Skip to main content
Select Source:

Baker, Josephine

Josephine Baker

Singer, dancer, actress

Shone as Stand-in

Sensation at Folies-Bergères

Rejected by American Audiences

Selected discography

Sources

Josephine Baker is remembered primarily as a spirited entertainer, the glamorous Joséphine who became the toast of France. But there was a great deal more to Josephine Baker than the banana skirt she wore in the Folies-Bergères or the leopard she walked along the streets of Paris. She was a great lover of life and humanity and devoted herself to making the world a more hospitable place and securing a better future for its citizens.

Born Josephine Carson on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the first child of Eddie Carson, a drummer, and Carrie McDonald. Before Baker was a year old, her father left the family. Her mother later had three children with another man, Arthur Martin: Richard, Margaret, and Willie Mae. When Baker was eight, she began work as a live-in maid for white families. In 1918, she moved with her family from their apartment to a house. She became friends with the boy next door, in whose basement the neighborhood children put on shows for each other, with Baker as one of the stars.

At 13, Baker moved out of her parents house and worked as a waitress to support herself. She married a man named Willie Wells and quit her job. But the marriage was short-lived, and soon she was back to waitressing. She joined a group of street performers who called themselves the Jones Family Band, and her first appearance on stage was at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louiss black vaudeville house. Also performing at the theater were the Dixie Steppers, an all-black traveling troupe. The manager of the Dixie Steppers took a liking to Baker and decided to make her part of the group. Since he couldnt find anything for Baker to do onstage, she became a dresser, principally for the troupes star, Clara Smith. While the Dixie Steppers were touring the United States, Josephine met Willie Baker, a Pullman porter, whom she married in 1920 and whose name she took.

Shone as Stand-in

In April of 1921, when the Dixie Steppers were appearing in Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls hurt herself and was unable to perform. Baker took her place. She stood out from the other girls: She was much more lively and interesting to watch. When the Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, a chorus girl named Wilsie Caldwell took Baker to the theater and recommended her for the production, which was on its way to Broadway. But Baker was only 14 and thus too young to join the company.

Baker was so obsessed with the idea of performing in Shuffle Along on Broadway that she left her husband

For the Record

Born Josephine Carson, June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, MO; died of a stroke, April 12, 1975, in Paris, France; daughter of Eddie (a drummer) and Carrie McDonald Carson; married Willie Wells, 1918 (divorced), Willie Baker (a Pullman porter), 1920 (divorced), Jean Lion (a sugar broker), 1937 (divorced), Jo Bouillon (an orchestra leader), 1947 (separated; Bouillon later died), and Robert Brady (an artist), 1973 (divorced); children (all adopted): Akio, Janot, Jari, Luis, Jean-Claude, Moise, Marianne, Brahim, Koffi, Mara, Noel, Stellina.

Worked as a maid, beginning in 1914, and a waitress, beginning in 1919; joined the Jones Family Band; joined the Dixie Steppers; appeared in Shuffle Along, 1921-24, and Chocolate Dandies, 1924-25; performed at Plantation Club, New York City, 1925; appeared with various troupes in numerous stage productions, including Revue Nègre, Folies-Bergères, and Ziegfeld Follies, beginning in mid-1920s; starred in films, including La Sirène des Tropiques, 1927, Zou-Zou, 1934, and Princesse Tam-Tam, 1935; recorded for Odéon label, 1927, and Columbia Records, 1930; honorable correspondent during World War II, participating in intelligence activities for French resistance, became sublieutenant in Womens Auxiliary of French Air Force; transformed country home Les Milandes into education center/tourist attraction, beginning c. 1945; participated in civil rights march on Washington, 1963. Author, with Bouillon, of autobiography Josephine, Harper & Row, 1977.

Awards: Croix de Guerre; Rosette de la Resistance; Legion dHonneur.

and went to New York City. She took a job as a dresser and learned all the songs and dances. Finally, after one of the chorus girls became ill, Baker got her chance. Phyllis Rose, author of Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, recreated the scene: Onstage, the old magical transformation took place. She burst into frenetic action. She seemed to move every part of her body in a different direction at once. She clowned outrageously, unable to stop herself. She crossed her eyes. Her feet tripped over each other while the other girls were kicking neatly in step. The effect of her performance was to mock the very idea of a chorus line, a row of people mechanically repeating the same gestures. The chorus line hated her. They had a simple term for what she was doing: scene stealing. But audiences loved her.

Baker became a box office draw and was singled out in reviews. She joined the company when it went on the road and remained with the show until it closed in January of 1924. She then went almost immediately into Sissle and Blakes new show, Chocolate Dandles, as one of the featured performers. But the show was unsuccessful, and it folded in 1925.

So Baker went to the Plantation Club in Harlem and joined the chorus. One night Caroline Dudley, a wealthy black producer, visited the club in an effort to recruit singer Ethel Waters, who was featured there, for La Revue Nègre, a black revue Dudley wanted to take to Paris. But Waters declined, so Dudley took Baker instead. She had admired Baker in Shuffle Along. Baker wanted to sing for the group that Dudley was organizing, but Dudley wanted her as a comic. After persuading Dudley to raise her weekly salary from $125 to $200a considerable sum in 1925Baker agreed. The troupe set sail for France on September 22.

