Biography of Josephine Baker, a Dancer, Singer, Activist, and Spy

Josephine Baker, 1925, Hamburg
Estate of Emil Bieber/Klaus Niermann/Getty Images

Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald; June 3, 1906—April 12, 1975) was an American-born singer, dancer, and civil rights activist who overwhelmed Parisian audiences in the 1920s, becoming one of the most popular entertainers in France. She spent her youth in poverty in the U.S. before learning to dance and finding success on Broadway, then moving to France. When racism soured her return to the U.S., she took up the cause of civil rights.

Fast Facts: Josephine Baker

Known For: Singer, dancer, civil rights activist

Known As: “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl”

Born: June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri

Parents: Carrie McDonald, Eddie Carson

Died: April 12, 1975, in Paris, France

Awards and Honors: Croix de Guerre, Legion of Honour

Spouses:  Jo Bouillon, Jean Lion, William Baker, Willie Wells

Children: 12 (adopted)

Notable Quote:  "Beautiful? It's all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest... beautiful, no. Amusing, yes."

Early Life

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Baker's mother, Carrie McDonald, had hoped to be a music hall dancer but made her living doing laundry. Her father, Eddie Carson, was a drummer for vaudeville shows.

Baker left school at 8 to work for a white woman as a maid. At the age of 10 she returned to school. She witnessed the East St. Louis race riot of 1917 before running away at age 13. After watching the dancers in a local vaudeville house and honing her skills in clubs and street performances, she toured the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits.

Getting Started

At 16, Baker began dancing in a touring show based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where her grandmother lived. By this time she had already been married twice: to Willie Wells in 1919 and to Will Baker, from whom she took her last name, in 1921.

In August 1922 Baker joined the chorus line of the touring show "Shuffle Along" in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to New York, New York, to perform with the "Chocolate Dandies" at the Cotton Club and with the floor show at the Plantation Club in Harlem. Audiences loved her clowning, mugging, improvising comic style, foreshadowing her style as an entertainer.

Paris

In 1925 Baker moved to Paris, France, more than doubling her New York salary to $250 a week to dance at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in "La Revue Nègre" with other African-American dancers and musicians, including jazz star Sidney Bechet. Her performance style, referred to as Le Jazz Hot and Danse Sauvage, took her to international fame riding the wave of French intoxication for American jazz and exotic nudity. She sometimes performed wearing just a feather skirt.

She became one of the most popular music-hall entertainers in France, achieving star billing at the Folies-Bergère dancing seminude in a G-string ornamented with bananas. She quickly became the favorite of artists and intellectuals such as painter Pablo Picasso, poet E.E. Cummings, playwright Jean Cocteau, and writer Ernest Hemingway. Baker became one of the best-known entertainers in France and all of Europe, her exotic, sensual act reinforcing the creative forces coming out of the Harlem Renaissance in America.

She sang professionally for the first time in 1930 and made her screen debut four years later, appearing in several films before World War II curtailed her movie career.

Return to the US

In 1936, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the "Ziegfield Follies," hoping to establish herself in her home country, but she was met with hostility and racism and quickly went back to France. She married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her.

During the war Baker worked with the Red Cross and gathered intelligence for the French Resistance during the German occupation of France, smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music and her underwear. She also entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. The French government later honored her with the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour.

Baker and her fourth husband, Joseph ”Jo” Bouillon, bought an estate she named Les Milandes in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in southwestern France. She moved her family there from St. Louis and, after the war, adopted 12 children from around the world, making her home a "world village" and a "showplace for brotherhood." She returned to the stage in the 1950s to finance this project.

Civil Rights

Baker was in the U.S. in 1951 when she was refused service at the famous Stork Club in New York City. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club that evening, was disgusted by the racist snub and walked out arm in arm with Baker in a show of support, the start of a friendship that would last until Baker’s death.

Baker responded to the event by crusading for racial equality, refusing to entertain in clubs or theaters that weren't integrated and breaking the color barrier at many establishments. The media battle that followed almost triggered revocation of her visa by the State Department. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr.

Baker's world village fell apart in the 1950s. She and Bouillon divorced, and in 1969 she was evicted from her chateau, which was sold at auction to pay debts. Kelly, by then princess Grace of Monaco, gave her a villa. In 1973 Baker became romantically involved with an American, Robert Brady, and began her stage comeback.

In 1975, Baker's Carnegie Hall comeback performance was a success. In April she performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, the first of a planned series of appearances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut. But two days after that performance, on April 12, 1975, she died of a stroke at 68 in Paris.

Legacy

On the day of her funeral, over 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to witness the procession. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors.

Baker had remained a bigger success abroad than in her home country. Racism tainted her return visits until her Carnegie Hall performance, but she had a profound influence worldwide as an African-American woman who had overcome a childhood of deprivation to become a dancer, singer, actress, civil rights activist, and even a spy.

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