Throughout her fiamboyant life, African-American performer Josephine Baker was as much known for her celebrity as for the dancing talent that first made her famous. Born Josephine Carson on June 3, 1906, she was raised in poverty by her unmarried mother in St. Louis, Missouri. Otherwise, little is known for certain about her early years. She is said, however, to have witnessed the St. Louis riots of 1917, during which 39 African Americans were killed. The incident helped inspire her lifelong interest in the fight for civil rights. At 14, Josephine left home. By 18, she had already been married twice and had taken the name of her second husband, William Baker. During these years, she began her show business career, performing mostly in tent shows, traveling acts that toured African-American venues in the South. Known for her comic dancing, she made her debut on Broadway in The Chocolate Dandies (1924). The next year, Baker headed off for Paris to appear in an all-black show titled La Revue Negre. Although she was not initially the star, from the start she was the revue’s main attraction. Baker was a sensation dancing the Charleston, a dance that excited Parisians’ newfound enthusiasm for American jazz. But she stunned her sophisticated audiences even more by performing one number in the nude. The show, specifically Baker’s appearance in it, had a great effect on Paris’s theater and art worlds. Artists such as Man Ray and Alexander Calder asked Baker to model for them. One of her greatest admirers was Pablo Picasso, who saw her as a living embodiment of the African sculpture that had inspired his Cubist period. Comparing her to an ancient Egyptian queen, Picasso declared that Baker was “the Nefertiti of now.”
After taking the Revue to Berlin, Baker returned to Paris to even greater acclaim as the star of the Folies Bergere. There she developed one of her signature acts: singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” wearing a skirt made from bananas and little else. Now the toast of Paris, she became equally notorious for her impulsive behavior and many passionate love affairs.
During the late 1920s, Baker frequently toured Europe. She also opened Chez Josephine, her own
Paris nightclub, which was frequented by artists and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. In her performances, she began taking her singing more seriously. By the early 1930s, she was well known for the song “J’ai Deux Amours,” whose chorus explained, “I have two loves: my country and Paris.” In 1937 Baker formally became a French citizen with her marriage to her third husband, Jean Lion, a handsome French millionaire. The couple separated only 14 months later and were divorced in 1941. As war broke out in Europe in 1939, Baker showed her patriotism by entertaining French troops and working for the Red Cross. After France fell to the Nazis, she moved to North Africa. There, she was asked to join the French Resistance because, as an entertainer, she could easily travel through Europe and gain access to the highest circles of society. In gratitude for her work as a Resistance courier and spy, the French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre after the war.
In the late 1940s, Baker resumed her performing career, appearing largely in Europe. In 1951, however, she made a controversial tour of the United States. Baker drew headlines as she refused to work in any theater that would not admit blacks. She was also involved in a well publicized incident at the Stork Club, one of New York City’s leading nightspots. When the club personnel refused to serve her, she became angry and lashed out at fellow patron and newspaper columnist Walter Winchell for not coming to her defense. A regular at the Stork Club, Winchell retaliated by denouncing her in his popular column, calling her a communist and, even more outrageously, a Nazi sympathizer. However preposterous, his charges left a taint on her reputation in America. Nevertheless, Baker continued to speak out against segregation. In addition to performing at benefits for civil rights groups, she delivered a notable speech at the Lincoln Memorial alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington.
Baker’s financial difficulties deepened as her failing health began to interfere with her work. Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s, she was able to stage a comeback. Baker had a successful engagement at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1973. The next year, she triumphed in Josephine, a retrospective of her career that debuted in Monte Carlo. Baker brought the show to Paris, where it premiered on April 8, 1975. Two days later she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, which took her life on April 14. With her death, Josephine Baker—the raw beauty who had helped to define Parisian culture during the Jazz Age—became the first American woman to receive a state funeral in France.
Baker, Jean-Claude, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993.
Hammond, Bryan, comp. Josephine Baker. Boston: Little Brown, 1988.
Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Intimate Portrait: Josephine Baker (1998). Unapix, VHS, 1999.
The Josephine Baker Story (1991). HBO Studios, VHS, 1999.
Princess Tam Tam (1935). Kino Video, VHS, 1999.
Zou Zou (1934). Kino Video, VHS, 1999.