La Revue Nègre opened at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris and was received with enthusiasm. French fascination with black culture was apparently based on dubious impressionsBaker remarked that the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacksand La Revue Nègre catered to that fascination with exaggerated stereotypes. When the theater owners decided that something exotic needed to be added to the tap dancing and blues singing, they hit on the idea of a more authentic dance, dubbing it the Danse Sauvagethe Savage Dance. Baker was featured in the Danse Sauvage with a male partner, Joe Alex. Their costumes consisted of feathers and not much else; Baker wore only a feather skirt. She became an overnight sensation. Shortly after La Revue Nègre opened, Baker was asked to join the Folies-Bergères, the premier Paris music hall, for its new production, which was to open in April of 1926; she accepted. In the meantime, she went with La Revue Nègre to Germany, where she was hailed as a genius by German intellectuals and artists.

Sensation at Folies-Bergères

Back in Paris, Baker joined the Folies-Bergères and starred in a production called La Folie du Jour. As with La Revue Nègre, the Folies-Bergères featured Baker in an exotic tableau: In this one, she danced in the nudeexcept for a skirt of plush bananas. Her quick, sensual movements, good humor, and grace were just what audiences desired, and she became immensely popular. As Donald Bogle commented in Essence, For a weary, disillusioned, post-World War I era, she epitomized a new freedom and festivity. By the fall of 1926, a merchandising boom began in France; there were Joséphine dolls and perfume, and women wore their hair slicked-down like hers, using a product called Bakerfix to do the job. She opened her own club, Chez Joséphine, in December of 1926, but closed it down a year later. She also recorded several songs for the Odéon recording company and made a motion picture called La Sirène des Tropiques in 1927.

From late 1927 to 1930, Baker underwent something of a transformation: The awkward, gawkybut never uglyduckling became a swan. Some Baker biographers have attributed her metamorphosis largely to a man named Pepito Abatino, who became her business manager, lover, and unofficial husband, but it is quite likely that much of her new style and worldliness was achieved on her own initiative. During this period she toured Europe and also performed in Argentina. But she was bound to Paris, insisting, as documented in Jazz Cleopatra, I dont want to be without Paris. Its my country. Understand? I have to be worthy of Paris. I want to become an artist. She learned French in order to converseand singin her adopted language.

The new Josephine Baker opened at the Casino de Paris in 1930. The producer, Henri Varna, bought Baker a leopard, and she and the leopard, whose name was Chiquita, became a sensation in fashionable Parisian circles. Baker performed in a show called Paris qui Remue, singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes. In July of 1930 she recorded songs from the revue for Columbia Records. She also starred in two films in the 1930s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam, and in the fall of 1934 she was featured in La Créole, an operetta by 19th-century French composer Jacques Offenbach.

Rejected by American Audiences

In 1935, Baker decided to return to America and do there what she had done in Pariscreate a sensation. She would perform with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. She sailed for the U.S. in September of 1935 to begin the extensive rehearsals that were required. When the show opened, reviewers did not disguise their displeasure. Bakers husband Jo Bouillon explained her lack of success in America: Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl. White audiences were reportedly used to seeing, and wanted to see, blacks in what they considered Negro rolesMammies and blues singersand could not accept a black woman of style, grace, and sophistication.

As was her custom when on tour, Baker opened her own club, Chez Josephine Baker, in New York but again closed it shortly thereafter. In the meantime, Pepito Abatino had returned to Paris after an argument with Baker. He died in the spring of 1936, just before the Ziegfeld Follies ended its run that May.

Before Baker returned to France, she made a clean break with her past by divorcing her second husband, Willie Baker, to whom she had legally been married since 1920. While Baker was still in the Follies, Paul Derval, the director of the Folies-Bergères, offered her the starring role in a new show, which was to open in the fall of 1936. The next year, she married Jean Lion, a French sugar broker, and through the marriage became a French citizen. But the Baker-Lion marriage was a turbulent one and ended in divorce 14 months later.

In September of 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to Germanys invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau the French military intelligence agency; she spent World War II obtaining information for the bureau as an honorable correspondent. When the war began, Baker left for Les Milandes, the French country estate she had bought in 1936. But even there she was in danger. Baker moved to Morocco four years later. In North Africa she experienced health problems that kept her from performing. In 1942, her health renewed, she went on a tour of the region, performing for French, British, and American soldiers. From there, she toured the Middle East, where she did benefit performances for the resistance. For her efforts on behalf of France, Baker was made a sublieutenant in the Womens Auxiliary of the French Air Force. Paris was liberated in August of 1944, and Baker returned to France. In 1946, she was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

The following year Baker married Jo Bouillon, a French orchestra leader. The two spent the years immediately following the war restoring Les Milandes. When the work was all finished, Rose wrote in Jazz Cleopatra, there would be two hotels, three restaurants, a miniature golf course, a wax museum of scenes from . . . Bakers life, stables, a patisserie, a foie gras factory, a gas station, and a post office. Baker expected proceeds from tourism to help fund Les Milandes; the rest of the money would come from her performances. She went to the United States again in 1948 but was no more of a success then than she had been in 1936. This time, however, she decided to take a stronger stand on racism: She began to insist on a nondiscrimination clause in her contractsand on integrated audiences at her performances. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared May 20, 1951, Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts to fight racism.

Back in France in 1954, Baker decided to start a family. She wanted to raise a group of ethnically mixed children in an atmosphere of harmony. She called the group her Rainbow Tribe. By 1962, she had adopted 12 childrenten boys and two girls. But by then Bouillon had become increasingly uneasy about the problems of running Les Milandes and what he considered Bakers unrealistic attitude, and in 1960 he left to live in Argentina.

Three years later, Jack Jordan, a black producer, decided to bring Baker to America for the march on Washington, D.C., where, on August 28, she participated in the historic event in which over 200,000 people took part, the most notable being the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his famous I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is said to have been one of Bakers most memorable experiences.

By February of 1964, Les Milandes was in serious financial difficulty. For the next four years, Baker was able to keep it from being seized by the French government, but in the fall of 1968, she was evicted. Her predicament attracted the attention of Princess Grace of Monaco, who arranged for Baker and her children to live in a villa in Roquebrune, near Monte Carlo.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baker experienced health problems that kept her in and out of hospitals. In 1973, at the age of 69, she married American artist Robert Brady. The marriage lasted one year. In 1974 the Société de Bains de Mer of Monte Carlo invited Baker to star in their annual benefit for the Monacan Red Cross, the organization that helped to subsidize her home in Roquebrune. The show was called Joséphine and told the story of Bakers life in a series of scenes. It was a success and opened in Paris on April 8, 1975. Four days later, Baker suffered a stroke while she slept and lapsed into a coma; she died that day. Twenty thousand people attended her funeral, at the church of the Madeleine in Paris, and the ceremony was broadcast on French national television, countless fans tuning in to pay their respects to their beloved adopted national treasure, their Joséphine.

Selected discography

Josephine Baker, Sandstone, 1992.

The Josephine Baker Story (recorded 1926-37), Pro Arte/Fanfare, 1992.

Sources

Books

Baker, Josephine, and Jo Bouillon, Josephine, translated by Mariana Fitzpatrick, Harper & Row, 1977.

Haney, Lynn, Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker, Dodd, Mean, 1981.

Rose, Phyllis, Jazz Cieopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, Doubleday, 1989.

Periodicals

American Heritage, November 1989.

Ebony June 1991.

Essence, February 1991.

New York Times, March 10, 1991.

Joyce Harrison

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Baker, Josephine." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Baker, Josephine." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/baker-josephine

"Baker, Josephine." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/baker-josephine

Baker, Josephine 1906–1975

Josephine Baker 19061975

Singer, dancer, actress, civil rights activist

At a Glance

Joined La Revue Nègre

Became a Star at the Folies-Bergères

Performed in the United States

Worked for French Resistance During World War II

The Rainbow Tribe

Sources

Josephine Baker is remembered principally as a spirited entertainer, the glamorous Joséphine who became the toast of France. But there was a great deal more to Josephine Baker than the banana skirt she wore in the Folies-Bergères or the leopard she walked along the streets of Paris. She was a great lover of life and of humanity, who devoted herself to making the world a more hospitable place and to securing a better future for its citizens.

She was born Josephine Carson on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, the first child of Eddie Carson, a drummer, and Carrie McDonald. Before Baker was a year old, her father left the family. Her mother later had three children with another man, Arthur Martin: Richard, Margaret, and Willie Mae. When Baker was eight, she began work as a live-in maid for white families. In 1918, she moved with her family from their apartment to a house. She became friends with the boy next door, in whose basement the neighborhood children put on shows for each other, with Baker as one of the stars.

At thirteen, Baker moved out of her parents house and worked as a waitress to support herself. She married a man named Willie Wells and quit her job. But the marriage was short-lived, and soon she was back to waitressing. She joined a group of street performers who called themselves the Jones Family Band, and her first appearance on stage was at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louiss black vaudeville house. Also performing at the theater were the Dixie Steppers, an all-black traveling troupe. The manager of the Dixie Steppers took a liking to Baker and decided to make her a part of the group. Since he couldnt find anything for Baker to do onstage, she became a dresser, principally for the troupes star, Clara Smith. While the Dixie Steppers were touring the United States, Josephine met Willie Baker, a Pullman porter, whom she married in 1920, and through the marriage changed her name to Josephine Baker.

In April of 1921, when the Dixie Steppers were touring in Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls hurt herself and was unable to perform. Baker took her place. She stood out from the other girls: she was much more lively and more interesting to watch. When the lyricist/composer team Noble Sissle and Eubie Blakes show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, a chorus girl named Wilsie Caldwell brought Baker to the theater and recommended her for the production,

At a Glance

Born Josephine Carson, June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, MO; died of a stroke, April 12, 1975, in Paris, France; daughter of Eddie Carson and Carrie McDonald; married Willie Wells, 1918 (divorced), Willie Baker, 1920 (divorced), Jean Lion, 1937 (divorced), Jo Bouillon, 1947 (separated and later died), and Robert Brady, 1973 (divorced); children (all adopted): Akio, Janot, Jari, Luis, Jean-Claude, Moïse, Marianne, Brahim, Koffi, Mara, Noël, Stellina.

