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#BornThisDay: Entertainer, Josephine Baker

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Photograph via Wikimedia Commons

June 3, 1906Freda Josephine McDonald:

”I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”

Endlessly fascinating, but still without a first-rate film biography, Josephine Baker was born into poverty in St. Louis. Her mother was an African- American laundress and her father was probably the head of the German family for which her mother worked. Baker was mixed-race at a time that America was even more fiercely racist than our own era.

When she was just eight-years-old, Baker began working as an indentured servant for white families in St. Louis. For a while, she lived as a street child, sleeping in cardboard shelters, scavenging for food, and making a living with street corner dancing. At 13-years-old, she joined an all-black traveling Vaudeville company as the dresser for the female dancers. With the troupe, she had her first on stage appearance, charming the crowds with her unique, spirited, comedic style.

In 1921, she married Willie Baker. Their marriage lasted less than a year, but she kept his last name for the rest of her life.

She moved to NYC during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the famed Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway musicals Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). Baker’s schtick was to be the last dancer on the end of the chorus line, performing as if she unable to remember the dance, until the encore, when she would perform it correctly and with special dexterity. This brought down the house.

via Wikimedia Commons

She was ambitious, alluring, accomplished, and in 1925, Baker sailed to Paris, after being cast in La Revue Nègre  at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. She was just 19-years-old. By the end of the decade, Baker was the toast of Paris, and the 20th century’s first international black female sex symbol.

Baker introduce ”Le Jazz Hot”,” characterized by jazz and exotic nudity. She appeared naked on stage except for a feather, and later, a banana skirt as part of her Danse Sauvage, which played to Europeans’ fascination with all things African, which was considered libidinous and uncivilized.

Photograph by French Walery, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Baker was embraced by the famous artists and intellectuals living in Paris. She counted Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway as fans. Hemingway, like many others who would encounter her through the years, called Baker: ”The most sensational woman anyone ever saw. Or ever will.”

In 1935, only 29-years-old, Baker returned to NYC hoping to translate her success in Paris to the USA. She failed. She left Paris rich, adored, and famous throughout Europe, yet in NYC, despite the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl. White American audiences accustomed to seeing blacks in stereotypical roles rejected Baker.

Baker returned to Europe in 1936. In 1937, she gave up her American citizenship. Back in Paris, she performed on stage with her pet cheetah, recorded songs, starred in three films, and toured Europe and South America. Baker was not just the most successful American entertainer working in France, she was one of the most photographed women in the world, and by 1927, two years after first setting foot in Paris, she was earning more than any entertainer in Europe.

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. In 1939, when France declared war on Germany, Baker became a Red Cross nurse to help refugees from the German-occupied European countries. She was then recruited by French military intelligence. Baker collected information about German troop locations from officials she met at parties at embassies and ministries. Her fame put her in contact with everyone from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats. When Germany invaded France, Baker continued to use her access as an entertainer to move around neutral Europe, carrying information for transmission to England about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in France. She even hid refugees and weapons at her estate, the Château des Milandes.

Photo from NYC Public Library Digital Archives

In 1941, to escape Nazi scrutiny, Baker moved temporarily to Morocco. She would still make trips to Spain, pinning intelligence notes in her underwear on the correct assumption that as a celebrity she would not be strip-searched. Beginning in 1942, she arranged and participated in morale boosting performances for French, British, and American troops in North Africa. In 1944, she was made a lieutenant in the French Air Force (she had a pilot’s license). After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance, and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor by her friend General Charles de Gaulle.

In 1948, Baker returned to the USA again, but was no more successful professionally than in 1936. This time, however, she insisted on nondiscrimination clauses in her contracts and integrated audiences at her performances. Her insistence on performing for mixed audiences helped to integrate the casino shows in Las Vegas.

Returning to Paris, Baker felt that she needed to do more to fight racism. She decided to raise a group of ethnically and religiously mixed children that she dubbed her ”Rainbow Tribe”. She had adopted 12 children from Morocco, Venezuela, Finland, France, Korea, Colombia, Algeria, Japan, and Belgium. She was a regular Angelina Jolie, hold the Pitt. Jolie has acknowledged that Baker was her inspiration. Baker’s chosen family was intended to represent a utopian racial narrative to educate the world about how life could be in a world free of discrimination.

In 1964 with her tribe, Photo by Hugo van Gelderen via Wikimedia Commons

Baker supported the American Civil Rights movement from France, and when she visited America in the 1950s and 1960s, she pushed even harder against racism. She worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Baker was refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black and in response she wrote articles about segregation in the USA. In 1963, Baker, at 57-years-old, was invited to the March On Washington, where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous I Have A Dream speech. Baker was the only official female speaker at the event. She spoke wearing her French uniform and Legion of Honor medal. After King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King approached Baker to take over as leader of the Civil Rights movement, but Baker declined, citing concerns about how assassination would impact her adopted children.

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, which continued from adolescence to the end of her life. 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 hairy painter Frida Kahlo.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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, Princess Grace, 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.

NYC Public Library Digital Archives

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.

Shirley Bassey 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.”

Who do you see portraying Baker when a film of her life is finally realized? Rihanna Fenty? Directed by Angelina Jolie?


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