She was among the first world-famous entertainers who were African-American. She caused a sensation during the Jazz Age when she performed in Paris wearing only a skirt of fake bananas. Ernest Hemingway famously called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
She starred in movies, appeared in “Ziegfeld Follies” on Broadway and, appalled by the level of racism exhibited toward blacks in her home country, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and settled in France.
That didn’t stop Josephine Baker from taking a leading role in the fight for civil rights. She was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, joining Martin Luther King Jr. on stage, as she told the crowd, “I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light the fire in you.”
For Spokane novelist Sherry Jones, the rich history of Baker’s extraordinary life proved irresistible. For her sixth novel, the author of “The Jewel of Medina” turned her eye to this 20th century icon. “Josephine Baker’s Last Dance,” a biographical novel from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint, hits store shelves on Tuesday. Jones will celebrate its release with a party in Spokane on Friday night. In advance, she took a few minutes to answer questions about her book and the inspiration behind it.
1. She worked as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II, flying airplanes, sneaking information pinned to her underwear across borders and becoming an expert markswoman. She could snuff a candle by firing a pistol from 20 yards away!
2. She was a leading figure in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, using her fame as a platform to draw attention to the ugliness of segregation and getting nightclubs, theaters, hotels and restaurants to integrate for the first time. As a result, she was invited to become the head of the NAACP, an offer she declined, and also became the only woman to speak with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1963 March on Washington.
3. She adopted 12 children from around the world, of varying races, nationalities, religions, and cultures – her “Rainbow Tribe” – to demonstrate to the world that hatred is not something we’re born with, but something we are taught.