Dancer, singer, actress, and civil rights activist. Appeared with various troupes in numerous stage productions, including La Revue Nègre, the Folies-Bergères, and the Ziegfeld Follies. Starred in motion pictures, including La Sirène des Tropiques, 1927, Zou-Zou, 1934, and Princesse Tam-Tam, 1935. Honorable correspondent during World War II, participating in intelligence activities for the French resistance; opened Les Milandes, a combination private home/education center/tourist attraction, after World War II; took part in the civil rights march on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Awards: Croix de Guerre; Rosette de la Resistance; Legion dHonneur.

which was to go on Broadway. But Baker was only fourteen and thus too young to join the company.

Baker was so obsessed with the idea of performing with the cast of Shuffle Along on Broadway that she left her husband and went to New York City. She took a job as a dresser and learned all the songs and dances. Finally, after one of the chorus girls got sick, Baker went on for her. Phyllis Rose, author of Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, recreated the scene: Onstage, the old magical transformation took place. She burst into frenetic action. She seemed to move every part of her body in a different direction at once. She clowned outrageously, unable to stop herself. She crossed her eyes. Her feet tripped over each other while the other girls were kicking neatly in step. The effect of her performance was to mock the very idea of a chorus line, a row of people mechanically repeating the same gestures. The chorus line hated her. They had a simple term for what she was doing: scene stealing. But audiences loved her.

Baker became a box office draw and was singled out in reviews. She joined the company when it went on the road and remained with the show until it closed in January of 1924. She then went almost immediately into Sissle and Blakes new production, Chocolate Dandies, as one of the featured performers. But the show was unsuccessful, and it folded in 1925.

Joined La Revue Nègre

Baker then went to the Plantation Club in Harlem and joined the chorus. One night Caroline Dudley, a wealthy black producer, visited the club in an effort to recruit singer Ethel Waters, who was featured there, for La Revue Nègre, a black revue Dudley wanted to take to Paris. But Waters declined, so Dudley took Baker instead. She had admired Baker in Shuffle Along. For the new group that Dudley was organizing, Baker wanted to sing, but Dudley wanted her as a comic. After persuading Dudley to raise her weekly salary from $125 to $200a considerable sum in 1925Baker agreed. The troupe set sail for France on September 22.

La Revue Nègre opened at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris and was received with enthusiasm. French audiences fascination with black culture was apparently based on dubious impressionsBaker remarked that the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacksand La Revue Nègre catered to that fascination with exaggerated stereotypes. When the theater owners decided that something exotic needed to be added to the tap dancing and blues singing, they hit on the idea of a more authentic dance and called it the Danse Sauvagethe Savage Dance. Baker was featured in the Danse Sauvage with a male partner, Joe Alex. Their costumes consisted of feathers and not much else; Baker wore only a feather skirt. She became an overnight sensation. Shortly after La Revue Nègre opened, Baker was asked to join the Folies-Bergères, the premier Paris music hall, for its new show, which was to open in April of 1926; she accepted. In the meantime, she went with La Revue Nègre to Germany, where she was hailed as a genius by German intellectuals and artists.

Became a Star at the Folies-Bergères

Back in Paris, Baker joined the Folies-Bergères and starred in a production called La Folie du Jour. As with La Revue Nègre, the Folies-Bergères featured Baker in an exotic tableau: in this one, she danced in the nude except for a skirt of plush bananas. Her quick, sensual movements, her good humor, and her grace were just what audiences were looking for, and she became immensely popular. As Donald Bogle commented in an article on Baker in Essence magazine: For a weary, disillusioned, post-World War I era, she epitomized a new freedom and festivity. By the fall of 1926, a merchandise boom began in France: there were Josephine dolls and perfume, and women wore their hair slicked-down like hers, using a product called Bakerfix to do the job. She opened her own club, Chez Joséphine, in December of 1926, but closed it down a year later. She also recorded several songs for the Odéon recording company and made a motion picture called La Sirène des Tropiques in 1927.

From late 1927 to 1930, Baker underwent something of a transformation: the awkward, gawkybut never uglyduckling became a swan. Some Baker biographers have attributed her metamorphosis largely to a man named Pepito Abatino, who became her business manager, lover, and unofficial husband, but it is quite likely that a good deal of her new style and worldliness was achieved on her own initiative. During this time, she went on a tour of Europe and also performed in Argentina. But she was bound to Paris, saying, as documented in Jazz Cleopatra: I dont want to be without Paris. Its my country. Understand? I have to be worthy of Paris. I want to become an artist. She learned French in order to be able to converse, and to sing, in her adopted language.

The new Josephine Baker opened at the Casino de Paris in 1930. The producer, Henri Varna, bought Baker a leopard, and she and the leopard, whose name was Chiquita, became a sensation in fashionable Parisian circles. Baker performed in a show called Paris qui Remue at the Casino de Paris, singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes. In July of 1930 she made recordings of the songs in the revue for Columbia Records. She also starred in two films in the 1930s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam, and in the fall of 1934, she was featured in La Créole, an operetta by nineteenth-century French composer Jacques Offenbach.

