazzetta del Popolo attending one of her shows in the Folies Bergère. They were in Paris to report on the Tour and, after Baker’s performance ended, they sought out her manager, Abatino, who was another Italian. He introduced them to Baker. They talked to her about the Tour. And that was enough for Baker to decide to write to Desgrange asking if she could be a guest at its start.
Baker was back at the Tour the following year, again one of a number of stars seeing the riders on their way after they had proceeded across Paris from the départ fictif outside l’Auto’s offices in Montmartre to the départ réel in Vésinet, via the Champs Élysées and Porte Maillot.
Georges Biscot – who had starred in two Tour-set films from Maurice Champreux, 1925’s Le roi de la pédale and 1931’s Hardi les gars – ceded his traditional flag-waving duties to the Grand Prix driver Louis Chiron (pub quiz fans pay heed: he’s the first and so far only GP driver from Monaco to win his home race), with Baker joining the two at the start line. Also in attendance was the American boxing promoter Jeff Dickson, who had taken over the running of the Vélodrome d’Hiver in 1931. Elizabeth Argal, 1934’s Miss Paris, was also in attendance.
There is the tiny possibility of confusion over who really waved the little yellow flag and set the riders on their way: L’Auto and Paris-Soir agree it was Chiron, but this cartoon from Miroir des Sports muddies the water somewhat by giving Biscot his traditional honour:
One suspects that the Miroir’s cartoonist may have got a little bit ahead of himself and prepared that one in advance.
The lack of photos of Baker at the Tour in 1934 may be down to her only arriving a few minutes before the riders were sent on their way, at ten o’clock in the morning. Some claim that the late start was an attempt by L’Auto, a morning paper, to spike the guns of its evening rival Paris Soir, which had invested heavily in covering the race. Whatever the causes of the late start and Baker’s late arrival, she still had time enough to give small bouquets of flowers to the leaders of each of the teams.
Baker couldn’t make the start of the 1935 Tour de France but in her stead she sent along a delegation of young women to give out flowers, which some reports say were meant to bring luck.
By this stage Baker had been in Paris for close to a decade. She had first arrived in 1925 as part of an American touring troupe and from there had been signed to the Folies Bergère. Her success was immediate and, for some, has come to define her: dancing naked except for a string of pearls and a skirt made of rubber bananas she both pandered to and parodied European colonialist fantasies. The poet ee cummings, writing about those early performances, said Baker was “a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both: a mysteriously unkillable Something, equally nonprimitive and uncivilized”.
The media and the audience may well have objectified Baker – dehumanized her – but at the same time doors were open to her in Paris that had been shut in her face throughout her life in America: restaurants weren’t closed to her, she didn’t have to travel in the back of the bus. Like Major Taylor before her, Baker was welcomed warmly in Paris. Not that she ever fully escaped racism even as the French embraced her: she was dubbed the Ebony Venus and the Black Pearl, with few commentators ever able to overlook the colour of her skin.
Baker, she leaned into it and – to an extent – transcended it. As well as the haircare product, Bakerfix, she was the name behind a skin-darkening lotion, Bakerskin, while the best designers dressed her as she went from image to icon.
Baker also expanded her artistic repertoire: in 1930 she recorded a song that became an anthem for her, ‘J’ai deux amours’. The two loves she sang of were her country and Paris. At first her country was America but, as she grew more disillusioned with America by the segregation she experienced there, France took its place.
Baker’s artistic repertoire was also expanded by starring in a production of the Jacques Offenbach operetta La créole (whose run finished a few months before the start of the 1935 Tour) and by moving into films: a silent film, La Sirène des tropiques (Siren of the Tropics) in 1927 and a talkie, Zouzou, in 1934. It was the making a third film, Princesse Tam Tam, that kept Baker away from the 1935 Tour.
Baker was at the Tour for a third time in 1936. Above, Robert Wierinckx is too busy talking to his Belgian team-mate, Marcel Kint (Paris-Brussels 1938, World Championships 1938, Paris-Roubaix 1943, Flèche Wallonne 1943, Gent–Wevelgem 1949), to pay much heed as Baker attaches her flowers to his handlebars. That little bouquet still brought him luck and the next day Wierinckx won the sprint into Charleville’s vélodrome at the end of race’s second stage.
