Beginning in 1953, almost 30 years after her first successful
performances on the Paris stage, the singer and dancer Josephine Baker
adopted 12 children from different countries, ranging from Finland to
Venezuela. She installed what she called her “Rainbow Tribe” in a 15th-century
chateau in the South of France and charged admission to tourists who
came to hear them sing, to tour their home, or to watch them play
leapfrog in their garden.
Baker was born in St. Louis but moved to France in 1925. Her danse sauvage, famously performed in a banana skirt, brought her international fame. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross and gathered intelligence
for the French Resistance. After the war, married to her fourth
husband, Jo Bouillon, she struggled to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her
career waned. Guterl’s book is about this period of Baker’s life, as she
built her large adopted family, became ever more active on behalf of
the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, and re-emerged
Baker purchased her estate, known as Les Milandes, after marrying
Bouillon in 1947. In addition to the chateau, the property boasted a
motel, a bakery, cafés, a jazz club, a miniature golf course,
and a wax museum telling the story of Baker’s life. As Guterl makes
clear, the place was over-the-top, but its ostentation was a political
statement. Les Milandes, with its fairy-tale setting, announced to the
world that African-American girls born poor could transcend nation and
race and find wealth and happiness.
At the center of the attractions were Baker’s adopted children, from
Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, Venezuela. During their school-age
years, the 10 boys and two girls grew up in public. Just by existing as a
multiracial, multinational family, they demonstrated Baker’s belief in
the possibility of equality. They sang songs for paying visitors,
appeared in print advertisements, gave interviews to curious press, and
played in a courtyard in full view of what Guterl describes as “a wall
of faces, watching and taking pictures.”
You can see why this chapter of Baker’s story provokes laughter.
First, there’s a deep discomfort at her unapologetic marshaling of
children to act out her own utopian racial narrative. Second, we think
we understand what’s going on here; we see early incarnations of
celebrity eccentricities from our own time. In the big adoptive family,
we see Angelina or Madonna; in the celebrity theme park, we see Michael
Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. “The language of the strange and famous is
readily available to us,” Guterl writes in the book’s prologue. “This
same easy familiarity makes it harder to understand Les Milandes, not
easier, because we rarely allow celebrity egocentrism to be serious or
What would the Rainbow Tribe look like if we took it seriously?
Guterl steps back, seeing the Tribe from Baker’s point of view. Baker
was always an activist, wielding her international fame in the service
of the civil rights movement in the United States. When she visited the
States in the 1950s, she demanded that she be allowed to stay at the
best hotels and play to integrated audiences.
Another bit of context: The Rainbow Tribe wasn’t the first, or the
only, project of its kind. As Guterl notes, large, public, transracial
families were a Cold War phenomenon in the United States. At a time when
Americans worried about spreading communist influence in Asia, Africa,
and Latin America, these “U.N. families,” featuring members from all
continents, showed that “everyone, really, could be brought into the
Guterl points to 1951 Life magazine coverage of the family of Helen and Carl Doss, a religious couple who adopted nine children, many of whom were from Asian countries; the story of the novelist Pearl S. Buck,
who adopted seven children of different races and became a public
advocate for interracial adoption; even the early history of the
infamous Rev. Jim Jones, who adopted an interracial group that he nicknamed the Rainbow Family and that formed the core of his utopian cult.
Like these groups, Baker’s Rainbow Tribe was the product of careful
planning for symbolic value. Children were renamed and raised in
different religious traditions so they could be more typical of the
racial and national types that Baker had decided should be represented
in the Tribe. Some kids received new backstories. Baker wanted an
Israeli child, but the Israeli welfare minister refused (telling her,
“We cannot sanction taking a child away from Israel when great efforts
are being made to bring children to Israel”). Undaunted, Baker adopted a
French orphan, named him Moïse (French for “Moses”), and decided that
he would be raised Jewish.
By dressing the children up in strong national, ethnic, and religious
identities, Baker could make a political point about the human capacity
to get along despite differences. In reading the historical
record—Baker’s correspondence, contemporary media coverage, other
documentation—Guterl found it hard to discern the children’s
individuality. “Their voices were significantly less important,” he
writes, “than their performance as an ensemble, their presentation as
part of a single object.”
The performance was difficult to sustain, however. As her adoptive
children aged, Baker ran out of money and was forced to sell Les
Milandes. The last few chapters of Guterl’s book, which tell the story
of what happened to the Tribe as they grew older, are tinged with
tragedy. Baker struggled with health problems and became less relevant
to the American civil rights movement as it moved into high visibility
in the late 1960s. She still performed, but any kind of rigorous
schedule was a strain, and her career couldn’t generate enough money to
sustain the large family she had created.
As Baker’s finances crumbled, she moved the Rainbow Tribe to Monaco
to live in a less grand home paid for by Baker’s friend and patron
Princess Grace. Here the kids, now entering their teenage years and, in
some cases, chafing at their public lives, began to resist Baker’s
authority. Baker looked for ways to farm the children out to others.
Bouillon, Baker’s husband at the time of the adoptions, was now her
latest ex; some of the kids went to live with him. Others went to
boarding schools. Baker sent a small group—including Marianne (adopted
from France), whose teenage love affairs drove Baker to distraction—to
live with a longtime Baker fan in the U.K. In perhaps the saddest and
most puzzling outcome, when Baker found out that Jarry (adopted from
Finland) was gay, she chastised him in front of his siblings before
sending him away to live with Bouillon in Buenos Aires.
But Guterl’s is not a book to read if you want to revel in the
downfall of what seems like an ill-conceived experiment. The author, who
told me that he grew up in a large, multiracial adopted family himself,
is close to the subject matter. “This was a very hard book to write,”
he told me. While Guterl did interview three members of the Tribe, he
resists offering up all of the gory details.
In Guterl’s book, and in other interviews
they’ve given, the grown-up adoptees generally remember their
childhoods at Les Milandes with fondness. As for their relationships
with their mother, they are reluctant to comment. Interviewed by Der Spiegel in 2009, Jarry said, “She was too possessive. We weren’t allow to develop the way we wanted to.” Akio (adopted from Japan) offered a more charitable assessment: “She was a great artist, and she was our mother. Mothers make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.”
I adored Josephine Baker as a child. I read everything I could get my hands on about her and never read that she charged admission to watch them coexist. I did find it strange that they called the kids the rainbow tribe but a lot of stuff was weird then.
She was one of the firct civit rights activists ... and thst was waaaay before the Black Power movement etc ... so she was pretty much alone in this struggle. Ya'll should read her Biography. When she died 20,000 frenchmen attended hrer service and the French honered her with a 21 gun salute.
As far as her being homophoboic - geesh everyone was homophobic back then.
Can't judge her reactions to things we think nothing of today ... those were different times.
Read her biography. She was the FIRST Black female International star and ran with the likes of Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Christian Dior and many, many more.
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