Josephine Baker sashayed onto a Paris stage during the 1920s with
a comic, yet sensual appeal that took Europe by storm. Famous for
barely-there dresses and no-holds-barred dance routines, her exotic
beauty generated nicknames "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess."
Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars,
and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals. She maintained
energetic performances and a celebrity status for 50 years until
her death in 1975. Unfortunately, racism prevented her talents from
being wholly accepted in the United States until 1973.
She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on
June 3, 1906 to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer
Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie
married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin.
Their family eventually grew to include a son and two more daughters.
Josephine grew up cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white
families who reminded her "be sure not to kiss the baby."
She got a job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur's Club when she
was 13 years old. While waiting tables she met and had a brief
marriage to Willie Wells. While it was unusual for a woman during
her era, Josephine never depended on a man for financial support.
Therefore, she never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured.
She was married and divorced three more times, to American Willie
Baker in 1921 (whose last name she chose to keep), Frenchman
Jean Lion in 1937 (from whom she attained French citizenship)
orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 (who helped to raise her
12 adopted children).
Josephine toured the United States with The Jones
and The Dixie Steppers
in 1919, performing various comical skits. When the troupes split,
she tried to advance as a chorus girl for The
in Sissle and Blake's production Shuffle
. She was rejected because she was "too skinny
and too dark." Undeterred, she learned the chorus line's routines
while working as a dresser. Thus, Josephine was the obvious replacement
when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted
clumsy. The audience loved her comedic touch, and Josephine was
a box office draw for the rest of the show's run.
She enjoyed moderate success at The Plantation Club in New York
after Shuffle Along
. However, when Josephine
traveled to Paris for a new venture, La Revue
, it proved to be a turning point in her career.
Amongst a compilation of acts, Josephine and dance partner Joe Alex
captivated the audience with the Danse Sauvage
Everything about the routine was new and exotic, and Josephine,
boldly dressed in nothing but a feather skirt, worked the audience
into frenzy with her uninhibited movements. She was an overnight
Josephine's immense popularity afforded her a comfortable salary,
which she spent mostly on clothes, jewelry and pets. She loved animals,
and at one time she owned a leopard (Chiquita), a chimpanzee (Ethel),
a pig (Albert), a snake (Kiki), a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish,
three cats and seven dogs.
Her career thrived in the integrated Paris society; when La
closed, Josephine starred in La
Folie du Jour
at the Follies-Bergère Theater. Her
jaw-dropping performance, including a costume of 16 bananas strung
into a skirt, cemented her celebrity status. Josephine rivaled Gloria
Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the
world, and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe.
She starred in two movies in the early 1930s, Zou-Zou
and Princess Tam-Tam
, and moved her
family from St. Louis to Les Milandes, her estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac,
A 1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies
proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity
in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman
with so much sophistication and power, newspaper reviews were
equally cruel (The New York Times called her a "Negro wench"),
and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.
Josephine served France during World War II in several ways. She
performed for the troops, and was an honorable correspondent for
the French Resistance (undercover work included smuggling secret
messages written on her music sheets) and a sub-lieutenant in
the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She was later awarded the Medal
of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion
of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication.
Josephine visited the United States during the 50s and 60s with
renewed vigor to fight racism. When New York's popular Stork Club
refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation
columnist Walter Winchell. The National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor
of her efforts.
It was also during this time that she began adopting children,
forming a family she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe."
Josephine wanted her to prove that "children of different ethnicities
and religions could still be brothers." She often took the
children with her cross-country, and when they were at Les Milandes
tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how
natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe"
Josephine continued to travel to the United States, and during
her visits she developed a close friendship with American artist
Robert Brady. Now divorced from her fourth husband Jo Bouillon,
she was looking for companionship on a more platonic level. Brady
felt the same, and on a trip to Acapulco, Mexico in September 1973
they went to an empty church and exchanged marriage vows. Though
no clergy was present, and they were never legally joined, it was an
important personal bond that she and Brady maintained the rest of
her life. Josephine told very few people about the pseudo marriage,
fearing the press would ridicule it.
Josephine agreed to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall that same
year. Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the
audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural
and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation
before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so
touching that she wept onstage.
On April 8, 1975 Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris.
Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were
in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines
from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days
later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral
hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12.
More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the
funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The
French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine
Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors.
Her gravesite is in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.
Josephine Baker has continued to intrigue and inspire people throughout the world. In 1991, HBO released The Josephine Baker Story
. The film garnered five Emmy Awards. The film also won one of the three Golden Globes the film was nominated for that season.
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