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Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker in Havana, Cuba (1950).
Background information
Birth name Freda Josephine McDonald
Born June 3, 1906(1906-06-03)
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.[1][2]
Died April 12, 1975 (aged 68)
Paris, France
Genres Cabaret
Music hall
French pop
French jazz
Occupations Dancer, Singer, Actress
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1921—1975
Labels Columbia, Mercury, RCA Victor

Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) was an American expatriate entertainer and actress. She became a French citizen in 1937. Most noted as a singer, Baker also was a celebrated dancer in her early career. She was given the nicknames the "Bronze Venus" or the "Black Pearl", as well as the "Créole Goddess" in anglophone nations. In France, she has always been known as "La Baker".

Baker was the first African American to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-famous entertainer. She is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (she was offered the leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968 following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, but turned it down[3]), for assisting the French Resistance during World War II[4] and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre.


Early life

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri,[1][2] the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Her estate credits vaudeville drummer Eddi Carson as her natural father.[5] A biography written by her foster son Jean-Claude Baker stated:

… (Josephine Baker's) father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw" … I think Josephine's father was white — so did Josephine, so did her family … people in St. Louis say that (Josephine's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). (Carrie) let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along … (but) Josephine knew better.[6]

Her mother, Carrie, was adopted in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1886 by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom were former slaves of both African and Native American descent.[6]

When Baker was eight she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her, burning Baker's hands when she put too much soap in the laundry. She later went to work for another woman.

Josephine Baker in a topless photo shoot.

Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans.[7] Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position in which the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she was unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would not only perform it correctly, but with additional complexity. Baker was then billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville."

On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.

Baker's success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave us the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in ethnic forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. She was very creative and loved sequins and feathers.

In later shows in Paris she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.

Rise to fame

After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her "… the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."[citation needed] In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). Although Baker is often credited as a movie star, her starring roles ended with Princesse Tam Tam in 1935.

Baker costumed for the Danse banane from the Folies Bergère production Un Vent de Folie in Paris in 1927, her most famous banana costume.

At this time she also scored her most successful song, "J'ai deux amours" (1931) and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino — a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a count — Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, went through a significant transformation. In 1934 she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La créole at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris, which premiered in December of that year for a six month run. In preparation for her performances she went through months of training with a vocal coach.

In the words of Shirley Bassey, who has cited Baker as her primary influence, "… she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique' … I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."

Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. Upon a visit to the United States in 1935-1936, her performances received poor opening reviews for her starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run.

Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married Frenchman Jean Lion, and became a French citizen.[8]

Baker was so well known and popular with the French that even the Nazis, who occupied France during World War II, were hesitant to cause her harm. In turn, this allowed Baker to show her loyalty to her adopted country by participating in the Underground, smuggling intelligence to the resistance in Portugal coded within her sheet music. After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.[9]

Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Baker's agent's older brother approached her about working for the French government as an "honorable correspondent" -- if she happened to hear any gossip at parties that might be of use to her adopted country, she could report it. Baker immediately agreed, since she was against the Nazi stand on race not only because she was black but because her husband was Jewish. Her café society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and report back what she heard. She was able to do things such as attend parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gather information that turned out to be useful. She also helped in the war effort in other ways, such as by sending Christmas presents to French soldiers.

When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France, where she had Belgian refugees living with her and others who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle from England. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral Portugal, coming back to France, and such. Baker assisted the French Resistance by smuggling secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

She helped mount a production in Marseilles on the south coast of France to give herself and her like-minded friends a reason for being there. She helped quite a lot of people who were in danger from the Nazis get visas and passports to leave France. Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa; the stated reason was Baker's health (since she really was recovering from another case of pneumonia) but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain and pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search) and made friends with the Pasha of Marrakesh, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several) and emergency hysterectomy she had to go through in 1942. Despite the state of medicine in that time and place, she recovered, and started touring to entertain Allied soldiers in North Africa. She even persuaded Egypt's King Farouk to make a public appearance at one of her concerts, a subtle indication of which side his officially neutral country leaned toward. Later, she would perform at Buchenwald for the liberated inmates who were too frail to be moved. Baker became the first American-born woman to receive the highest French military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

After 1942, she went to North Africa where Ahmed Belbachir Haskouri, the right-hand man of the caliph of Spanish Morocco, placed her under his protection. Belbachir used Josephine to communicate with the French and U.S. forces to reinforce the allied position in North Africa [10]. At Baker's request, Belbachir was successfully issuing visas and passports from Spanish Morocco and via the Spanish High Commissioner to the Jews who were suffering from persecution in Nazi occupied Europe [11].