Wierinckx may have been too busy to notice Baker but his team-mate, Romain Maes, appears to have been utterly smitten by the American star. In the above image Maes’s namesake Sylvère Maes tries not to look too embarrassed by his team-mate’s antics. Behind is another Belgian rider, Felician Vervaeke.
As the hour approached nine o’clock Biscot began to lose it as he tried to call the riders to order. Baker just looked on, well used to this cycling lark now and no longer the ingénue Desgrange must have taken her for three years before.
On Baker’s right in the above image is Georges Milton. Another star present for the start that morning was the British-born singer and actress Meg Lemonnier, who was married to Maurice Goddet. She went on to star in Jean Stelli’s 1939 cycling film Pour le maillot jaune, which incorporated footage from the 1936 start.
Paris Soir did a celebrity round up that year, asking a few stars of stage and screen to pick their favourites for the race. Baker plumped for René Vietto, as did Maurice Chevalier. Georges Carpentier went for Maurice Archambaud. Mistinguett – with whom Baker had something of a bitchy rivalry, having succeeded her at the Folies Bergère – went for Antonin Magne, as did Lys Gauty. Jean Gabin went for Romain Maes. Gabin came closest, with the win going to the other Maes, Sylvère.
Pretty as her posies were, at this stage you might be wondering what became of the flowers Baker handed out. Surely the riders didn’t race with them still on their handlebars? L’Auto’s Robert Perrier wrote one year of watching Baker fix her flowers to the riders’ bicycles. Later he watched as some of those riders threw their little bouquets of flowers to shopgirls watching on. And, once the race had left Vésinet, he watched those shopgirls surround Baker and proudly present her with their little bunches of flowers. In a way, that’s a metaphor for the Tour itself: the riders left Paris and 27 days later the riders came back to Paris. They could have just stayed where they were but on each stage on their journey they brought joy and pleasure to different people.
Once again Baker was distributing her lucky flowers to the riders ahead of the Tour’s grand départ when the 1937 Tour rolled around. The previous autumn her manager, Count Pepito de Abatino, had died. Though he styled himself an aristocrat he was in fact a former stone-mason from Sicily whose real name was Giuseppe Abatino. The two had a complicated relationship: they claimed to be married (even though Baker had not yet divorced her second husband), they were sometime-lovers, and their business relationship saw much of Baker’s wealth being held in Abatino’s name for various legal reasons. The Italian had been by Baker’s side since soon after her arrival in France and had helped Baker shape the arc of her career, from exotic burlesque performer to elegant and glamorous star. Their marriage may have been false but it’s clear that Abatino was an important part of Baker’s life, emotionally as well as professionally.
Fittingly, this next image has Baker fixing her flowers to the handlebars of the Italian Tour squad, who were led that year – at Mussolini’s insistence – by il Pio himself, Gino Bartali. Italian audiences loved Baker almost as much as French ones did: some credit here must be given to her ‘marriage’ to Abatino. Some must also be given to the ease with which Baker had supported Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Baker credulously buying the Italian line that Haile Selassie – who was largely supported outside of Italy – had enslaved Ethiopians. Celebrity and politics, it’s fair to say, have never been a good mix.
Many modern day reports tell us confidently that Bartali fled from Baker when she appeared, others that he refused to be photographed with her, most have him crying out “I’m engaged!” (he married Adriana Bani in November 1940). Thing is … well … it’s complicated.
Bartali was under a lot of pressure at the start of the 1937 Tour. It was his debut at the French version of the Giro d’Italia (which he had won for the second time just a month earlier). Mussolini wanted a maillot jaune and no one wanted to upset il Duce. Despite a maglia rosa-maillot jaune double being unprecedented, Bartali was the out and out pre-race favourite. Everyone wanted a slice of him. When I asked Herbie Sykes about this – he’s the go-to man on all things Italian cycling – he suggested that Bartali was probably just in a grumpy mood that morning and we really shouldn’t read too much into this story. Certainly in later years, when the pressure was off and he could be more relaxed, Bartali had time at the Tour’s grand départ to smile and be photographed with the likes of the film director Orson Welles (1950) and the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (1951).
Bartali may have been in a grump that morning but the same could not be said for the French star Georges Speicher, who had won the Tour in 1933. He was in such an exuberant mood that he lobbed the gob on Baker.
