Josephine Baker

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Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker photographed by Carl Van Vechten, October 20, 1949
Josephine Baker photographed by Carl Van Vechten, October 20, 1949
Background information
Birth name Josephine Baker
Born June 3, 1906
Origin St. Louis, Missouri
Died April 12, 1975
Genre(s) Cabaret
Occupation(s) Singer

Josephine Baker (or Joséphine Baker in francophone countries) (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975)[1] was an American-born French entertainer, and international star of stage, screen and song. One of the most popular stars of the French dance halls in the 1920s and 1930s, she became one of the most successful and famous women in all of Europe, despite persistent racially-based resistance in her birth country. She is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in North America, and for being an inspiration to generations of African-American female entertainers.


Early life

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Her father's identity is debated. Her father is identified as vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson by the official biography of her estate[2], but Jean-Claude Baker, the unofficially adopted son of Baker suggests otherwise:

(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—and I think (the father) cared about Carrie … and people in St. Louis say that Carrie 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.[3]

Josephine Baker's true ethnic background is unknown. 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.[4]

Living as a poor African-American youth in St. Louis, Baker worked various jobs, waiting tables, and doing laundry and babysitting for wealthy white families. But by the age of 13 she had already left home and begun her entertainment career in vaudeville, touring America with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. In August of 1922, she joined the traveling production of the first successful African-American musical, Shuffle Along. Initially deemed too dark-skinned to dance in the chorus line, she nevertheless learned the role and was ready to fill in when one of the girls was unable to perform. When she finally got on stage as the last girl in the chorus line, she didn't perform the dance straight, but added outrageous exaggerated motions and made silly faces. Her scene-stealing behavior irked her co-workers, but thrilled audiences, and she became one of the big draws for the show for the rest of its run. She was billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville." She enjoyed some further success performing at the Plantation Club in Harlem, but it was in France that she would make her leap to super-stardom.

Success in France

Baker traveled to Paris in 1925 to perform as one of the acts in a new show, La Revue Negre ("The Negro Review") at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, opening on October 2, 1925. Her act was called the "Danse sauvage" ("wild dance"); dressed in nothing more than a feather skirt, she performed a wild, sensual and charismatic act with co-star Joe Alex, catering to white fascination with all things "primitive" and African, and introducing a new idiom of beauty to France:

"The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable-her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe-Paris."[5]

Josephine was an overnight sensation[6]; with the help of artist Paul Colin's design work, Baker was "immortalized […] as the symbol of the Jazz Age"[7]. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract with La Revue Negre (prompting the first of many lawsuits in Baker's long career) and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergère performing her sensational act, wearing what would become the most iconic costume of her early years of success: a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas and little else.

Fame and international celebrity

Miss Josephine Baker, popular stage performer, sings the National Anthem as the finale to the show held in the Municipal Theater, Oran, Algeria, N. Africa.

After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France, one of the most photographed women in the world, and earned more than any other entertainer in Europe[8], attaining a stardom and celebrity unimaginable in the racial climate of the United States at the time. Paul Colin helped to introduce her to the artistic and intellectual elite of Paris, (including Georges Simenon, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso) with whom she became an immediate hit.[9]

Under Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a "self-invented Italian aristocrat"[10] whom Baker took on as manager and lover, Baker's stage and public persona went through an extraordinary transformation. In 1927 Baker and Abatino embarked on a world tour during which Baker took etiquette and singing lessons, and learned French. She returned to Paris a reinvented star, her natural charisma equipped with the tools to ensure she would not end up a flavor of the month, but instead keep her stardom afloat for the long haul. In 1931, she scored a hit single with what would become her signature song, "J'ai deux amours." By 1934 she was able to take the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La Créole at the Théâtre Marigny in the Champs-Élysées of Paris, which premiered in December of that year and completed a six-month run. In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films which only found success in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tamtam (1935). Although Josephine Baker is often credited as a movie star, her starring roles ended with Princesse Tamtam in 1935.

American indifference

Yet despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation at home. In 1936, at the height of her success in Europe, she returned to America to star in a revival of Ziegfield's Follies, the long-running and popular Broadway revue. Performing alongside costars Bob Hope and Fanny Brice, Baker had high hopes for replicating her European success in America. Josephine's act in the show, however, met with mixed reviews. A notable undercurrent of racial prejudice ran through the criticism. TIME Magazine wrote at the time:

"Josephine Baker is a St. Louis washer-woman's daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris during the booming 1920s. In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has had a headstart… But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped almost anywhere outside of Paris."[11]

Dismayed at the chilly reception from her home country after decades of receiving nothing but plaudits, Josephine broke her contract with the show and fled back to Europe.[12]

World War II

She was so well-known and popular with the French people that even the Nazis, who occupied France during World War II, were hesitant to cause her harm. This allowed Baker to show her loyalty to her adopted country by participating in the French Resistance, smuggling intelligence to the resistance in Spain coded within her sheet music, participating in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, serving as a nurse in the Red Cross, and performing for troops in North Africa and the Middle East to boost morale. After the war, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle, and also the Rosette of the Résistance.[13]

Civil rights involvement

Though based in France, she supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. She protested racism in her own unique way, adopting twelve multi-ethnic orphans, whom she called her "Rainbow Tribe." [14] Her adopted children were: Akio (Korean son), Janot (Japanese son), Luis (Colombian son), Jarry (Finnish son), Jean-Claude (Canadian son), Moïse (French Jewish son), Brahim (Arab son), Marianne (French daughter), Koffi (Ivory Coast son), Mara (Venezuelan son), Noël (French son), Stellina (Moroccan daughter).[15] For some time she lived with all of her adopted children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château de Milandes, in the Dordogne in France.