Performed in the United States

In 1935, Baker decided that she wanted to return to America and do there what she had done in Paris: create a sensation. It was arranged that she would perform with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. She sailed for the United States in September of 1935 and began the extensive rehearsals that were required. When the show opened, reviewers did not disguise their displeasure. Her husband Jo Bouillon explained her lack of success in America: Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl. White audiences were reportedly used to seeing, and wanted to see, blacks in what they considered Negro rolesMammies and blues singersand were not interested in a black woman of style, grace, and sophistication.

As was her custom when on tour, Baker opened her own club, Chez Josephine Baker, in New York, and again it closed shortly thereafter. In the meantime, Pepito Abatino went back to Paris after an argument with Baker. He died in the spring of 1936, just before the Ziegfeld Follies ended its run in May.

Before Baker returned to France, she made a clean break with her past by divorcing her second husband, Willie Baker, to whom she had legally been married since 1920. While Baker was still in the Follies, Paul Derval, the director of the Folies-Bergères, offered her the starring role in a new show, which was to open in the fall of 1936. The next year, she married Jean Lion, a French sugar broker, and through the marriage became a French citizen. But the Baker-Lion marriage was a turbulent one and ended in divorce fourteen months later.

Worked for French Resistance During World War II

In September of 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to Germanys invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau the French military intelligence. She spent the years of World War II obtaining information for the bureau as an honorable correspondent. When the war began, Baker left for Les Milandes, the French country estate she had bought in 1936. But the atmosphere became too dangerous, and Baker moved to Morocco four years later. While there, she experienced a great many health problems that kept her from performing. In 1942, as her health returned, she went on a tour of North Africa, performing for French, British, and American soldiers. From there, she toured the Middle East, where she did benefit performances for the resistance. For her efforts on behalf of France, Baker was made a sublieutenant in the Womens Auxiliary of the French Air Force. Paris was liberated in August of 1944, and Baker returned to France. In 1946, she was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In 1947, Baker married Jo Bouillon, a French orchestra leader. The two of them spent the years immediately following the war restoring Les Milandes. When the work was all finished, Phyllis Rose wrote in Jazz Cleopatra, there would be two hotels, three restaurants, a miniature golf course, a wax museum of scenes from Josephine Bakers life, stables, a patisserie, a foie gras factory, a gas station, and a post office. Baker expected the proceeds from tourism to help with the expense of running Les Milandes. The rest of the money would come from her own performances. She went to the United States again in 1948 but was no more of a success then than she had been in 1936. This time, however, she decided to take a stronger stand on racism: she began to insist on a nondiscrimination clause in her contracts, and on integrated audiences at her performances. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared May 20, 1951, Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts to fight racism.

The Rainbow Tribe

Back in France in 1954, Baker decided to start a family. She wanted to raise a group of ethnically mixed children in an atmosphere of harmony. She called the group her Rainbow Tribe. By 1962, she had adopted twelve childrenten boys and two girls. In the meantime, Jo Bouillon had become increasingly uneasy about the problems of running Les Milandes and what he considered Bakers unrealistic attitude, and in 1960 he left to live in Argentina.

In 1963, Jack Jordan, a black producer, got the idea of bringing Baker to the United States for the march on Washington, D.C., where, on August 28, she participated in the historic event in which over 200,000 people took part, the most notable being the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his famous I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is said to have been one of Bakers most memorable experiences.

By February of 1964, Les Milandes was in serious financial difficulties. For the next four years, Baker was able to keep it from being seized by the French government, but in the fall of 1968, she was evicted. Her predicament attracted the attention of Princess Grace of Monaco, who arranged for Baker and her children to live in a villa in Roquebrune, near Monte Carlo.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baker experienced health problems that kept her in and out of hospitals. In 1973, at the age of 69, she married her last husband, American artist Robert Brady. The marriage lasted one year. In 1974 the Société de Bains de Mer of Monte Carlo invited Baker to star in their annual benefit for the Monacan Red Cross, the organization that helped to subsidize her home in Roquebrune. The show was called Joséphine and told the story of Bakers life in a series of scenes. It was a success and opened in Paris on April 8, 1975. Four days later, Baker had a stroke in her sleep and lapsed into a coma. She died later that day. Twenty thousand people attended her funeral at the church of the Madeleine in Paris, and the ceremony was broadcast on French national television.

Sources

Books

Baker, Josephine, and Jo Bouillon, Josephine, translated by Mariana Fitzpatrick, Harper & Row, 1977.

Haney, Lynn, Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker, Dodd, Mean, 1981.

Rose, Phyllis, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, Doubleday, 1989.

Periodicals

American Heritage, November 1989.

Ebony, June 1991.

Essence, February 1991.

New York Times, March 10, 1991.

Bakers life was chronicled in the documentary film Chasing a Rainbow.

Joyce Harrison

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Baker, Josephine 1906–1975." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Baker, Josephine 1906–1975." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/baker-josephine-1906-1975

"Baker, Josephine 1906–1975." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/baker-josephine-1906-1975

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was a Parisian dancer and singer, the most famous American expatriate in France.