Also present at the race’s start in 1937 was the Tour’s first British team, which was a bit of an Empire affair, made up of the Britons Bill Burl and Charles Holland and the Canadian Pierre Gachon. None of them made it back to Paris.
After a minute’s silence for the recently deceased Adrien Buttafocchi (the 29-year-old Tour veteran had been killed the week before while descending the Estérel in the GP Antibes) Antonin Magne, recently retired from the pro peloton and now writing for Paris Soir, took over the starting duties from Biscot and set the riders of Tour’s 31st edition on their way.
In recent years a much repeated claim has it that, having distributed her flowers, Baker then joined the 1937 Tour’s caravane publicitaire, at the behest of the French banana growers association (sort of like the Toast Marketing Board). The more fruity versions of this tale have her performing naked save for the banana skirt and pearl necklace that had helped make her famous a decade before.
While I can find no contemporary evidence to support this tall tale, I can find a lot of evidence suggesting that it is unlikely to be true. A fortnight after the grand départ Baker was in Paris for the city’s Bastille day celebrations, performing an outdoor concert in the Place de Grenelle. The Tour on Bastille day was 800 kms away, travelling between Marseille and Montpellier via Nîmes (it was a split stage). Throughout July Baker’s appearances at the Folies Bergère (evenings, and weekend matinees) continued to be advertised in Paris’s dailies. The Exposition Internationale was on (May through November) and Paris was thronged with tourists thirsting for entertainment. You’d need to have been selling an awful lot of bananas to have been able to afford to lure Baker away from that.
There’s also a lack of support for this story from Baker herself. Interviewed in 1949 she recalled her association with the Tours of the ‘thirties. She reminisced about getting up in the morning to cut the flowers she would give to the riders. She didn’t reminisce about dancing half naked in order to help flog phallic fruit.
Finally, you have to ask if this story fits with the way the publicity caravan was working in the 1930s: it was still a relatively small affair and while it was open in the evening for members of the public to come along and grab whatever freebies were on offer, it had not yet reached the point where it was providing organised evening entertainment.
Whatever grain of truth their might have been in this story, in the telling and the re-telling it has been lost as we mash together our perception of the Tours of the 1950s and the 1960s – when Charles Trenet, Petula Clark, and Johnny Hallyday all performed as part of the publicity caravan – with the interwar Tours of which we know too little, and with Baker’s story which, for many, has not been allowed to evolve beyond that one dance routine.
Baker’s stardust failed to fall on the Tour in 1938, she having recently set out on her own tour, taking her to England, on to Belgium and then up into Scandinavia. In her place her husband (she had remarried the previous November) entertained race officials at Baker’s villa in Vésinet, where according to a report in L’Auto they enjoyed “an excellent Vouvray 1918 and even took a few bottles which will keep us pleasant, but too short, company during the Tour.”
C’est tous, mais...
And that, ladies and gentleman, is that. As quietly as Baker’s association with the Tour had begun, it ended. Her own grand tours again kept her away from Paris in July 1939. No reports mentioned her absence or recalled the memory of her past presence. Then came the war and the new adventures of Josephine Baker, spy and resistante.
Across six Tours Baker had attended four and delegated others to act on her behalf in the other two. She never actually got to wave the flag that started the race, though she didn’t quite remember it that way when she recalled the Tour in later years – a diva’s memories are prone to minor embellishments and we accept that. But for those six Tours between 1933 and 1938 Baker was a part of the race’s furniture, playing an important role in la fête de juillet.
Like Cléo de Mérode in the 1890s, Baker brought a dash of fashion to cycling. But there’s more to this than superficialities. The Tour was going through a period of radical change. When the race first started from Vésinet, in 1925, it did so in the dark of night, a couple of hours past midnight. In 1938 it was heading for noon when the riders rolled out, 11:15 in the morning. The Tour was being civilized, some of its most dehumanising aspects excised. Newspapers had created the Tour now newsreels and radio were reshaping it, making it popular for a whole new audience. An audience more familiar with the likes of Josephine Baker than with Georges Speicher or Sylvère Maes. The Tour’s heroic age was passing, its golden age being born, and it really isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Baker was one of the midwives helping usher in that new era.