Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, a world-famous entertainer in dancing, singing, and acting, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, a spy in the French Resistance during World War II, and the recipient of the French military honor the Croix de guerre, and she deserves credit.
Her parents, Carrie McDonald, a washerwoman, and Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, had a traveling song and dance act that Josephine became a part of around her first birthday. Carson later abandoned Josephine and her mother, leaving the already poor family even more destitute. Josephine, dressed in tatters and persistently starving, began performing on her own in the railroad yards of Union Station, making a meager living while also developing her trademark street smarts.
At eight years old, Josephine started work as an au pair for white families in St. Louis. These families often mistreated the young girl. They would remind her to “be sure not to kiss the baby,” and one of her employers burned her hands when Josephine accidentally used too much soap in the laundry.
A few years later, when she turned thirteen, Josephine dropped out of school and obtained a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club. For most of her life, Josephine had lived in the streets in the slums of St. Louis. She scavenged through garbage cans and slept in cardboard shelters during her childhood, but she always found herself work. It was this resolute passion and dedication to live that drove her, a poor girl from the slums, to international renown.
Finally, her street-corner dancing attracted attention. At fifteen, Josephine was recruited to the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. This was the start of her rise to fame. From the vaudeville show, she traveled to New York City, around the same time as the Harlem Renaissance. She performed at the Plantation Club in two highly successful Broadway revues, Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies. Actually, she wasn’t originally hired to these shows, but she learned all of the dances anyway, making herself the first person to be employed when any of the other dancers were sick or hurt.
In the chorus line, Josephine was the last dancer. This was a particularly special position, as the last dancer needed both comic ability and exceptional technical dancing skill. Traditionally the last dancer in the chorus line would purposefully do all of the dances incorrectly throughout the show, but for the encore performance, the last dancer would get “redemption” by not only performing correctly, but by also performing additional, more complicated steps than the other dancers. Audiences loved her humor, her false clumsiness and exaggerated eye rolling. At the time, Baker was the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
Josephine’s relationship to her mother was strained. Though she herself had made a living in the past doing vaudeville performance, McDonald did not believe that dance was a real form of work and wanted Josephine to tend more to her then-husband, Willie Baker, the one of her husbands whose last name she retained. However, it was this turmoil between mother and daughter that incited Josephine to travel to France for the first time.
Baker sailed to Paris, France in the early 1920s. She opened in La Revue Négre on October 2, 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. She became an overnight success for her erotic dancing performances; few others would appear almost entirely naked onstage like Josephine would. Riding her success, she toured throughout Europe but soon returned to France, which, for all intents and purposes, had become her home.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Josephine is that of her doing the “danse sauvage” wearing a skirt made of a string of sixteen artificial bananas for her starring role in La Folie du Jour. This period coincided with the influx of “Art Deco” styles, which was a rebirth of the popularity of non-western designs. Baker was a major fashion icon in this manner, popularizing African styles. Josephine was a sensation and a jaw-dropping performer. She was the most photographed woman in the world, and yet, today, few people know who she is.
In later shows, Josephine performed accompanied by her cheetah, adorably named Chiquita, who wore a diamond collar and would often (allegedly) escape into the orchestra pit, frightening the musicians but entertaining the Parisian audiences. At the same time, Josephine was starring in films that found most of their acclaim in Europe: Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934), and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She was also recording what would become her most successful song, “J’ai deux amours” (1931).
Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Hemingway, as well as Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior, referred to her as their muse.
With such high praise from Europe, Josephine traveled back to the United States to star in a 1936 revival of Ziegfield Follies. But American audiences rejected that a black woman could be a major celebrity so adamantly that Josephine returned to France utterly heartbroken, leaving the incredible cruelty of United States critics in her wake (horrifyingly, the New York Times called her a “Negro wench”).
During World War II, Josephine provided both entertainment for the troops and correspondence work for the French Resistance. If you weren’t already convinced that she is extremely cool, read this: she smuggled secret messages written in invisible ink on her music sheets while simultaneously acting as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She used her famous charisma to get invitations to parties at embassies and ministries and pertinent, secret information from the other guests.
Later, in 1941, Josephine and her entourage traveled to North Africa. Though they cited the reason as Josephine’s health, which was shaky at best from her chronic bouts of pneumonia and several detrimental miscarriages, she was actually there to gather more information for the Resistance. From Morocco, Josephine toured Spain and pinned notes of confidential information to her underwear, correctly assuming that border authorities would not strip search a celebrity.
Her work to help the war effort did not go unnoticed. The French government named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, among other titles and medals.
Despite her previous traumatic experience in the United States, Josephine returned in the 50s and 60s to fight racism. She and her husband at the time were denied rooms at thirty-six hotels solely because of their skin color. Staunchly anti-segregation and appalled by the treatment of African Americans, she began writing articles and engaged in a media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell, who was once her friend an ally. The dispute began because of Josephine’s refusal to play at a segregated club, and Winchell’s opposition to that. He even called her a Communist, a highly grave offense at the time.
Unfortunately, this incident further derailed Josephine’s career in the United States, as she lost her work visa and was unable to return for ten years. Because of her refusal to perform to segregated audiences in spite of harsh consequences and other efforts, such as being the only female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington beside Martin Luther King, Jr., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named May 20 Josephine Baker Day.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King even asked Josephine to be the new, unofficial leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but Josephine turned her down because she didn’t want to abandon her children.
By this time, Josephine had had four husbands. She was financially independent from all of them, and none were truly major facets of her life. In fact, she was reportedly bisexual and had many affairs with influential women, including Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. But she wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers,” and she wanted a family, which a long string of miscarriages had previously prevented. So Josephine began adopting children, forming a large household that she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” She had twelve children total, all of whom would often travel cross-country with her.
In 1973, Josephine agreed to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She was nervous about whether or not the audience and critics would accept her, but she did it anyway. Garnering a standing ovation prior to even beginning the show, Josephine wept on stage at the enthusiastic welcome and the evidence of growing tolerance.
Two years later, Josephine, now sixty-eight years old, premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris, with celebrities like Grace Kelly, the then Princess of Monaco, and Sophia Loren in the audience. She performed a medley of routines from her career, which by then had spanned over fifty years. The reviews from this show were some of the best she had ever received. However, only days later, Josephine slipped into a coma, and died from a cerebral hemorrhage at five in the morning on April 12.
Tens of thousands of people walked the streets of Paris to watch Josephine’s funeral procession. The French government gave her a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors. She is buried at the Cimetiére de Monaco.
I didn’t know anything about Josephine Baker until a late, impromptu visit to a small restaurant in Manhattan that looked like it might be good. This restaurant turned out to be Chez Josephine, the business run by two of her children to celebrate her life and works. While eating some of the most delicious French food I’ve ever had, I could feel Josephine’s spirit and love running throughout the tiny restaurant and inundating every customer with tolerance, creativity, and fearlessness.