When Frida Kahlo Set Her Eyes on Josephine Baker

Frida Kahlo, artist, and Josephine Baker, entertainer, talking to each other.
Frida Kahlo, artist, and Josephine Baker, entertainer, talking to each other.

Two Powerful Bisexual Women

Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker were both powerful, talented and inspiring women in their own rights. Both dared to take the road less traveled and knocked adversity to the ground with grace.

Frida and Josephine were and still are admired worldwide. And while in Paris in 1939, they admired each other—all the way to the bedroom.

Who Is Frida Kahlo?

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo | Source

Frida Kahlo (July 6,1907- July 13, 1954) was a Mexican painter born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón in Coyoacán, a borough of Mexico City. Frida did not originally intend to be an artist. A survivor of polio, she entered a pre-med program in Mexico City, but her life changed drastically at age 18. After a horrendous accident while she was on a bus that collided with a trolley, she was confined to her bed for over a year, the first three months in a near full-body cast. Frida would draw on the bust of her cast, prompting her parents to have a special easel made, installing a mirror above her bed and providing her with paint and brushes. Here, Frida's life as an artist began. She is best known for her self portraits—of the 143 paintings she created, 55 were of herself. Kahlo explained, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."

Frida Kahlo painting while confined to her bed.
Frida Kahlo painting while confined to her bed. | Source

Frida admired the well-known painter and muralist Diego Rivera. One day, she boldly asked his opinion of her paintings. Diego soon became her biggest supporter, encouraging her career as an artist.

In 1929, Frida and Diego married. He was 20 years her senior. Frida's mother disapproved of the marriage between the dove (Frida, who was 5'3'' and 98 pounds) and the elephant (Diego, who was 6'1'' and 300 pounds), but they married nonetheless. Their marriage, however, was turbulent, as Frida's small stature was no indication of her sharp tongue and hot temperament in response to Diego's infidelity. But if anyone could handle objects being thrown at him, it was Diego. Frida and Diego's love was one of passion and imperfection. In order to maintain some sanity, they frequently lived in separate but conjoining homes. While Diego enjoyed his array of ladies, he also knew of Frida's intimacy with women.

Frida Kahlo, center, sits next to her husband, Diego Rivera, far right.
Frida Kahlo, center, sits next to her husband, Diego Rivera, far right. | Source

Undergoing over 30 operations in her lifetime and experiencing excruciating pain and sorrows contributed to Frida's ill temperament. The accident left Frida unable to bear children. While she conceived three times with Diego, all of her pregnancies were terminated by abortion or miscarriage. After Diego slept with Frida's younger sister, Cristina, the couple separated and eventually divorced. A year later, however, they remarried as Frida's condition worsened and a friend suggested it would help her heal. Frida agreed to remarry Diego under the conditions that she would continue to support herself financially and they would not have sex. Frida said of Diego, "[he] is not anyone's husband, and never will be, but he is a great comrade."

Frida Kahlo's "Portrait of Cristina, My Sister" (1928)
Frida Kahlo's "Portrait of Cristina, My Sister" (1928) | Source

A year before her death, while bedridden, Frida had a solo exhibition. Her doctor suggested that she not attend the opening reception, and gave her directions to remain in bed. However, Frida had herself carried into the gallery in her bed, making a grand entrance. Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, shortly after her 47th birthday.

Who Is Josephine Baker?

Entertainer Josephine Baker, American-born French citizen.
Entertainer Josephine Baker, American-born French citizen. | Source

Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906-April 12, 1975), born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, was a world-famous entertainer. After being sent away to work for white women at the age of eight, Josephine dropped out of school at age 12 and became a street child. Three years later, her street-corner dancing led her to be recruited for the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville show. Josephine continued performing in the United States, but was often faced with rejection due to her race. She decided to leave the US in the early 1920s and try her luck in Paris. Josephine explains, “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States…A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn't stand it anymore…I felt liberated in Paris.”

Once in Paris, Josephine was seen as a sensation on the stage and in movies. Quickly becoming famous and adored for her bold dance routines and revealing outfits, she was given nicknames such as "Bronze Venus," "Black Pearl," and "Creole Goddess." Josephine's most well-known costume consists of a skirt made of bananas and little else.

