Josephine Baker, the famous dancer, singer, and actress, was born as Freda Josephine McDonald, on June 3, 1906 to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson.
She is famous for being the first black bisexual woman to star in a major motion picture.
She was born in St. Louis, Missouri. During her childhood she worked as a live-in domestic help for white families in St. Louis who reminded her “be sure not to kiss the baby” and according to some reports abused her. As she became a teen, she quit school and got a job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur’s Club. While waiting tables she met and had a brief marriage to Willie Wells. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention, and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. Baker toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers performing various comical skits. After the troupes split, she tried to be a chorus girl for The Dixie Steppers in Shuffle Along. She was rejected because she was “too skinny and too dark.” However, she learned the chorus line’s routines while working as a dresser and became the replacement when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. The audience loved her comedic touch, and Josephine was a box office draw for the rest of the show’s run.
She headed to New York City, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues. She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line. She enjoyed moderate success and her performances landed her an opportunity to tour in Paris. She opened in “La Revue Nègre” on 2 October 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. This turned out to be a turning point in her career. After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts. Everything about her routine was new and exotic, and Baker with her erotic dancing and uninhibited movements captivated her audiences. She became an overnight sensation.
She became immensely famous and obviously was compensated heavily. She loved animals and kept a menagerie of them which included a leopard (Chiquita), a chimpanzee (Ethel), a pig (Albert), a snake (Kiki), a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs.
In early 1930s, she starred in two films – “Zou-zou” and “Princess Tam-Tam“. The movies were a huge successs in Europe and cemented her fame. Despite her popularity in France, Baker never attained the equivalent reputation in America. Upon a visit to the United States in 1935–36, she was met with lukewarm audiences, in part because the audience did not approve of her nudity or her singing. Most American audiences couldn’t accept the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. Her star turn in the Ziegfeld Follies generated less than impressive box office numbers, and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Time magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench”. She returned to Europe heartbroken. This contributed to Baker’s becoming a legal citizen of France and giving up her US Citizenship.
She was way ahead of her times. She never depended on a man for financial support. Therefore, she never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured. Baker was married four times. Her first marriage was to American Willie Wells when she was 13 years old. The marriage was reportedly very unhappy and the couple divorced a short time later. Another short-lived marriage followed to Willie Baker in 1921; she retained Baker’s last name because her career began taking off during that time, and it was the name by which she became best known. In 1937 Baker married Frenchman Jean Lion. Thus, she became a French citizen and became a permanent expatriate. After he died, she married French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, who helped raise her 12 adopted children, but their union also ended in divorce. She was later involved for a time with the artist Robert Brady. However, they never married.Her adopted son, Jean-Claude Baker, described his mother as a bisexual, having had relationships with men and women.
Though Baker was famous for her career in entertainment, she was also an activist. Just because people turned out to be racist, didn’t mean she would take it lying down. When she visited the United States during the 50s and 60s, she returned with a renewed vigor to fight racism. When New York’s popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was the only woman to speak at the rally. After the rally, she played a series of four extremely successful charity shows at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations.The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20th Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts. It was also during this time that she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe“. Josephine wanted her to prove that “children of different ethnicity and religions could still be brothers”. After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, approached Baker in Holland to ask her if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. However, Baker declined, stating that her children were ” … too young to lose their mother.”
Baker had also served France during World War II in several ways. She performed for the troops, did undercover work included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets and was a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She was later awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication.
In 1973, she performed in Carnegie Hall. Due to the leaps in cultural and racial sensitivity, she was met with a standing ovation. She received great enthusiasm and adoration, as she deserved. On April 12th, 1975 Baker passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
She was the first American women buried in France with military honors, as she was honored with a 21-gun salute. She is buried at the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.
She continues to inspire people to be more than what the world thinks they can be. In an era where women weren’t allowed to be much, she was a dancer, a singer, a performer, a comic, an actress, a pioneer, a civil rights activist, and a spy. She pushed boundaries and never gave in.
You can watch one of her mesmerizing performances here: