Josephine Baker - Wiki, Pictures and Biography

Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who rose to prominence in France during the 1920s. She also spent a significant amount of her life fighting racism.

 

Who Was Josephine Baker?

Josephine Baker grew up in poverty before discovering dance and finding success on Broadway. She moved to France in the 1920s and quickly became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers. During WWII, she worked for the French Resistance, and in the 1950s and 1960s, she dedicated herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, after beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973. She was buried with military honors.

 

Early Life

Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Carrie McDonald, her mother, was a washerwoman who had given up her dream of becoming a music-hall dancer. Eddie Carson, her father, was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned Carrie and Josephine soon after she was born. Carrie remarried soon after and had several more children in the years that followed.

Josephine started cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families when she was eight years old to help support her growing family. She briefly returned to school two years later before fleeing home at the age of 13 and working as a waitress in a club. While working there, she married Willie Wells, whom she divorced only a few weeks later.

 

Dancing in Paris

Around this time, Josephine began dancing, honing her skills in clubs and on the street, and by 1919, she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers, performing comedic skits. Josephine married Willie Baker in 1921, a name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. Baker landed a role as a member of the chorus in the musical Shuffle Along in 1923, and the comic touch she brought to the part made her popular with audiences.

Baker moved to New York City to capitalize on her early successes, and she soon found herself performing in Chocolate Dandies and, alongside Ethel Waters, in the Plantation Club's floor show, where she quickly became a crowd favorite.

Baker traveled to Paris in 1925, at the height of France's obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when she performed the Danse Sauvage with dance partner Joe Alex, wearing only a feather skirt.




Baker and the Banana Skirt

Baker's career, however, would take a major turn the following year at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era. Baker danced in a performance called La Folie du Jour while wearing nothing but a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences, and Baker quickly became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers, earning the admiration of cultural figures such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and E. E. Cummings, as well as nicknames such as "Black Venus" and "Black Pearl." In addition, she received over 1,000 marriage proposals.

Baker capitalized on her success by singing professionally for the first time in 1930, and she landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam several years later. Her earnings from her performances soon enabled her to purchase an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, southwest France. She named the estate Les Milandes and quickly paid to relocate her family from St. Louis.

 

Racism and the French Resistance

Baker returned to the United States in 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was experiencing in France, to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. She was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction, and she quickly returned to France, distraught over her mistreatment. Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion upon her return and obtained citizenship from the country that had welcomed her as one of its own.

Baker worked for the Red Cross during the occupation of France when World War II broke out later that year. She also entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East as a member of the Free French forces. Baker did, however, work for the French Resistance, smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music and even her underwear at times. Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the Resistance rosette at the end of the war for his efforts, two of France's highest military honors.

 

Children

Baker spent the majority of her time after the war with her family at Les Milandes. She married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 and began adopting babies from all over the world in 1950. She adopted 12 children in total, forming what she called her "rainbow tribe" and "experiment in brotherhood." She frequently invited people to the estate to see these children, demonstrating that people of different races could coexist peacefully.

 

Return to the U.S., Civil Rights Advocate

Baker returned to the United States frequently during the 1950s to support the Civil Rights Movement, participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. Baker was one of many notable speakers at the March on Washington in 1963, alongside Martin Luther King Jr. In recognition of her efforts, the NAACP designated May 20th as "Josephine Baker Day."

After decades of rejection from her countrymen and a lifetime of dealing with racism, Baker received a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1973. She was so moved by her reception that she sobbed openly in front of her audience. The show was a huge success, and it marked Baker's return to the stage.

 

Death

Baker made her Paris debut 50 years ago in April 1975, at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Many celebrities were in attendance, including Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco, who had been a longtime friend of Baker's. Baker died in her sleep a few days later, on April 12, 1975, from a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 68.

On the day of her funeral, more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch the procession, and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Baker the first American woman in history to receive French military honors.

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