Josephine Baker in her famous banana skirt costume
Josephine Baker in her famous banana skirt costume | Source

Josephine never wanted to depend on men for financial support, which made leaving her husbands easier when the relationships went south. After her first (and abusive) marriage, at the young age of 13 to Willie Wells, ended, she remarried three more times. Her second marriage was in 1921 to Willie Baker, whose last name she kept simply because of the fame she gained during their time together. In 1937, she married Frenchman Jean Lion, from whom she attained her French citizenship. Last, Josephine married French composer Jo Bouillon, an openly queer man who eventually left, but never divorced, her. Josephine also had several miscarriages, and gave birth to one still-born, which led to an emergency hysterectomy.

In the 1950s, Josephine adopted 12 children, all of different ethnic backgrounds and races, whom Bouillon helped raise. She often referred to her kids as "The Rainbow Tribe." Josephine wanted to show the world that all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, could be brothers and sisters, and would even arrange tours at their home so that visitors could see how natural and happy the children were with each other.

Josephine Baker with her adopted children, "The Rainbow Tribe"
Josephine Baker with her adopted children, "The Rainbow Tribe" | Source

Josephine would occasionally return to the United States to perform. She was not always met with the best reception, but with time her popularity grew and she eventually performed to roaring applause in 1973—just two years before her death. While she wanted to love her original country, her allegiance was to France, and she even became a spy for the country during World War II. At age 68, Josephine Baker put on a final performance in Paris—a medley of routines from her 50-year career. A few days later, she was found lying in her bed in a coma, surrounded by newspaper clippings of raving reviews of her performances. She had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Josephine was taken to the hospital, where she died on April 12, 1975.

Frida and Her Love for Women

Detail of Frida posing in men's attire for a family portrait taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, in 1926.
Detail of Frida posing in men's attire for a family portrait taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, in 1926. | Source

During her marriage to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo had several extramarital affairs with both men and women. Frida was openly bisexual and would occasionally dress in men's clothing. Among Josephine Baker, some of the women Frida is said to have made love to include:

  • Painter Georgia O'Keeffe, of whom Frida once said, "O'Keefe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest. She didn't make love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad."
  • Mexican film actress Dolores del Río.
  • American actress Paulette Goddard, whom Diego had an affair with first. Goddard also helped Diego escape to America when he was being questioned for housing Leon Trotsky during his political asylum. Frida also had a secret affair with Trotsky.
  • French painter Jacqueline Lamba.

Josephine and Her Love for Women

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker | Source

Jean Claude Baker, the French-born son of Josephine, confirms that his mother had several affairs with women, referred to at the time as "lady lovers." Jean Claude explained that many of the girls in the show business would often live together, to save on costs. Most of these girls suffered abuse from producers, directors, and so on. Maude Russell, a fellow performer of Josephine's, stated, "The girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers. But lesbians weren't well accepted in show business—they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.”

In his biography of Josephine Baker, The Hungry Heart, Jean Claude mentions six of Josephine's women lovers by name:

  • Clara Smith, an American classic female blues singer. Before Josephine met Smith, she went by Freda Baker. Smith convinced her to use Josephine Baker as her stage name.
  • Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, and Mildred Smallwood—all African-American women Josephine met while performing.
  • American black expatriate Ada “Bricktop” Smith. She was also a dancer, singer, vaudevillian and self-described saloon-keeper.
  • Colette, a French novelist and performer. A controversial figure throughout her life, Colette flaunted her lesbian affairs.

While not listed in the book, Josephine's affair with Frida Kahlo was later confirmed. And while Frida was openly bisexual, Josephine was rather secretive about her affairs with women, denying her bisexuality to a point of homophobia.

The Romance of Frida and Josephine

Movie stills from "Frida" depicting the beginning of Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker's affair. Frida Kahlo is played by Selma Hayek. Josephine Baker is played by Karine Plantadit-Bageot
Movie stills from "Frida" depicting the beginning of Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker's affair. Frida Kahlo is played by Selma Hayek. Josephine Baker is played by Karine Plantadit-Bageot

In 1939, after separating from Diego, Frida Kahlo traveled to Paris for an exhibition of her works. While there is no written correspondence between her and Josephine Baker describing their affair, the movie Frida suggests they met at a nightclub after Josephine performed.

Whether their affair was brief or long-lived, one can't help but admire these two women for their tenacity, individuality, and larger-than-life presence. They had a lot in common:

  • Both women were extremely talented—Frida as a self-taught painter and Josephine as an entertainer.
  • Both suffered multiple miscarriages but dealt with them in inspiring ways—Frida's portrayal of her unborn child in brave and moving paintings, and Josephine's adoption of 12 children.
  • Both women put their lives at risk with their political roles—Frida by allowing Trotsky to live at her home during his asylum, and Josephine by becoming a spy for France.
  • Both had great pride in their self-sufficiency—Frida often insisting on having separate living quarters from Diego and not accepting money from him, and Josephine never afraid to leave abusive situations or sour relationships.

