as the ‘Black Pearl,’ the ‘Bronze Venus,’ or the ‘Creole Goddess,’ Josephine
Baker was a dancer, jazz singer, and actress. She was the first Black woman to star
in a major motion picture, and the first to be celebrated as a major star and headliner in
Europe. Indeed she
was on so many fronts, both as an entertainer and an activist – she
is often remembered for her iconic performance of the Danse Sauvage, but also for fighting in the
French resistance, or for her involvement in the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Josephine Baker by George Hoyningen-Huene, 1934. © Getty
born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in Saint Louis, Missouri, to a
single mother, with whom she developed a strained relationship. Poverty and
lack of formal education led Baker to have to fend for herself on the street
most of the time in her childhood and teenage years. She was married and
divorced twice before she was even 19.
Her career started in vaudeville in her teenage years, and following her
troupe she moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance, where she performed at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of successful Broadway shows, where
she became known for her mimicks and funny faces.
Josephine Baker in 1928, © Getty
She then travelled with the show to Paris where she performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in
“La Revue Nègre.” She was an instant success and decided to break her
contract to stay in France and perform at the Folies Bergères. Her most famous
performance was the “Danse Sauvage,” in which she only wore jewels and a girdle
of artificial bananas; she also used to appear on stage with her pet cheetah,
terrorizing the musicians. She also starred in the films Sirens of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou
(1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935).
While she tried to go back to the US, she never got the welcome she hoped for
and the critics were just cruel to her and her voice. She came back to Paris
heartbroken and famously revisited the lyrics to her famous song “J’ai deux
amours,” (as the lyrics previously stated her love for both her native country
and Paris, the alteration claimed her country as being Paris). This is partly
why she renounced her American citizenship and became a French citizen in 1937
by marrying French industrialist Jean Lion.
Baker performing “J’ai deux amours” on the frontline, at the Théâtre aux Armées.
World War II, Baker was recruited by the French military intelligence, to
perform as an informer, gathering information, providing shelter and visas to
resistance fighters. As she travelled to the French colonies in North Africa in
1941 she suffered a miscarriage (not the first one), followed by a severe
infection that led to a hysterectomy.
After the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by Charles de Gaulle. The recognition of her wartime exploits as she returned to the Folies Bergères in 1949 gave her a renewed self-confidence, a new gravitas.
As she was invited back to the US, Baker started to play an influential role in the Black
Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1950s, she refused to perform
for segregated audiences, helping break down the colour barrier in the entertainment industry.
At the March on Washington in August 1963, she was the sole official female speaker on the program. She spoke standing next to Martin Luther King Jr., wearing her Free French
uniform adorned with its medals, and introduced the “Negro Women for
Civil Rights,” acknowledging among others Rosa
Parks and Daisy Bates. photo © Getty
Josephine Baker adopted twelve children with her last husband Jo Bouillon, raising a family at Chateau des Milandes in Dordogne, France – a family she liked to call “The Rainbow Tribe” proving that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”
Beside her four marriages, Baker had several affairs with women like star blues singer Clara Smith, French writer Colette, and Frida Kahlo. However she was quite secretive and never out about her affairs with women, to the point of homophobia towards her gay fan base, or even her own children (she caught one of her sons having sex with another young man, and sent him at his father’s so he would not “contaminate” his siblings). So while Baker would now be considered bisexual, she did not embrace this sexual identity.
She died in Paris on April 10, 1975, of a cerebral hemorrhage.