Josephine Baker

The First Black Superstar

Josephine Baker on top of a tiger rug while wearing a silk gown.
Portrait of American-born singer and dancer Josephine Baker lying on a tiger rug in a silk evening gown and diamond earrings. (circa 1925). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Josephine Baker was an African-American entertainer, civil-rights activist, and French military hero. Baker fled to Europe from deeply-segregated America and achieved super-stardom dancing exotically wearing only a skirt of 16 faux bananas. For her work as a spy during World War II, Baker received France's highest military honors.

To voice her belief in racial harmony, Josephine Baker returned to America in 1963 to speak during the historic March on Washington. She later adopted 12 children of various ethnicities, calling them the "Rainbow Tribe." Josephine Baker is considered the first black superstar for her 50-year career of thrilling entertainment.

Dates:  June 3, 1906 -- April 12, 1975

Also Known As: Tumpie, Black Venus, Black Pearl, Freda Josephine McDonald (born as)

Dancing and Dreaming

On June 3, 1906, Freda Josephine McDonald was born illegitimately to Carrie McDonald (a laundress) and Eddie Carson (a vaudeville drummer), on Gratiot Street in St. Louis, Missouri. Carrie nicknamed her roly-poly daughter “Tumpie” and birthed son Richard before Eddie abandoned his family shortly thereafter.

Desperate, Carrie soon married Arthur Martin, but he was chronically unemployed. Josephine walked daily two-miles to Soulard Market to scavenge food. Never enough money, not even for rent, the family roamed through St. Louis' slums for housing.

Turn-of-the-century St. Louis was considered a major hub for musicians, such as Scott Joplin, who introduced ragtime. A good dancer, Josephine sometimes performed on street corners for money. She often credited St. Louis' music for providing an escape from her severe impoverishment.

Dreams on Hold

Carrie eventually pulled eldest child Josephine from school to work for white families. At seven, Josephine became a live-in housekeeper for Mrs. Keiser, a wealthy white woman. Josephine was beaten constantly, nearly starved, and made to sleep in a crate with a dog.

The horrible arrangement ended when Josephine accidentally broke Keiser's fancy plates. Enraged, the woman plunged Josephine's arm into boiling water, requiring hospitalization.

When she healed, Josephine resumed the chore of scavenging for food and lumps of coal that fell from trains at Union Station.

But the trips also allowed Josephine to dream of boarding a train to far-distant places, away from the squalor and racial disharmony of St. Louis.

The Summer of 1917

Arthur moved his family to East St. Louis, being unable to keep a job in St. Louis. The one-room shack was worse than anything Josephine's family had experienced. The family of six slept in one bed.

Between 1916 and 1917, 10,000 - 12,000 African-Americans migrated from the South to East St. Louis during the booming industrial era. The influx of blacks getting jobs angered the mostly-white region. Soon lies circulated of blacks stealing and raping.

A race riot ensued May 1917, resulting in about 200 deaths and massive property damage. Years later, Josephine recalled the screams, burning buildings, and blood in the streets.

A Way of Escape

Rebellious 13-year-old Josephine married foundry worker Willie Wells to escape home life. But the months-long marriage ended when much-older Wells left hotheaded Josephine after a violent argument and never returned.

Josephine met the Jones Family Band, vaudeville performers, in 1919. When asked to join the group, Josephine quit her waitressing job immediately. She danced and sang for low pay, but Josephine felt it was better than dying a washwoman.

At the end of the engagement, Josephine and the Jones Family were asked by the headliners, Dixie Steppers, to join them on a southern tour. Josephine, seeing a way out of St. Louis, ran home, bid her family farewell, and headed to the train station.

On the Way Up

But showbiz proved far less glamorous than Josephine envisioned. The further south they traveled, the harsher the treatment. Hotels were off limits to blacks, and boarding houses were ramshackle. Josephine grew weary of “Whites Only” signs plastered everywhere.

Though grossly disenchanted, Josephine's performances were top-rated. One night, she became a comedienne quite by accident. Playing Flying Cupid, Josephine became entangled in a stage curtain. Flailing her bony limbs and crossing her eyes, she struggled but became more entangled. The audience roared with laughter.

Josephine was in tears, but the manager ran backstage to say she was a hit. From that night on, Josephine did whatever it took to please her audience.

Handling Disappointment

In New Orleans, after performing a comedic hyper-Charleston-dancing routine, Josephine was devastated when the Jones Family called it quits. Then the Steppers told her that without the Joneses, they had no place for her.

Refusing to return to St. Louis, Josephine stowed-away on the train leaving New Orleans. The Steppers were upset when half-frozen Josephine emerged from a trunk, but hired her as a dresser for $9 a week.