Josephine Baker was born in a poor, Black slum in East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 3, 1906, to 21-year-old Carrie MacDonald. Her mother hoped to be a music hall dancer; meanwhile, she was forced to take in laundry. She was of mixed ethnic background: Indian/Negro (as they would say in 1906) or Native American/African American (as we would say today). She descended from Apalachee Indians and Black slaves in South Carolina. Olive-skinned Eddie Carson, her father, was a vaudeville drummer and was not seen much by his daughter.

At the age of eight Josephine was hired out to a white woman as a maid; she was forced to sleep in the coal cellar with a pet dog and was scalded on the hands when she used too much soap in the laundry. At the age of ten she returned, thankfully, to school. "There is no Santa Claus," she said. "I'm Santa Claus." Josephine witnessed the cruel East St. Louis race riot of 1917. She moved from the St. Louis area at the age of 13 and emigrated out of the United States at 19. "That such a childhood produced an expatriate is not surprising," Phyllis Rose, one of her biographers, commented.

"Because I was born in a cold city, because I felt cold throughout my childhood … I always wanted to dance on the stage," Josephine offered as explanation of why she was determined to be a dancer (in the first of her five autobiographies). From watching the dancers in a local vaudeville house she "graduated" to dancing in a touring show based in Philadelphia (where her grandmother lived) at age 16. She had already been married twice: to Willie Wells (for a few weeks in 1919) and to Will Baker (for a short time in 1921). She took her second husband's name as her own— Josephine Baker.

It is hard to discover true biographical facts, especially when it comes to show people. We know that Josephine joined the chorus line of the touring show of Shuffle Along in Boston in August 1922. The comedy was produced in Manhattan by a renowned African American songwriting team, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake; it was the first all-Black Broadway musical. Subsequently, Josephine was in New York for the Chocolate Dandies (at the Cotton Club) and the floor show at the Plantation Club in Harlem (with Ethel Waters). She drew the attention of the audience (at the end of the chorus line) by clowning, mugging, and improvising. With her long legs, slim figure, and comic interludes, her special style as an entertainer evolved.

Baker Goes to Paris

African American performers were established in France already in the 1920s. "Bricktop" (Ada Smith, with her signature red hair) had moved from Harlem to Paris, where she owned a locally famous nightclub on the rue Pigalle. Bricktop claimed to have taught Josephine personal grooming, clothes-sense, and even writing—everything— from the moment the younger woman's arrived in Paris in October 1925. This is an exaggeration. Josephine went to Paris for a top salary ($250 a week; more than twice what she was paid in New York) to gyrate at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées as a variety dancer in La Revue N're. With other African Americans, including jazz star Sidney Bechet, she introduced le jazz hot and went on to international fame on the wave of French intoxication for American jazz and exotic nudity.

The Parisian cultural scene was ready for things African in the 1920s. African American music had penetrated to such European classical composers as Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky since at least 1908. But Parisians became aware of jazz only in the 1920s (the first jazz band in Paris played in 1917). African art and sculpture was one of the influences on the Cubist movement and Art Deco. Josephine's oval head, resembling a temple sculpture, and lithe body, her "geometry" (according to Dance Magazine) was perfect for anything Cubist or in the Art Deco style.

She was the favorite of artists and left-intellectuals such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, e.e. cummings, Jean Cocteau, Aleksander Wat, and Ernest Hemingway (who thought she was "the most beautiful woman there is, there ever was, or ever will be," in hyperbole). But Josephine had not been to Africa and she knew nothing of the culture there, at that time. She had a relatively small repertoire of dance steps ("Charleston knock-knees for eight counts, camel-walk eight counts") and a small vocal repertoire, too (her keynote song, "J'ai deux amours," was repeated over and over again in various contexts); but the core materials were absolutely perfect with her body style and fitted to the era.

Josephine endured a breach-of-contract lawsuit about her abandoning Le Revue N're for a star billing at the Folies-Berg'ere in 1926. (The legal case was one of many in her life.) She was 20 when she was a sensation in the "jungle" banana dance: naked but for a string of rubber bananas around her waist. Soon banana-clad Josephine dolls were selling like hot cakes! Feet stomping, elbows flapping, knees bent, she would bump and grind a Charleston, puffing out her cheeks and crossing her eyes and always having a perpetual grin on her face (as stated by American Heritage). She was likened to a snake, a giraffe, and a hummingbird. Also, in 1926, she recorded her throaty voice for the first time. Magazine covers and posters added to her fame.

In December 1926 she opened her own nightclub in Pigalle called Chez Joséphine (later moved to rue Francois I, a more fashionable spot). She became a chic, affluent woman with expensive idiosyncracies, like parading her pet leopard down the elegant Champs Elysées. She went on a world tour for two years in 1928-1930, and received thousands of love letters. But back in France she said: "I don't want to live without Paris… It's my country. … I want to be worthy of Paris." In addition she met, in the fall of 1926, Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian "count" who became her lover and manager (until about 1935, when they split up in anger, Abatino still loving her). In 1934 she took a title part in an operetta, a revival of Offenbach's La Créole at the Théâtre Marigny, opening in December for a six-month run. Josephine was in America with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936 when Abatino died. While he was alive, Abatino helped Josephine evolve from a mere eccentric dancer to integrating her songs and speech and dance in performances; from being "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville" to being "one of the high-paid stars in the world," in part by controlling her scripts and the first two volumes of her memoirs. Returning to the Follies in the 1930s, her photographs, 20 feet high, flanked the theater entrance. In France she was called simply "Joséphine" or "La Baker." In 1937 Josephine officially became a French citizen.