While both Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker are compelling in their own rights, the two of them together, even if just for a moment, is simply breathtaking.

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Comments 25 comments

George 2 weeks ago

A subtle musical encounter with Frida Kahlo

Em 3 months ago

Nice! I'm usually an impatient reader but I devoured this article.

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grand old lady 3 months ago from Philippines

These women were extremely independent and very much ahead of their time. This has been a truly interesting article, written with insight and depth. Brava!

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Life of an Artist 6 months ago from Huntsville, AL Author

@Victoria Pearson - Wow! So honored that my article was your first read here! I'm glad you enjoyed it! Welcome :)

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Life of an Artist 6 months ago from Huntsville, AL Author

Absolutely, @SilentReed! Thanks for taking the time to read :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Victoria Pearson profile image

Victoria Pearson 6 months ago from London

first article I have read here.. beautifully written, interesting ... fascinating

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Life of an Artist 8 months ago from Huntsville, AL Author

I'm so glad you all are enjoying this article!

@Azura Strong - writings simply state that the affair has been confirmed since Jean Claude's book. Most likely by him, since he knew about so many of Josephine's other lovers.

@lanablackmoor - how lovely to hear that this story sucked you in :)

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Duane Townsend 8 months ago from Detroit

A great piece about two of my favorite women...

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BrittanyRockette 8 months ago from North Carolina

Very nice content piece and awesome photos. Enjoyed reading.

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 8 months ago

Fascinating. Nice job!

Azura Strong profile image

Azura Strong 8 months ago from Austin

Ah, so Rivera slept with her younger sister. All the info I've acquired elsewhere just said things along the lines of "their marriage was rocky and he cheated on her." Thanks for the clarification. XD

I love both Jo and Frida. Bet they were a good couple. I'd heard this story before, but I didn't know if it was true.

Also, when/where WAS the Kahlo/Baker affair confirmed? Did this happen recently?

owlish profile image

owlish 16 months ago from Cheshire

Thank you for this, it was really interesting I didn't know about the connection between the two!

hmmmmm 17 months ago

Very helpful for my school project! Thank you!

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Life of an Artist 17 months ago from Huntsville, AL Author

Glad you enjoyed it! :) @letstalkabouteduc

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letstalkabouteduc 18 months ago from Bend, OR

Thanks for enlightening me on the connection between these talented women. I'm glad Josephine Baker was able to have the career in Paris that she couldn't have here.

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Life of an Artist 3 years ago from Huntsville, AL Author

Thank you so much for the wonderful comment Cheeky Girl :) I agree, love has no boundaries, and I'm so grateful these two beautiful women followed their hearts and lived passionate lives :)

Thank you for voting up!

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Cheeky Girl 3 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

Beautiful Hub and a beautiful story of two women so in love and so open and free. Love cannot be restrained or contained. Love is love.

Excellent and voted up, by me. I can relate to this so much!

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Life of an Artist 3 years ago from Huntsville, AL Author

@jhamann - I really appreciate your comment! Thank you so much for reading :)

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Life of an Artist 3 years ago from Huntsville, AL Author

@KrisL - both of these women are truly extraordinary! Wish I could have met them in person!!! Thanks so much for reading :)

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Life of an Artist 3 years ago from Huntsville, AL Author

@chef-de-jour: Thank you so much for your vote and share! I'm glad my hub helped you appreciate Frida even more! :)

jhamann profile image

jhamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

What a great hub, very well written and organized and about two artists who found their places in history. Jamie

KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

Fascinating hub! Thanks for this.

I've seen Frieda' paintings, but I knew much less about Josephine Baker. She must have been quite a woman!

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chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

When my friend wrote her first book - In The Blue House - about Trotsky and Freida - I had mixed feelings for Frieda but the more I read about her the more I admire her fire and determination. A special lady.

Your hub now confirms this to me.

Votes and a share.

Life of an Artist profile image

Life of an Artist 3 years ago from Huntsville, AL Author

You're right, there's soooo much more to Frida's story than what's told in the movie! It would have been extraordinary to meet both her and Josephine. Glad you enjoyed the read :)

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SilentReed 3 years ago from Philippines

The film "Frida" is entertaining, but it's too short to be able to portray and appreciate the lives of these larger than life personalities. I enjoy reading this hub and thank you for the links you provided.

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