In the fall of 1939, Josephine Baker stepped onto a stage unlike any other she’d graced in her sizzling career. Hoping to improve the morale of the troops who manned the Maginot Line, the massive defensive structure that guarded France’s eastern border, the French high command had asked her to perform a series of shows. The bunkers and barracks were a far cry from the blazing lights of Paris’s Folies-Bergère or the Casino de Paris where Baker dazzled audiences with her graceful dancing, comedic timing, and barely-there costumes. Her shows gave the troops a reprieve from watching the German border and wondering when the Wehrmacht might strike. Instead, the men hooted and hollered as the 33-year old Baker sang and slinked her way through a series of French chansons.
Maurice Chevalier, who had made a career of musical comedy in Paris and Hollywood, joined Baker on the tour. The fifty-something Chevalier, sporting his trademark straw hat, insisted on going second, intending to finish the show in grand style. He didn’t count on Baker’s receiving calls for encore after encore, cutting into his performance time.
The soldiers responded to Baker the same way Paris had ever since the ambitious African-American girl from St. Louis charmed the city with her comedic sensuality. After a hardscrabble childhood in St. Louis, Baker found her way to headline La revue nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1925. The daring show, which featured Baker dancing in nothing but a feather skirt, set Paris talking—and it hadn’t stopped since. Parisian society also welcomed Baker, giving her a level of freedom and acclaim that her country of birth could barely imagine, let alone offer. She embraced it all: the men, the jewelry, the clothes, the grand houses. She sauntered down the Champs-Élysées with her pet cheetah on a leash. She even gave product endorsements. When Casablancans opened their newspapers and magazines, they saw ads for Bakerfix, a crème “to keep your hair supple, brilliant, and in place,” available at Casablanca’s finer salons.