A Heroine in World War II

She married Jean Lion, a French industrialist. She had a miscarriage in 1938, and Lion divorced her in 1940, during the early months of World War II. When Germany occupied Belgium, Josephine became a Red Cross nurse, watching over refugees. When Germany finally occupied France itself, she worked for the French Resistance as an underground courier, transmitting information "pinned inside her underwear" to Captain Jacques Abtey. In October 1940 she began complicated journeys from London to Pau in southwestern France, through Spain and Portugal, and to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (where she had theatrical bookings), back to Marseilles. In December 1940 she had the leading role in the Marseilles municipal opera production of La Créole, but she was sued for breach of contract after leaving Algiers, Algeria in 1941. A mysterious near-fatal illness with peritonitis kept her in a Casablanca clinic from June 1941 to December 1942. It left Josephine weak, but not too weak to entertain troops in North Africa and the Middle East as a sublieutenant in the women's auxiliary of the Free French forces. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance.

After the war Josephine returned to her beloved Paris, regularly appearing in the Follies. In June 1947 she married Jo Bouillon, a jazz bandleader; after several miscarriages they separated in 1957. In 1950 at her 300-acre estate in the Dordogne (with a medieval chateau), Les Milandes, she began adopting orphaned babies of all races and religions. She retired to look after the estate and family in 1956, but soon debts amounting to $400,000 were accrued, and she was forced back into show business in 1959, in a musical autobiography called Paris mes Amours, which opened at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in May.

Josephine more than once looked back to her childhood in America disconsolately. She was in a bind which many find themselves in: bound to one country but in love with another. She could never forgive the United States for its racism. But her song (written by Vincent Scotto), J'ai deux amours, was a constant reminder: "I have two loves: my country and Paris." She visited America in the 1930s and 1940s and was disappointed. In 1951 her trip to New York was sullied by a racial incident at the Stork Club, where she was at first refused service. Walter Winchell, a columnist, linked her to communism (the "Communist conspiracy" was in the news, led by Senator J. McCarthy). In 1952 she told a reporter in Buenos Aires, Argentina: "The U.S. is not a free country. … They treat Negroes as though they were dogs." As late as 1955, on her return to the United States, she was questioned by immigration officials about her alleged anti-American sentiments.

President John F. Kennedy made a difference to America. Josephine returned in August 1963 to attend the civil rights march in Washington, D.C. In October of that year she made a trip to Manhattan to sing, dance, and "fight bias" (as The New York Times said). She flaunted her age: she said she was 60 (she was only 57), but she seemed ageless to reporters.

Problems in Her "True" Home

In France there were also problems: she was evicted from her chateau with her adopted family in 1969. Princess Grace Kelly of Monte Carlo (who was also an American expatriate) and her husband, Prince Rainier, offered the Baker family a villa in Monaco. The Rainiers helped to put on the spectacle Joséphine in 1975, in which Josephine, aged 69, had a dozen costume changes and, with tears streaming down from sequined eyelids, "stole the show" once again.

Describing herself, Josephine Baker said "I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed." (Ebony report of interview in 1975.) More than that, Josephine Baker pulled herself out of poverty and the trauma of humiliation and made herself an international star, principally due to her love of dancing.

She died in her sleep of a stroke on April 12, 1975, after 14 successful performances of Joséphine. The Roman Catholic funeral service was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, which was, after all, her true home.

Further Reading

There are five autobiographies of Josephine Baker: Les Mémoires de Josephine Baker, Vol. I (Paris, 1927); Voyages et Aventures de Joséphine Baker (with Marcel Sauvage), Vol. II (Paris, 1931); Une Vie de Toutes Couleurs (memories presented by André Rivollet), Vol. III (Grenoble, 1935); Les Memoires de Josephine Baker (collected and adapted by Marcel Sauvage), Vol. IV (Paris, 1949); and Joséphine (with Jo Bouillon and Jacqueline Cartier), Vol. V (Paris, 1976). Books about Baker include Bricktop (1983) by her friend Bricktop (with Jim Haskins), Josephine Baker (1988) by Bryan Hammond (personal collection) and Patrick O'Connor (theatrical biography), Jazz Cleopatra (1988) by Phyllis Rose, and Josephine:The Hungry Heart (1993) by Jean-Claude Baker (who called Josephine "Mother" although he was never legally adopted) and Chris Chase. Among the best articles are Ebony (June 1991), Dance Magazine (July 1989), American Heritage (November 1989), and New Republic (6 November 1989). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Josephine Baker." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Josephine Baker." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/josephine-baker

"Josephine Baker." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/josephine-baker

Baker, Josephine

Josephine Baker

Born: June 3, 1906
St. Louis, Missouri
Died: April 12, 1975
Paris, France

African American dancer and singer

Josephine Baker was an African American dancer and singer who lived in Paris, France, and was regarded as one of the most famous Americans living overseas.

