Many do know about Josephine Baker, the exotic dancer and French spy who was also a civil rights activist. A dancer in many Vaudeville shows, she performed in New York City before her achievements eventually took her to Paris, where she instantly became a celebrity, highly sought after due to her distinct dancing style and unique costumes.
Years after her double life as a WWII spy, Baker will be reinterred at the Pantheon monument in Paris, making her the first Black woman to be interred there. As France prepares to get her remains, which are buried in Monaco, transferred to the Pantheon, it would not be out of place to look at the story of another legendary dancer and singer who also started her career in the U.S. before moving to Europe, and eventually became known as the Josephine Baker of Spain.
Myrtle Watkins was born Myrtle Dillard on June 23, 1908, to Jasper Dillard and Betty Lane in Birmingham, Alabama. She started dancing with Yank Brunson in Baltimore in 1925 before joining the Eddie Lemon Stock Company, becoming a fixture at Baltimore’s Regent Theater.
She married a local mechanic called Cephus Watkins but the marriage lasted three months. Myrtle later traveled with the show, “Rarin’ to Go” around Baltimore, Washington, DC and Philadelphia but she left and settled in Boston for almost three years. She toured with Lew Leslie’s famous “Blackbirds of 1928” revue from November 1928 until May 1929, but following the Stock Crash and the Great Depression, Blackbirds dissolved.
It was tough for Myrtle. She went through a lot to find work in Harlem. However, her husband at the time — another dancer known as Eddie Thompson — became successful, touring along the vaudeville circuit. By June 1930, Myrtle had left her husband and gone to France with Eugene Newton’s “Chocolate Revue”. Some historians say that she left for Europe to escape racism throughout the U.S.
While in France, Myrtle performed for some months around the Montmarte district and relocated to Spain. There, she soon began headlining various cabarets and music-halls across Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and other Spanish cities, according to reports. By and by, the Spanish press described her as their own Josephine Baker.
It is documented that the American-born entertainer recorded several songs with the Barcelona Gramophone Company, appeared on radio, and even prepared for a film, which was never completed for reasons unknown. Some say that she even became the mistress of a wealthy Spanish nobleman and was mostly seen at Madrid’s Hotel Florida.
Myrtle toured other parts of Europe. Between 1933 and 1936, she was in Belgium, France, England and Germany. While in Brussels in June 1933 with Robert de Ker’s Orchestra, she recorded the Blues recording, “Lonely Brown Rose”. In April 1935, she was in Berlin to appear in a film. In Bombay, India in October that same year, she performed at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel.
In December, she met Malaysian cricket player, Lall Singh-Gill, who she married in 1937 after the two had toured Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Switzerland before coming back to Paris. Myrtle, who had adopted the Hindu faith at the time, continued to perform in Paris, and in the process, she met Samuel Bonifacio Zarate, a Mexican violinist who was well known among French audiences for his virtuoso violin skills.
By the late 1930s, Myrtle started performing to Latin American music under the name Paquita. She performed with Zarate, who was now her husband after her marriage with Singh-Gill ended in 1938. Myrtle and Zarate would perform around Bombay, Calcutta, Mussoorie and Lahore after moving to British India. The two became popular, performing for British troops and recording several songs for Columbia Records.
By 1943, the couple were in Mexico but relocated to San Francisco the following year. They then toured Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and Western Canada. In 1951 when they moved to Los Angeles, they established a music publishing company and wrote and recorded over 20 songs while making appearances on radio and TV.
But Myrtle knew how difficult it was to be an interracial couple, so sources say she “adopted the persona of a princess from Madras, India, completely burying her African-American roots.”
Later, the couple relocated to Depoe Bay, Oregon, where they bought a six-acre property and started running a restaurant and music and dance studio. They continued to perform but only around the Oregon coast and sometimes Mexico. Myrtle passed away on November 10, 1968, of diabetic complications but not without touching lives, particularly children in her community who learned not only music and dance from her but important life lessons.