Josephine Baker Biography

Frida Josephine McDonald, 3 June 1906, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, d. 12 April 1975, Paris, France. After surviving a difficult childhood and an illegal marriage at the age of 13, Baker left town as a dancer with a touring show. Encouraged by Clara Smith, she persisted with her dancing. In 1921 she remarried, this time retaining her new husband’s surname. As Joséphine Baker she travelled to New York to audition for the show Shuffle Along, written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. She was hired to dance in the chorus and later toured the USA in the same capacity. She attracted attention with her clowning, eccentric dancing and habitual face pulling and eye rolling. In 1924 she joined the new Sissle and Blake show, In Bamville, which was soon renamed The Chocolate Dandies. Also in the show were Elisabeth Welch and Valaida Snow, and although still only a minor player, Baker continued to attract attention with her sometimes contrived savagery.

Hired to play a leading role in the all-black show La Revue Nègre, Baker arrived in Paris where she became an overnight sensation. Her likeness was used in the artwork for the show’s posters and programmes, indirectly helping to launch the career of the artist Paul Colin. Baker’s performances - dancing, singing, and especially the nudity called for in most Parisian nightclub shows of the period - helped to make her a major star. She opened her own club, the Chez Joséphine, adopting the accent to accommodate the French pronunciation of her name, and socialized with writers such as Georges Simenon (with whom she had an affair) and Ernest Hemingway. In 1928, she toured Europe’s main cities, enjoying massive success in Vienna, Lucerne, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Oslo, and then embarked on a tour of South America before returning to Paris. She made her first appearance in films and gradually shifted from the wild savage of her early stage appearances to a sleek sophisticate. In 1936 she returned to the USA to star in the Ziegfeld Follies with Fanny Brice and Bob Hope. Despite the show being choreographed by George Balanchine, designed by Vincente Minnelli, and having a score by Vernon Duke, including the show-stopping ‘I Can’t Get Started’, Baker was not a great success. Out of the context of the kind of show in which she had appeared in Paris, she was just another performer. She suffered bad notices and, worse by far, experienced racism in hotels and restaurants dramatically at odds with her lionization in Paris. When Brice was taken ill the show closed temporarily and Baker took advantage of the opportunity to terminate her contract and return to France. In 1937 she married again; her husband was a French Jew and the combination of his racial and religious origins and her race made them a target when the Germans invaded France in 1939. Baker promptly became involved with the French Resistance, setting up lines of outside communications through Casablanca, which she visited in 1942. During the early 40s, she performed for Allied troops throughout North Africa and the Middle East, joining ENSA in 1943. On VE Day, 1945, she appeared in London, then toured Europe, along the way visiting the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Her wartime work brought Baker many honours in France, including the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and she also became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

In the immediate post-war years, Baker’s career stalled. However, married again, for the fourth time, she was encouraged by dancer Katherine Dunham and resumed working in Paris. She also toured, visiting Cuba and the USA. In Miami, Florida, she insisted on playing to desegregated audiences, which, in the winter of 1950/1, was a significant step. She returned to New York, appearing on Broadway, then toured the USA, everywhere performing to desegregated audiences. Her stance on civil rights was notable; in Atlanta she cancelled a performance when she was refused admission to a hotel and at New York’s Stork Club her objection to the club’s regular discriminatory policies attracted considerable publicity. She toured extensively and it was during a visit to the Far East in 1953 that she adopted two orphans, a Korean and a Japanese, the first of what became her ‘Rainbow Tribe’ of 12 adopted children of various nationalities. In 1953 Baker began a farewell tour, giving her ‘last’ performance in Paris in 1956. Three years later she made a comeback, primarily to raise funds to maintain her large family in her home in the Dordogne. In 1963, she visited the USA to take part in the Civil Rights movement’s March on Washington and made four fund-raising appearances at Carnegie Hall. In 1964 she suffered a heart attack and by 1968 was forced to sell her chateau; she was forcibly but illegally evicted, collapsed and was hospitalized. The following year she was helped by Princess Grace of Monaco and the Red Cross to find a new home on the Côte d’Azur. In 1973, Baker again played Carnegie Hall, this time in a concert on behalf of UNICEF. She then visited London and South Africa, returning to Paris in 1975 for a season at Bobino’s. On 8 April 1975 she appeared at a gala performance, which was followed by a party. She then went home, went to sleep and suffered a massive stroke that left her in a coma from which she never regained consciousness. She died five days later.

Baker’s dancing and the comedic and later sensuous use of her body helped to create her legend. Her singing was sometimes perfunctory and, out of the context of her spectacular stage appearances, often failed to impress. Nevertheless, she became an outstanding entertainer. This celebrity, allied to her wartime record and her post-war activities on behalf of deprived and homeless children, make her one of the major black figures of the 20th century - an achievement that, given her origins, is testimony to her remarkable strength of character.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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