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Josephine Baker was described as “The most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Josephine experienced poverty in childhood, living in cardboard shelters in the slums and dancing on the street to make money. However, the street dancing turned into performing in a vaudeville act, as she pestered a show manager for a role. For that show, she traveled to New York, and her career had begun.
While performing in New York was a good start, her big break came in Paris, where she moved in her late teens to leave the racism of America. In Paris, she thrived. Her dancing life found much success. And it was also while living in Europe that Josephine evolved her artistic career into singing and acting.
Josephine continued to live in Europe. Even as World War II involved France, she chose to stay, joining the French Military Intelligence Agency. In her role with the agency, she used her entertainer status to travel around Europe. And with charm, she engaged others, collecting valuable information, often keeping notes in invisible ink on sheet music.
After the war, Josephine took a more active role in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. She wrote articles about segregation, worked closely with NAACP, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and refused to perform in segregated venues – a stance that helped drive integration. It was also during her years of working in the Civil Rights movement that Josephine began adopting children, calling her family the “Rainbow Tribe,” as her children were of different races and ethnicities.
Josephine passed away in Paris in 1975. France honored her with a state funeral; she is the only American-born woman to receive this honor.
Sources: “The most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.” – quote from Ernest Hemingway / Portrait of Josephine Baker taken in 1940 / Studio Harcourt / Wikimedia Commons
Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald; naturalised French Joséphine Baker; 3 June 1906 – 12 April 1975) was an American-born French dancer, singer and actress. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics, directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant.
During her early career, Baker was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in the city. Her costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, became an iconic image and a symbol both of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.
Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the “Black Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, the “Bronze Venus”, and the “Creole Goddess”. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. She raised her children in France.
She aided the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Baker sang: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.”
Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination. After thinking it over, Baker declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children.
On 30 November 2021, she was interred in the Panthéon in Paris, the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France. As her resting place remains in Monaco Cemetery, a cenotaph was installed in vault 13 of the crypt in the Panthéon.