In January 1966, she was invited by Fidel Castro to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba. Her spectacular show in April of that year led to record breaking attendance. In 1973, Baker opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation. She had finally received in the U.S. the recognition long accorded her in Europe.

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926

Civil rights activism

Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. She protested in her own way against racism, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, who she called the "Rainbow Tribe."[12] They were: Janot (Korean son), Akio (Japanese son), Luis (Colombian son), Jari (Finnish son), Jean-Claude (Canadian son), Moïse (French Jewish son), Brahim (Algerian son), Marianne (French daughter), Koffi (Ivorian son), Mara (Venezuelan son), Noël (French son), and Stellina (Moroccan daughter).[13]

For some time she lived with all of her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château de Milandes, in Dordogne, France. Baker bore only one child, stillborn in 1941, an incident that precipitated an emergency hysterectomy.

She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States.[4] Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate shows in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in New York, where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing to never return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after the incident.[14] Testament to this was made evident when Baker was near bankruptcy and was offered a villa and financial assistance by Kelly (who by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco).

Baker also worked with the NAACP.[4] In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr.[15] Wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur, she was the only woman to speak at the rally.[16] After King's assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in Holland to ask if she would take her husband's place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were "… too young to lose their mother."[3]

Personal life

There is evidence to suggest that she was bisexual. One of her adopted sons, Jean-Claude Baker, writing in his book Josephine: The Hungry Heart, states that she was involved in numerous lesbian affairs, both while she was single and married, and mentions six of her female lovers by name. Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all African-American women she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career. She was also involved with the writer Colette, and possibly with Caroline Dudley Reagan, who ran the Paris extravaganza La Revue Nègre.

Not mentioned, but confirmed since, was her affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.[17] Baker wrote that affairs with women were not uncommon with Josephine throughout her lifetime.[18][19]

Jean-Claude Baker interviewed over 2,000 people while writing his book. He was quoted in one interview as saying,

"She was what today you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also a historian. You have to put her back into the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, Chorus Girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading men if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together, and the girls would develop lady lover friendships, do you understand my English? But wait wait...If one of the girls by preference was gay, she'd be called a bull dyke by the whole cast. So you see, descrimination is everywhere."


On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris — Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.[20]

Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died aged 68 on April 12, 1975.[20][21] Her funeral was held at L'Église de la Madeleine. The first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Josephine Baker locked up the streets of Paris one last time. She was interred at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo.[20]


"Place Joséphine Baker" in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor. She has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and the Hall of Famous Missourians. Her name has also been incorporated at Paris Plage, a man-made beach along the river Seine "Piscine Joséphine Baker".

Two of Baker's sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York, which celebrates Baker's life and works.[22]

Baker's iconic performance style has also been influential. Diana Ross, a long-time admirer of Baker, performed in Bob Mackie-designed outfits similar to Baker's and reenacted similar poses of the latter in many photo sessions. Whitney Houston pays tribute to Baker in her "I'm Your Baby Tonight" music video to represent the Harlem Renaissance. Baker's banana skirt, in particular, has made numerous media appearance. A dancer wore one in Sir-Mix-A-Lot's 1991 video for "Baby Got Back", and singer Beyoncé Knowles wore one when performing for CBS's 2006 Fashion Rocks. During her performance, images of Baker were projected on a large screen above the stage.


Baker pictured in her most famous costume for the Danse banane
  • In 1978, Phylicia Rashād recorded a disco concept record telling the life story of Josephine Baker. The album was mainly written and produced by Jacques Morali and Rashād's one-time husband Victor Willis, lead singer and lyricist of the Village People. Songs on the album detail her birth in St. Louis, her time as a chorus girl on Broadway, her rise to fame in Paris, and her travels around the world.
  • For many years, Diana Ross attempted to mount a film based on Baker's life. The project, initially titled Naked at the Feast, went through several changes, as financing and other complications prevented it from being filmed. As late as 1989, it was announced Ross would star in a television film to be produced for TNT, but the project never materialized.
  • In 1991, Baker's life story, "The Josephine Baker Story", was broadcast on HBO. Lynn Whitfield played Baker, beating more than 5,000 actresses for the role, including Whitney Houston. The performance won her the Emmy for "Best Actress In A Mini-Series or Special".
  • In 1998, Victoria Platt played Baker in the HBO movie, "Winchell".
  • The first scene of the 2003 French animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville is of a 1930s-style cartoon parody that features a caricature of Baker
  • The 2004 erotic novel Scandalous by British author Angela Campion uses Baker as its heroine and is inspired by Baker's sexual exploits and later adventures in the French Resistance. In the novel, Baker, working with a fictional black Canadian lover named Drummer Thompson, foils a plot by French fascists in 1936 Paris. The novel is said to be the first time a historical figure has been used as the heroine in a modern erotic novel.
  • Her influence upon and assistance with the careers of husband and wife dancers Carmen De Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are discussed and illustrated in rare footage in the 2005 Linda Atkinson/Nick Doob documentary, Carmen and Geoffrey.[23][24]
  • In 2006, the director of the Opéra-Comique of Paris, Jérôme Savary, presented his À la Recherche de Joséphine (Searching for Josephine), a musical inspired by Baker's musical revues and songs from her early career. It tells the story of a French director in search of a star for his Parisian show in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He finds Baker, who becomes the toast of Paris. It was a huge success and has toured in Louisiana.
  • In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, Baker appears with her cheetah during the musical number "Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)".
  • A German submariner mimics Josephine Baker's Danse banane in the film Das Boot.
  • Singer Songwriter Al Stewart penned a song called "Josephine Baker" in tribute. The song was included on his album Last Days of the Century.
  • She was portrayed by Karine Plantadit-Bageot and appeared as the Paris Chanteuse lover of Frida Kahlo in the film Frida.
  • In the 2003 French Film, Les Triplettes de Belleville (American version dubbed The Triplets of Belleville), she is portrayed briefly with her cheetah in her classic Danse Banane costume.



