Josephine Baker was the first international, black female superstar. She was born in St. Louis in 1906 as Freda Josephine McDonald. Her mom, Carrie, was adopted in 1886 and claimed Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, was Josephine’s father. But according to Jean-Claude Baker, Josephine’s foster son, “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.”
Josephine quit school at age 12 and lived in the St. Louis slums on the streets, scavenging for food and shelter. She would dance on street corners for change. At 15, her dancing got her recruited into the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. This is when she married Willie Baker, her second husband, and from this point on she kept his last name. Her first marriage was to Willie Wells, a Pullman porter, when she was just 13. That marriage turned out to be a disaster.
By 16 she headed to New York and got a job entertaining at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of Shuffle Along, the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African Americans. The musical also introduced hit songs such as I’m Just Wild About Harry andLove Will Find a Way. She went over so well that a special part was written for her in the 1924 show Chocolate Dandies. During this time period, Josephine became the steady girlfriend of Eubie Blake.
French producers came to New York looking to cast La Revue Negré, an all-black musical revue to be performed in Paris. They saw Josephine performing at the Plantation Club and offered her a part. In 1925 Josephine went to Paris and appeared in the show that opened on October 2 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She had two numbers, including one where she danced a hyper version of the Charleston while accompanied by a jazz band. The second routine, Danse Sauvage, where she appeared practically nude, closed the show. It was an erotic dance that she performed with a male dancer named Joe Alex. This dance was a sensation and catapulted Josephine to stardom in Europe.
Josephine left the La Revue Negré to join the Folies Bergère, where she was offered a starring role. In the show, Josephine combined both comedy and eroticism with her Danse Sauvage, where she appeared in a skirt fashioned to look like bananas and comically crossed her eyes. The show was a smash and Josephine became a major star.
As her star shined brighter, she would often perform with her pet cheetah Chiquita, who she had adorned with a diamond-encrusted collar. The cheetah often dashed into the orchestra pit, terrorizing the musicians and adding additional excitement to the show.
In no time, she was the most popular American entertaining in France. She was called “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” by Ernest Hemmingway. Baker also starred in 3 films that found success in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934), andPrincesse Tam Tam (1935), as well as the 1940 film Fausse Alerte in 1940.
She sang her most successful song in 1931, J’ai Deux Amours, and became an inspiration for contemporary authors and artists , including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. Under the guidance of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino-a Sicilian stonemason who passed himself off as a count-her persona and her singing voice were transformed. Shirley Bassey, who considered Baker to be her primary influence, stated that “…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.”
In 1936 Baker returned to the US for a leading role in the Ziegfeld Follies, received poor opening reviews, and was replace by Gypsy Rose Lee. Appalled by the racism that she experienced in New York, she returned to Paris, married Frenchman Jean Lion, and became a French citizen in 1937.
When World War II broke out, out of love for her country, Josephine volunteered to spy for France. She was anti-Nazi not only because she loathed their racial views but also because her husband was Jewish.
After Germany invaded France, Baker left Paris for her home in Milandes in the south of France, where she allowed Belgian refugees and others of the French Resistance to live with her. Because of who she was, she moved around Europe to entertain, and as she did so, she smuggled secrets for the French Resistance that were written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She would also pin notes with information inside her underwear, avoiding a strip search because of her celebrity. Baker also helped people procure visas and passports to leave France.
While in Marrakesh, Morocco in 1942, Baker had a miscarriage and had to undergo an emergency hysterectomy. After her recovery, she continued to entertain Allied troops in North Africa. Later, she performed at Buchenwald for freed inmates who were too weak and broken to be moved.
For her service and underground work, Baker received the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle after the war.
At the end of the war, Baker adopted 12 children from all around the world, and raised them at Chateau de Milandes with her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon (a French conductor). She called her family the “Rainbow Tribe.” They consisted of 2 daughters, Moroccan-born Stellina and French-born Marianne, and 10 sons, Japanese-born Akio, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Colombian-born Luis, French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), Ivorian-born Koffi, Algerian-born Brahim, and Venezuelan-born Mara.
While living in France, Baker followed and supported the American civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. She refused to appear before segregated audiences in the US, which helped to racially integrate shows in Las Vegas. She would not perform anywhere that was not integrated.
In 1951, while in New York, Baker charged the Stork Club with racism, alleging that she had been refused service. The actress Grace Kelly was present. She ran over to Baker, and took her and her entire party out of the club, stating that she’d never come back; she kept her word. Grace and Baker became good friends from then on. When Josephine was near bankruptcy, Grace, then a princess, offered her a villa and financial assistance.
In 1963, Baker gave a speech at the March on Washington standing next to Martin Luther King. She wore her Free French uniform and medal of the Légion d’Honneur. After King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King asked Josephine if she would lead the American civil rights movement. After much thought, Baker decided not to, because her children were “too young to lose their mother.”
Baker was bisexual and had many affairs with women. She was allegedly involved with French writer Colette and the painter Frida Kahlo. Her son Jean-Claude Baker said that affairs with other women were common for his mother during her lifetime, while she was single and married. In his book, Josephine:The Hungry Heart (1993), he mentions many of her female lovers: Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, and Mildred Smallwood, all African American women she met while touring on the black performing circuit at the beginning of her career.
On April 8, 1975, desperately needing money, Baker starred in a retrospective revue in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, to honor her 50 years of performing. The revue, which was financed by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Prince Rainier, and Princess Grace, opened to spectacular reviews. Attendees at the opening-night audience included Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey, and Liza Minnelli.
Only 4 days later, Baker was discovered lying in her bed surrounded by newspapers with flattering reviews of her performance. She had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was in a coma. She was taken to the hospital, where she died, at age 68, on April 12, 1975. Her funeral took place at Église de la Madeleine. The first American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Baker closed down the streets of Paris one last time. She was buried in the principality of her good friend, Princess Grace, at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monte Carlo.