In April 1929, Josephine Baker was the first African-American star to visit Belgrade, while she was on her tour around Central Europe on the Orient Express. The visit came during her peak popularity in Paris, just before she made her hit „J’ai deux Amours”, and while she was still shunned in her native US, despite entrancing everyone with her dance and skimpy exotic outfits.
She came to Yugoslavia with her partner and manager, “Count” Giuseppe Pepito Abatino.This was huge news to the city which so desperately wanted to show its modernity and worldliness, and which so desperately looked up to Paris at the time, which gave Baker’s visit additional draw.
At the time, Belgrade was already swept up in jazz-mania. The craze started in 1920s, and jazz bands played in prestigious Belgrade clubs, and even the Yugoslav Royal couple, King Alexander and Queen Marija were seen dancing to it in 1924. It was especially popular in Belgrade’s Jewish community who formed one especially popular band.
Thus it was no surprise that Josephine Baker’s performance was jam packed that April. Sher performed at the city’s glitziest pleasure palace, Luxor Balkanska, and later partied in “Jar” (Heat) a club owned by two White Russian emigre sisters and their brother. The siblings even joined her on stage, while Baker was apparently initially annoyed with the less than opulent décor and low temperature. Nevertheless, once the dancing started her skimpy banana outfit charmed the audience, who noted her kneeling on a Pirot kilim. The audience was over the moon with Baker, especially after she donated a hefty part of her proceeds to poor children in Serbia, a nod to her tough upbringing as a black woman in St Louis.
After the performance, she stayed in the modish Excelsior hotel and as a publicity stunt, Baker was also taken to Belgrade’s fanciest department store by its owner Mitić and allowed to inspect the luxury wares and take what she wants, and then later to the horse races at Belgrade racetrack. She also hung out with Sofka Nikolić, a sevdalinka singing European superstar of the day and ate ćevapi.
Her presence in Belgrade filled the pages of Politika, with a lot of exoticizing but ultimately positive articles, and one interview she gave to the goalkeeper of B.S.K. football club.
After a week of packed shows and milling about town, she set off to Zagreb.
Her presence there, however, was met with acrimony due to the conservatism of the local Catholic clergy who thought it scandalous. Although met by enthusiastic masses at the Zagreb train station, local clergy wanted to signal that her dancing was unwelcome in this more conservative city, by turning their backs to her in contempt as she was leaving the train. The packed performance in one of the city’s halls was disrupted by six seminary students who even threw a stink-bomb. Her follow-up shows were cancelled due to lobbying by local mortality police and she left her room at the gorgeous Esplanade hotel on an Orient express. The Time magazine, gleeful noted these troubles in their article “Beets for Baker”, without mentioning her warm welcome in Belgrade.
What came after however, was history.
Baker became part of the French Resistance and was a fierce fighter for Racial Equality in the US. She was the only official announced female speaker at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington where she famously said:
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world…”
Baker came back to Yugoslavia twice again after the war. In the late sixties, she only performed in Paris, New York, London and Belgrade, which she visited in 1968 for a concert. She returned in 1973, as a UNICEF ambassador, when Tito allegedly offered her an island in the Adriatic to settle down with her Rainbow tribe of 12 adopted children…