  1. ^ a b "Josephine Baker (Freda McDonald) Native of St. Louis, Missouri". Retrieved 2009-03-06. 
  2. ^ a b "V & A - About Art Deco - Josephine Baker". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2009-03-06. 
  3. ^ a b Baker, Josephine; Bouillon, Joe (1977). Josephine (First ed.). New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060102128. 
  4. ^ a b c Bostock, William W. (2002). "Collective Mental State and Individual Agency: Qualitative Factors in Social Science Explanation". Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung 3 (3). ISSN 1438-5627. Retrieved 2009-09-20. 
  5. ^ "About Josephine Baker: Biography". Official site of Josephine Baker. The Josephine Baker Estate. 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  6. ^ a b Baker, Jean-Claude; Chase, Chris (1993). Josephine: The Hungry Heart (First ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 0679409157. 
  7. ^ Jacob M. Appel St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture 2 May 2009. Baker biography
  8. ^ Susan Robinson: Josephine Baker (Gibbs Magazine)
  9. ^ Ann Shaffer (4 October 2006). "Review of Josephine Baker: A Centenary Tribute". blackgrooves. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  10. ^ Bonini, Emmanuel (2000). La veritable Josephine Baker. Paris: Pigmalean Gerard Watelet.
  11. ^ Baker, J. C. & Chase, C. (1993). Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House
  12. ^ "Josephine Baker". The African American Registry. 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  13. ^ "Josephine Baker Biography". Women in History. 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  14. ^ Skibinsky, Anna (2005-11-20). "Another Look at Grace, Princess of Monaco". The Epoch Times. Retrieved 2009-10-11. 
  15. ^ Bayard Rustin (28 February 2006). "Profiles in Courage for Black History Month". National Black Justice Coalition. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  16. ^ Kasher, Steven (1996). The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-1968. New York: Abbeville Press. ISBN 0789201232. 
  17. ^ Herrera, Hayden (1983). A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0060085896. 
  18. ^ Lester Strong - Josephine Baker's Hungry Heart - Gay & Lesbian Review Magazine
  19. ^ glbtq >> arts >> Baker, Josephine
  20. ^ a b c "African American Celebrity Josephine Baker, Dancer and Singer". 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  21. ^ Staff writers (13 April 1975). "Josephine Baker Is Dead in Paris at 68". The New York Times: p. 60. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  22. ^ "Chez Josephine". Jean-Claude Baker. 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  23. ^ Carmen and Geoffrey Movie Review - Read Variety's Analysis Of The Film Carmen and Geoffrey
  24. ^ Langston Hughes African American Film Festival 2009 : Carmen and Geoffrey

Further reading

  • The Josephine Baker collection, 1926–2001 at Stanford University Libraries
  • Baker, J. C. & Chase, C. (1993). Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House.
  • Bonini, Emmanuel (2000). La veritable Josephine Baker. Paris: Pigmalean Gerard Watelet.
  • Kraut, Anthea, Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham, Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 433–50.
  • Schroeder, Alan, Ragtime Tumpie (Little, Brown, 1989), an award-winning children's picture book about Baker's childhood in St. Louis and her dream of becoming a dancer.
  • Schroeder, Alan, Josephine Baker (Chelsea House, 1990), a young-adult biography.
  • Theile, Merlind. "Adopting the World: Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe" Spiegel Online International, October 2, 2009.

External links

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