Later in her career, she make visits to the United States and perform, always refusing to perform for segregated audiences, thus integrating every venue she performed at.[16] She also worked with the NAACP.[17] In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[18] Wearing her Free French uniform with her Legion of Honor decoration, she was the only woman to speak at the rally.[19] After the rally, she played a series of four extremely successful charity shows at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations.[20]

After Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, approached Baker in Holland to ask her 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, stating that her children were " … too young to lose their mother."[21]

Late career and death

Baker spent her significant income as quickly as she earned it. She owned many pets at one time maintaining "a leopard, a chimpanzee, a pig, a snake, a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs."[22] By the late 1960s her lavish lifestyle brought her to the brink of bankruptcy and eviction from her 300-acre estate in the Dordogne. Her close friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, another expatriate American living in Europe, gave her a residence and financial assistance.

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 opened to rave reviews and a spectacular audience response, with tickets sold out for weeks in advance. The opening night audience included Prince Ranier and Princess Grace, Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger, among many others.[23]

On April 10, the day after the second successful performance of Joséphine, Baker took a brief afternoon nap before an appointment scheduled with a journalist for five o'clock. When she proved difficult to wake, a doctor was called, and it was realized that Baker had had a stroke and slipped into a coma. She was rushed to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died at the age of 68 on April 12, 1975.[24]

Her funeral was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, her adopted home. She became the first American-born woman buried with the highest French military honors, the Croix de Guerre ("Cross of War"). Paris came to a standstill on the day of her funeral, and 20,000 filled the streets to watch her procession. She was interred at the Cimetière de Monaco in Monaco.[25]

Marriages and personal life

Baker was an independent woman, and never relied on men for financial support, and thus never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured. She was first married in 1919 at age 13, to Willie Wells for a few weeks. Her second marriage was to Will Baker, briefly in 1921, at which time she changed her name officially to Josephine Baker. She was romantically involved with her manager and mentor, Pepito Giuseppe Abatino for almost a decade, but never married him, ending the affair in 1935.[26]

Upon returning to France after the tepid reception of her 1936 American venture, she was married for the third time, to French industrialist Jean Lion, finally becoming an official French citizen in the process. They divorced in 1940. Her fourth and final official marriage was in June 1947 to French bandleader Jo Bouillon, who helped her set up and run her massive estate, Les Milandes and raise her "Rainbow Tribe" of adopted children. He and Baker were separated in 1957.[27]

Finally, Baker held an unofficial, non-legally binding ceremony in Mexico with American artist Robert Brady in 1973. [28]


Josephine Baker was one of the most charismatic performers of the twentieth century, and "remained one of the biggest stars in international entertainment until her death in 1975." [29] She exploded onto the scene an overnight sensation in 1925, ended up one of the iconic figures of Jazz Age Paris, and yet remained an influential and magnetic celebrity persona for the remainder of her life. Throughout her life she showed a dedication to the elimination of racial prejudices and discrimination, a battle she took on personally, from adopting and raising her "Rainbow Tribe," to the way she conducted her performances, demanding integrated audiences be a part of her contracts.

As one of the first African-American international celebrities, she paved the way for generations of actresses, singers, and performers after her, many of whom, including Diana Ross and Beyonce Knowles, acknowledge her as an influence and forerunner.


  1. official site of Josephine Baker. Josephine Baker Estate c/o CMG Worldwide, Inc. [1] accessdate 2006-09-28
  2. Josephine Baker Estate c/o CMG Worldwide, Inc. [2] accessdate 2006-09-11
  3. Jean-Claude Baker & Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. (New York: Random House, 1993)
  4. Baker & Chase
  5. New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner as quoted in the article Le Tumulte Noir at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
  6. Josephine Baker site [3] Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  7. Anna Kisselgoff [4] New York Times, March 29, 1987: "DANCE VIEW; Josephine Baker; Dancing through the Jazz Age"
  8. Josephine Baker site [5]Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  9. LuLen Walker, Department of Prints and Drawings [6] Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  10. KAIAMA L. GLOVER, "Postmodern Homegirl." [7] Review of books.Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  11. Wood, 249-250.
  12. Biography[8] Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  13. "Josephine Baker" entry online [9] Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd Ed., Vol. 17. Thomson Gale.Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  14. Josephine Baker entry, African American History. online [10] from: Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn, New York: 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., ISBN 0926019619) Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  15. [11] Retrieved on 05-10-09
  16. [12] [13] Retrieved on 05-10-07.
  17. Retrieved on 05-10-07.
  18. [14] [15] Retrieved on 05-10-07
  19. [16] [17] Retrieved on 05-10-07
  20. Wood, 363
  21. Josephine Baker and Joe Bouillon. Josephine. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977)
  22. Josephine Baker site [18] biography. Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  23. Wood, 402-403
  24. Wood, 405
  25. [19] Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  26. [20] Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  27. [21] Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  28. [22] cmgworldwide. Retrieved June 20, 2008.
  29. Kisselgoff [23] New York Times, March 29, 1987: "DANCE VIEW; Josephine Baker; Dancing through the Jazz Age" Retrieved June 20, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baker, Jean-Claude. Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. ISBN 0815411723
  • Baker, Josephine and Joe Bouillon. Josephine. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977.
  • Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image. University of Illinois Press, 2007. ISBN 0252031571
  • Kraut, Anthea. "Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham." Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 433–450.
  • Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. Totem Books, 2002. ISBN 1860743943

External links

All links retrieved August 10, 2022.


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