Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine Carson in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906 to washerwoman, Carrie McDonald, and vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson. Josephine’s father abandoned them shortly after her birth and her mother married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin. Their family came to include a son and two more daughters. Josephine grew up cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families until she got a job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur’s Club when she was 13-years-old. While working there she met a man named Willie Wells whom she had a short marriage with.
Josephine never depended on a man for financial support and she never hesitated to leave when a relationship hit its breaking point. Which is why she was married and divorced three more times to an American named Willie Baker in 1921 (whose last name she chose to keep), a Frenchman, Jean Lion, in 1937 (from whom she attained French citizenship) and a French orchestra leader, Jo Bouillon, in 1947. Josephine toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919, performing various comical skits. When the troupes split, she tried to advance as a chorus girl for The Dixie Steppers in their production ‘Shuffle Along’. She was turned away because she was ‘too skinny and too dark.’ Still determined as ever, she learned the chorus line’s routines while working as part of the crew. Therefore, Josephine was the obvious replacement when one of the dancers left.
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Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. The audience loved her comedic touch and Josephine was a box office hit for the rest of the show’s run. Josephine traveled to Paris for a new show that proved to be a turning point in her career. Josephine and dance partner Joe Alex captivated the audience with a routine that was new and exotic, and included Josephine boldly dressed in nothing but a feather skirt.
Josephine worked the audience into frenzy with her uninhibited movements. She was an overnight sensation. Josephine’s immense popularity afforded her a comfortable salary, which she spent mostly on clothes, jewelry and pets. She loved animals and at one time she owned a leopard, a chimpanzee, a pig, a snake, a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs. When her routine with Alex got old she moved on and starred in La Folie du Jour. Her jaw-dropping performance, including a costume of only 16 bananas strung into a skirt, cemented her celebrity status.
Josephine battled two other women for the title of the most photographed woman in the world, and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. She starred in two movies in the early 1930 s and moved her family from St. Louis to Les Milandes, her estate in Castelnaud-Fay rac, France. A 1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfeld Follies proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. Newspaper reviews were equally cruel (The New York Times called her a ‘Negro wench’), and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.
She served France during World War II in many ways. She performed for the troops, and was an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance (undercover work included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets in invisible ink) and a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and awarded into the Legion of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication. Josephine visited the United States again during the 50 s and 60 s with 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. The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.
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During this time she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as ‘The Rainbow Tribe.’ Josephine wanted to prove that ‘children of different and religions could still be brothers.’ She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Les Milandes, tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in ‘The Rainbow Tribe’ were. Josephine continued to travel to the United States and during her visits she developed a close friendship with an American artist named Robert Brady. Now divorced from her fourth husband, she was looking for companionship on a more platonic level. Brady felt the same and on a trip to Acapulco, Mexico in September 1973 they went to an empty church and exchanged marriage vows. Though no preis t was present and they were never legally joined, it was an important personal bond that she and Brady maintained the rest of her life.
Josephine told very few people about the pseudo marriage fearing the press would ridicule it. Josephine agreed to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall that same year. Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. But despite her butterflies, Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage. On April 8, 1975 Josephine premiered at the Bob ino Theater in Paris.
Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a variety of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma and died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a. m. on April 12.
More than 20, 000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Her grave site is in the Cim eti ” ere de Monaco, Monaco. Josephine Baker has continued to intrigue and inspire people throughout the world.
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In 1991, HBO released The Josephine Baker Story. The movie won two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries and Outstanding Art Direction. The movie also picked up one of three Golden Globe nominations. Josephine Baker sashayed onto stage with a comic, yet sensual appeal that took Europe, and eventually the world, by storm. Famous for barely-there dresses and uninhibited dance routines, her exotic beauty generated nicknames such as ‘Black Venus,’ ‘Black Pearl’ and ‘Creole Goddess.’ Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1, 500 marriage proposals. Josephine Baker was once quoted saying ‘I love performing.
I shall perform until the day I die.’ She maintained energetic performances and a celebrity status for 50 years before going softly in her sleep, but she did not go softly through life.