Having gained experience, Josephine's aim was to be a chorus girl. But she was painfully thin, average-looking, and dark-skinned. Josephine had stage presence, however, and someone once told her that talent outweighed skin color.

After touring the South, the Steppers arrived in Philadelphia. Shortly, 14-year-old Josephine met gentlemanly Willie Howard Baker. Willie was a Pullman porter and immediately liked the young entertainer.

But disappointment came again when the Steppers, tired of the circuit, announced they were breaking up. Without income, Josephine began to consider settling down with stable Willie.

Shuffle Along

Josephine had to find work fast. She rushed to Dunbar Theater after hearing that two producers were seeking tryouts for the all-black musical Shuffle Along.

The fast-paced musical was the creation of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, veterans of stage and theater. In April 1921, Josephine's energetic audition impressed Sissle, but she was too young and too thin for the chorus. When the producers asked her age, Josephine stated she was 15. She was rejected, being too young for the mandatory 16 to be a chorus girl.

Josephine left the theater in tears, thinking she'd been denied for being too dark. Shuffle Along opened on May 23, 1921 in New York and ran for 500 performances.

In September 1921, Josephine and Willie married, but their union proved disappointing. Baker had followed Shuffle Along's success and was determined to be a part of it. She left Willie and went to New York, but carried his surname throughout her lifetime.

The Big Break

Fifteen-year-old Josephine Baker slept on park benches in New York until she could arrange an audition. She finally talked to Al Mayer, Cort Theater's white manager.

He couldn't use her for the chorus line, but Mayer hired Baker as a dresser -- feeling sorry for her. Foot in door, she learned every song and every dance, which paid off when a chorus girl took sick.

In her element, Baker roused the crowd with her wild moves. The audience laughed and cheered as she crossed her eyes, made faces, and flash-danced the Charleston, while the other girls fumed. Baker stole the show, making her the brunt of cruel treatment.

The production received favorable reviews, with Baker's performance receiving special notoriety. The reviews came to the attention of Sissle and Blake, who recognized Baker from Philadelphia.

The producers asked Baker to go on the road after the show closed on Broadway in August 1922. She gladly accepted, and the two theatrical geniuses taught Josephine career-shaping skills until Shuffle Along's end in January 1924.

Sissle and Blake immediately hired Josephine to play comedy skits in their new musical The Chocolate Dandies. Even though the production didn't come close to Shuffle Along's success, Josephine Baker's star had risen.

A Different Life

Offered a job at the upscale New York Plantation Club when Chocolate Dandies closed, Josephine Baker accepted. Millionaires came in droves to the elite nightclub, where French-speaking waiters indulged their eminent clientele.

In the chorus line, Baker studied the rich audience and longed to be a part. She was determined to get there by being a stand-out performer. Baker's chance came when Plantation's star singer, Ethel Waters, took sick.

Baker had practiced the singer's voice and mannerisms with the waiters and was a shoe-in. After performing Water's popular “Dinah,” Baker received thunderous applause. The next evening, however, Waters was back onstage. Unwilling to remain a dancer her entire life, Baker began searching out other opportunities.

One evening, distinguished-looking Caroline Dudley came to Baker's dressing room. Dudley explained that she and partner Andre Daven were producing La Revue Negre's, an all-black vaudeville show, in Paris. She'd come to America to find dancers and was greatly impressed with Baker.

Baker was dumbfounded when Dudley asked if she'd come to Paris. Even though Baker had waited all her life, she was afraid of the show's failure. Years later, Baker said being told by a Plantation's waiter of Paris' indifference to skin-color ultimately decided her future.

Finally Arrived

Nineteen-year-old Josephine Baker was one of 25 dancers and musicians sailing to Paris on September 15, 1925. On September 22, the troupe walked into Theatre des Champs-Elysee's breathtaking elegance. Baker knew she'd finally arrived.

For La Revue Negre's opening 10 days later, artist Paul Colin was commissioned to design a poster depicting the exotic nature of the dancers. Spotting Baker rehearsing, Colin created a poster so licentious it was stolen from several billboards and venues before the show's opening.

On October 2, 1925, a highly-charged crowd packed the theater for opening night. In dimmed lights, Parisians were stunned by the exquisite beauty of African music and art.

A spotlight fell on Baker dressed only in a feather-skirt, dancing like an untamed animal -- startling but mesmerizing. When Baker somersaulted offstage during the finale, Paris went wild.

Dubbed “Black Venus,” one reporter wrote that Baker made being black beautiful. She was stopped on the streets for autographs, which proved embarrassing. Baker could barely write, or read the many positive reviews that praised her.

But not all of Paris was enraptured. Many walked out as she danced, considering it obscene. The digs hurt Baker, but Dudley observed most of Paris loved her.