Becoming Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was born in a poor, black ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, to twenty-one-year-old Carrie MacDonald. Her mother hoped to be a music hall dancer but was forced to make a living as a laundress. Olive-skinned Eddie Carson, her father, was a drummer for vaudeville shows (theater that used a wide variety of acts) and was not seen much by his daughter. At the age of eight Josephine was hired out to a white woman as a maid. She was forced to sleep in the coal cellar with a pet dog and was scalded on the hands when she used too much soap in the laundry. At the age of ten she returned to school. Josephine witnessed the cruel East St. Louis race riot of 1917. She left the St. Louis area three years later.

From watching the dancers in a local vaudeville house, at age sixteen Josephine "graduated" to dancing in a touring show based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where her grandmother lived. She had already been married twice: to Willie Wells (for a few weeks in 1919), and to Will Baker (for a short time in 1921). She took her second husband's name as her ownJosephine Baker.

In August 1922 Baker joined the chorus line of the touring show Shuffle Along in Boston, Massachusetts. Afterwards Baker was in New York City for the Chocolate Dandies (at the Cotton Club) and the floorshow at the Plantation Club in Harlem with Ethel Waters (c. 19001977). She drew the attention of the audience by clowning, mugging, and improvising. With her long legs, slim figure, and comic presence, her special style as an entertainer began to take shape.

Baker goes to Paris

Baker went to Paris, France, for a top salary of $250 a week (more than twice what she was paid in New York) to dance at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées as a variety dancer in La Revue Nègre. With other African Americans, including jazz star Sidney Bechet, she introduced "le jazz hot" and went on to international fame on the wave of French intoxication for American jazz and exotic nudity. She quickly became the favorite of artists and left-intellectuals such as painter Pablo Picasso (18811973), poet E. E. Cummings (18941962), playwright Jean Cocteau (18891963), and writer Ernest Hemingway (18991961).

Baker survived a lawsuit regarding her abandoning Le Revue Nègre for a star billing at the Folies-Bergère in 1926. (The legal case was one of many in her life.) She was twenty when she was a sensation in the "jungle" banana dance: naked but for a string of rubber bananas around her waist. Soon bananaclad Josephine dolls were selling like hot cakes. Also, in 1926, she recorded her throaty voice for the first time. Magazine covers and posters added to her fame, and by 1936 Baker was one of the highest paid performers in the world.

A heroine in World War II

Baker married Jean Lion, a French industrialist, but the two were divorced by 1940, during the early months of World War II (193945; a war in which German-led forces fought against the United States and European nations). When Germany occupied Belgium, Baker became a Red Cross nurse, watching over refugees, or those forced to flee their own countries. When Germany finally occupied France itself, she worked for the French Resistance (the secret army that fought against the occupying German forces) as an underground courier, transmitting information "pinned inside her underwear" to Captain Jacques Abtey.

After spending years avoiding the United States, Baker returned in August 1963 to attend the civil rights march in Washington, D.C., a march that pushed for equal rights among all races. In October of that year she made a trip to Manhattan to sing, dance, and "fight bias," as The New York Times said. She flaunted her age: she would say she was sixty when she was really fifty-seven, but she seemed ageless to reporters.

Baker died in her sleep of a stroke on April 12, 1975. The Roman Catholic funeral service was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, which was, after all, her true home. Josephine Baker will forever be remembered as someone who pulled herself out of poverty and the trauma of humiliation and made herself an international star, principally due to her love of dancing.

For More Information

Baker, Jean-Claude. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993.

Hammond, Bryan, and Patrick O'Connor. Josephine Baker. Boston: Little Brown, 1988.

Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Baker, Josephine." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Baker, Josephine." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine-0

"Baker, Josephine." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine-0

Baker, Josephine

Josephine Baker, 1906–75, African-American dancer and singer, b. St. Louis, Mo., as Freda Josephine McDonald. In 1923 and 1924 she appeared in Broadway chorus lines. She became a sensation in Paris in La Revue Nègre (1925), renowned for her jazz singing, dancing, and exotically skimpy costumes. By 1927 she was one of Europe's most famous and highly paid entertainers. Naturalized as a French citizen in 1937, she worked for the Resistance in World War II and was awarded (1961) the Legion of Honor. She died in Paris after 14 triumphant performances of Josephine, celebrating her 50 years as a performer in Paris.

See P. Rose, Jazz Cleopatra (1989); J.-C. Baker and C. Chase, Josephine (1994); B. Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life (2007); J. Mackrell, Flappers (2014).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Baker, Josephine." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Baker, Josephine." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine

"Baker, Josephine." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine

Baker, Josephine

Baker, Josephine (1906–75) US dancer and singer. After a sensational 1925 Paris debut in La Revue Nègre, she became internationally famous for her jazz singing and dancing. Her outrageous art deco costumes and regal stage act made her one of the most photographed stars of the era. She took French citizenship in 1937, and was made a member of the French Legion of Honour for her work in the resistance.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Baker, Josephine." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Baker, Josephine." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine

"Baker, Josephine." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine