Josephine BakerAug 17th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1906-1975 Josephine Baker became wildly popular as an American dancer and singer who brought the essence of the Jazz Age to Paris. Widely known for her daring costumes and exotic cabaret performances, she also was an early civil rights activist and the mother of 12 adopted children known as her “Rainbow Tribe.”
A Fleeting Childhood
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, Baker was the daughter of Carrie McDonald, a washerwoman of African and Native American ancestry, and a vaudeville drummer named Eddie Carson. Her parents split soon after she was born, and even after her mother remarried, the family struggled to make ends meet. While still in elementary school, Baker cleaned house and babysat for white families to help supplement her mother’s modest income.
At age 14, she left home and took a job waiting tables at the Old Chauffer’s Club, where Baker met and married her first husband and began picking up dance steps and entertainment routines. By age 15, she had divorced and married again, taking her second husband’s last name. At the Booker T. Washington Theater in St. Louis, Baker made her stage debut doing comedic routines with the local street musicians called The Jones Family Band. Also performing were the Dixie Steppers, an all-black dance troupe. Baker impressed the manager, who hired her as a dresser, and for a year, she toured the country with them, working on the dancers’ wardrobes and secretly memorizing their routines. When one of the chorus girls was injured, Baker happily filled in. Convinced that she wanted to dance, Baker left her second husband and moved to New York City to join the production of Shuffle Along, the first all-black Broadway show.
Once again, she worked as a dresser until she got the opportunity to take a place in the chorus line. Baker stole the spotlight by clowning around while dancing, and she stayed with the show until it closed in 1923. Shortly after, she was recruited for a show called La Revue Nègre, an all-black show that was headed for Paris.
Paris and the Jazz Craze
In 1925, Paris was in the midst of a jazz craze, and French audiences were captivated by African American musicians, performers, and artists. La Revue Nègre presented jazz and blues musicians and introduced tap dancing and the Charleston, but it also catered to French stereotypes with exaggerated jungle themes. For her routine, “Danse Sauvage,” Baker and her male partner wore nothing but a few strategically placed feathers.
The performance drove audience members—especially men—wild, and Baker was an instant star. In 1926, when she was just 20 years old, Baker broke her contract with La Revue Nègre in order to star in her own show at the Folies-Bergère theater. It was here that she performed her most famous routine, the “Banana Dance,” in which she danced over a mirror tilted toward the audience, wearing nothing but 16 satin bananas around her waist. The performance cemented her superstar status. She became as famous as the screen queens Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson, and was the highest paid entertainer in Europe.
In the United States, segregation and discrimination kept African Americans from acceptance in mainstream American society, but Baker found Paris integrated and welcoming. She quickly made friends among the city’s artistic and literary elite, charming such cultural luminaries as Pablo Picasso, e.e. cummings, Jean Cocteau, and Ernest Hemingway. Baker solidified her status as a Parisienne by opening her own nightclub, Chez Joséphine. She then embarked on a two-year world tour, but in 1936, when Baker returned to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies, she was shocked by the hostile reception. Audiences and the press couldn’t accept a black woman who didn’t fit the subservient roles they were willing to recognize. She returned to Paris angry and disappointed.
When World War II broke out, Baker joined the French Resistance, helping to smuggle out refugees and carrying messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She entertained troops and performed benefit concerts in North Africa and the Middle East. When the war was over, she returned to Paris, and Sublieutenant Josephine Baker of the Free French Forces proudly received the Croix de Guerre from French General Charles de Gaulle. In the aftermath, Baker continued performing and recording, and began making television appearances. She married Jo Bouillon, a French bandleader, and the pair set about restoring a castle and small village called Les Milandes. Baker poured massive amounts of money into Les Milandes, hoping to turn it into a tourist destination. To support the estate, Baker again toured the United States. This time, she decided to confront American racism directly and refused to perform for segregated audiences. She was largely successful, and the NAACP recognized her efforts by declaring May 20th Josephine Baker Day. Finally content, she and Bouillon began adopting orphans of all different ethnicities, eventually creating a family of 12 children Baker called her “Rainbow Tribe.”
In 1963, when she was 57 years old, Baker flew to Washington, DC, to support civil rights at the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In New York City, she was greeted with a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. Returning to France, however, Baker struggled to support Les Milandes. When the French government foreclosed and the estate was sold to pay off her debts, her marriage to Bouillon also dissolved. On April 9, 1975, Baker made her final comeback, appearing in a show that told the story of her life. The show opened in Paris to rave reviews, but the next day, she suffered a stroke and died.
Baker’s rise to fame and struggle to earn appreciation from American audiences is chronicled in Phyllis Rose’s book, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time. Baker’s creative and powerful performances epitomized the jazz age, while her tireless support of civil rights predated and outlasted many of her contemporaries.