A Legend Is Born

After La Revue Negre's ten-week success, Baker starred in fabled Folies Bergere's half-million dollar jungle-themed production La Folies du Jour. In 1926, Baker's dancing onstage clad only in a skirt of fake bananas is considered one of theater's greatest acts. Making 12 curtain calls, Josephine Baker's reputation as a legend was sealed.

Wealth and fame afforded Baker's eccentricities. She rode through Paris in an ostrich-drawn carriage, wearing a pet snake around her neck. Eventually, a diamond-collared cheetah, hat-wearing chimpanzee, and perfume-scented pig became her "children."

Paris' high society tanned their skin to be like Baker, while she bleached her skin to become Black Pearl. Banana-skirted dolls and Baker's close-cropped hair were the rage.

Picasso likened Baker to Nefertiti after she posed for the artist. Baker received over 1,500 marriage proposals. Suitors wined and dined her, showering lavish gifts of jewelry, art, even a car for her 20th birthday.

A Turning Point

In December 1926, 20-year-old Baker opened nightclub Chez Josephine, and completed her memoirs in 1927. Baker starred in silent film The Siren of the Tropics, but it flopped. Three other films followed in 1934, 1935, and 1940, but the passion Baker projected onstage didn't transfer to screen.

A two-year, 25-country tour was a turning point. Baker's performances thrilled audiences in most places, but many countries were predominately Catholic, and considered Baker scandalous. Angry mobs met her train, church bells tolled her arrival, and masses were held for her redemption.

In Vienna, white superiority was a basic principle, and Baker was branded a decadent heathen. Riots erupted, and she was denied entry until a month later.

At the sold-out performance, Baker was void of feathers and bananas. Dressed in a beautiful gown, she sang a tender melody. When Baker finished, the audience rose to its feet in deafening applause.

All along the tour, she was met with rioting mobs or violent, adoring fans. One evening, a young-in-love fan killed himself after Baker's performance. She was relieved when the tour finally ended and ready to settle down in Paris.

In 1929, Baker bought a 30-room mansion. Notorious for entertaining in the nude, Baker sometimes held press conferences in her large pool. She became active with an orphanage, spending hours delighting the children with her exotic pets.

Coming to America

In America, the Great Depression was in full-swing, but Josephine was already a millionaire. In 1936, after a ten-year absence, she was invited to New York to star in the all-white Ziegfield Follies. Finally, America had come to accept her. She would prove talent mattered more than skin-color.

However, she soon learned that nothing had really changed. Baker was asked to use the servant's entrance at Hotel Moritz, although she was a Follies star. America was still segregated and failed to acknowledge her super-stardom.

Before rehearsals started, Baker visited family in St. Louis. She'd frequently sent money, and although her family was happy for her success they were shocked by its scope. Baker then visited estranged-husband-Willie in Chicago to obtain a divorce.

To her chagrin, Baker was given only small parts during the show, ignored by the other stars, and not allowed to wear her Paris costumes. Her voice was called dwarf-like, and even Baker's famous banana dance failed to impress -- although the remaining cast received glowing reviews.

In less than ten years, Baker had become the toast of an entire continent. Her homeland, however, called her heathen and savage.

Saddened, Baker sought release from her contract and Follies producers obliged. In 1937, disgusted by the standard maltreatment of blacks, Baker denounced her American citizenship in favor of France.

Unconventional Bride

In 1937, 31-year-old Baker met Jewish millionaire Jean Lion. The two shared many interests, including piloting. During a flying session, 27-year-old Lion proposed to Baker, and the two wed that fall.

Lion expected Baker to promote his political ambitions -- sacrificing her career. To save her marriage, Baker agreed to quit showbiz after a final tour. But in 1938, at the start of the tour, Adolf Hitler began his occupation of Europe. Being a black citizen married to a Jew frightened Baker.

Continuing to tour, Baker realized she loved entertaining more than Lion. Pregnant, Baker wanted a family too. When Lion demanded she choose, Baker chose her career. She miscarried shortly thereafter. Married less than a year, the newlyweds separated.

Spy Josephine

September 1, 1939, World War II began. Baker joined the Red Cross -- spending six days a week preparing food boxes, ladling soup, and performing for integrated-only troops. 

Her patriotism impressed top French officer Jacques Abtey. Visiting Baker, Abtey asked her to become an undercover agent. Knowing the danger, Baker accepted for the country that had provided her true freedom.

Baker went through rigorous training in shooting, karate, and was taught to speak German and Italian fluently. At training's-end, Baker was handed cyanide tablets to swallow if captured.

Within days, Baker successfully obtained a codebook. Able to cross borders under the guise of touring, Baker attended functions filled with international officials and eavesdropped. She wrote gathered intelligence on music sheets with invisible ink, and pinned notes inside her underwear.

