When Frida Kahlo Set Her Eyes on Josephine Baker
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?
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 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.
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."
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?
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 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 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
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
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
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.