Endlessly fascinating, but still without a first-rate film biography, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was born Freda Josephine McDonald. She grew up in a life of poverty in St. Louis. She was ambitious, alluring, accomplished, and the toast of Europe at the height of her fame. By the mid-1920s she was captivating audiences in Paris as a dancer, singer, and actor. Baker was the 20th century’s first international black female sex symbol.
Famous for her glamorous, extravagant lifestyle, Baker could be devious, manipulative, and relentless. She was also always willing to break the rules, especially those having to do sex. Her conquests were legendary. There were as many sexual liaisons with women as with men. Among her female lovers were Clara Smith, a black blues singer who secured Baker her first job as a chorus girl, the great French novelist Colette, and painter Frida Kahlo.
On stage Baker radiated such gay energy and high camp that by the end of her career most of her faithful audience consisted of gay men.
As part of her crusade against Racism, and because she was unable to conceive children herself, Baker adopted what she called her “Rainbow Tribe” of 12 children from different parts of the world. She was a regular Angelina Jolie, hold the Pitt.
She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the USA. Her insistence on performing for mixed audiences helped to integrate the casino shows in Las Vegas.
During WW II, Baker showed her loyalty to her adopted country of France by participating in La Résistance. She worked underground, smuggling intelligence info coded within her sheet music. After the war, 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.
On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino Club in Paris titled: Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to SRO crowds and rave reviews. Her opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, Baker was found dead in her bed surrounded by the newspapers containing glowing reviews of her performance.
After her final bow in Paris, three funerals were held, one in Paris and two in Monaco, attended by much of the French government and entertainment elite. She was the first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. At the request of her longtime friend and benefactor Princess Grace, Baker is buried in Monaco.
Who do you see portraying Baker when a film of her life is finally realized? Rihanna Fenty? Directed by Baz Luhrmann?