In June 1941, however, Baker developed an infection from pneumonia. Three surgeries saved her life, although a number of newspapers reported she had died. Baker left the hospital March 1943. Her spy days were over, but by August 1944, Paris was liberated.

Unrealistic Hopes

Entertaining freed Holocaust victims, Baker met bandleader Jo Boullion who convinced her to tour again. However, Baker fell ill and underwent emergency surgery. In bed, she was awarded France's Legion d'Honneur and Medal of the Resistance.

After 40-year-old Baker's slow recovery, Baker married Boullion in 1947 and settled at the 15th-century Chateau Les Milandes. To finance repairs, Baker embarked on a world tour in 1949.

Back in America by 1951, controversy swirled again. Brashly outspoken in Cuba on discrimination, several theaters canceled Baker's engagements. Seizing the moment, she went on an anti-discrimination tirade across America.

Threatened by the KKK, Baker didn't back down -- refusing engagements in cities promoting segregation. The NAACP named Baker "Most Outstanding Woman of the Year."

However, when Baker hadn't been served following an hour's-wait at fabled Stork Club, she suspected discrimination. Baker contacted the NAACP, who confronted the club's owner. However, it was common knowledge that this tactic was used by northern businesses to discourage black patronage.

The Rainbow Tribe

Downcast, Baker returned to Les Milandes, making it a tourist attraction. In 1953, 47-year-old Baker began adopting children of many nationalities -- and charging visitors for the privilege of witnessing racial harmony. Many considered this exploitative.

Although 300,000 visited Les Milandes annually, debt was insurmountable. Baker, however, continued to adopt children and frivolously waste money, against Boullion's objections. When Baker had the cows' names displayed in electric lights in the barnyard, Boullion ended their 12-year marriage.

To pay bills, Baker began another tour with children in-tow. Subsequently, a director approached Baker in 1961 about filming the Rainbow Tribe. She refused the offer thinking it would cheapen the Tribe's ideal. No other offers materialized, and Baker was forced to sell her jewelry, gowns, and art.

Ultimately, Baker's 12-member international family never achieved her dream of promoting civil rights. But in 1963-America, blacks led by Dr. Martin Luther King were demanding equal rights. In Washington, Baker stood before 250,000 to voice her dream of an America void of racial intolerance.

Losing it All

Problems awaited Baker at home. Utilities disconnected, her family lived in one room. Deteriorating health and not as popular, Baker couldn't make payroll; employees began to steal. Once the richest black woman in the world, 57-year-old Baker was again dirt-poor.

Baker suffered two heart attacks and a stroke and couldn't tour. But hearing of her plight, friends saved Les Milandes from auction many times.

In January 1969, however, Josephine Baker's estate was sold. Her children became vagabonds on Paris' streets -- as Baker had been long ago in St. Louis. Convinced she'd been cheated, Baker barricaded herself inside the estate. Eventually, the new owner had her dragged outside where she sat seven hours in pouring rain. Baker was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion.

Invincible Josephine

Pondering how to get her family back together, Baker was contacted by Monaco's Princess Grace. She'd admired Baker and read of her hardships. Grace offered Baker a villa in exchange for a Red Cross-benefit performance.

Josephine Baker's magic returned during the week-long show. Offers poured in, and she began touring again with her Tribe. In 1973, 67-year-old Baker returned to America to perform at Carnegie Hall. The audience stood and cheered when Josephine came onstage.

Baker stirred memories as she reviewed her 50-year career through song and dance. Next-day's reviews proved Baker had achieved success in her homeland.

Baker wanted to retire but knew it was financially impossible. Staying at the villa wasn't free, and the children were rapidly growing. Grace invited Baker to perform for Monaco's Red Cross again -- but this time, it would be a revue about Baker's life.

Although the show was phenomenal, producers were unable to secure other engagements. Paris, of all places, labeled Josephine a has-been. Finally, after months of negotiations, Paris' Bobino Theater booked the revue.

Baker had suffered another stroke, and her memory was embarrassingly poor. But April 8, 1975, her spellbound audience couldn't tell. She flawlessly reviewed her 50-year career in one show -- performed over 30 numbers and the Charleston that had made her famous.

Grand Finale

Josephine Baker had come full circle. Overwhelmed by her revue's success, she disregarded doctor's orders to rest. Friends took her home after partying all night.

April 10, 1975, a friend checked on Baker when she hadn't awakened by 5 p.m. Baker had slipped into a coma surrounded by newspapers' glowing reviews of her -- and didn't wake up. On the morning of April 12, 1975, Baker was pronounced dead from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Her funeral was as extravagant as her life had been. Thousands crammed the streets of Baker's beloved Paris to throw flowers on her passing hearse. French military gave Baker a 21-gun salute, an honor reserved for top officials.

Inside the church, songs Baker had made famous played softly. The French flag draped her coffin, and her war medals were laid atop.