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Who Was Josephine Baker?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
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  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975) was an entertainer, a civil rights activist, and a member of the French Resistance during World War II. Though American-born, this descendant of South Carolina slaves and Apalachee Indians adopted France as her own when she was still a young woman.

Josephine Baker, born Freda Josephine McDonald, was a native of St. Louis, Missouri and came from humble beginnings. Her father, a vaudeville drummer by some accounts, might be the reason behind Josephine’s early attraction to entertainment. As a child, she danced in the streets for change, and by age 15, she joined vaudeville in the St. Louis chorus line. In the immediate years following, Josephine Baker made her way to New York, where she appeared at the Plantation Club and in Broadway chorus lines during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Even at this early stage in her career, Baker stood out from the crowd and from the women of her time, and by 1925, she was the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.

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Josephine Baker’s life changed again when she went on tour to Europe in 1925, appearing at the Theater des Champs-Elysees. Far from the racism of America and its Puritanical restrictions, Baker blossomed into an exotic dancer, coming up with wildly entertaining performances and gimmicks throughout the tour. In one show, she wore nothing but high heels and a belt of bananas around her waist to simulate a skirt. She also frequently had Chiquita, her pet leopard, with her on stage, who occasionally leaped into the orchestra pit to prowl among the nervous musicians.

In the 1930s, Josephine Baker starred in a number of films and married her manager, Giuseppe Abatinao. With Madonna-like finesse, she again remade herself from a bawdy vaudeville entertainer into a cultural pop icon. Her fans included such notables as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso.

By the 1940s, Josephine Baker was so popular that even the Nazis left her unharmed during the invasion of France. She wanted to repay her adopted country for her success and was active in the Underground, the French Resistance during World War II. The French government later awarded Josephine Baker the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War).

Throughout the 1950s, Baker remained in France but actively and passionately supported the American Civil Rights movement. She went through several marriages and a hysterectomy that left her unable to bear children, but she adopted 12 ethnically-diverse orphans, whom she referred to as her Rainbow Tribe.

While Baker’s success in Europe was phenomenal, she never enjoyed the same degree of popularity in her native country of America. However, by the 1970s, the civil rights movement had made sufficient strides, which Baker had aided by refusing to perform in segregated clubs. Josephine Baker appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1973 to a standing ovation, openly weeping in response. Though she had attained the status of a legend, Baker's career was winding down and money became a problem. Princess Grace of Monaco, a former American actress and friend, gave Baker an apartment.

Baker’s final performance was to star in a 50-year retrospective of her life entitled Josephine. It opened in Paris at Club Bobino to stellar reviews, but she would not live to enjoy the run. One week later, on 8 April 1975, Josephine Baker died of a brain hemorrhage. It was reported that she was found in bed, surrounded by newspapers full of editorial praise for the show.

Josephine Baker was cremated, given a public funeral procession that included French Military honors, and interred in a cemetery in Monaco. She was also entered into the St. Louis Hall of Fame. “The Black Venus,” as she was sometimes called, remains a historical figure of great talent, diversity, will, and courage.

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