Freda Josephine McDonald
3 June 1906
|Died||12 April 1975 (aged 68)|
|Resting place||Monaco Cemetery|
|Occupation||Vedette, singer, dancer, actress, civil rights activist, French Resistance agent|
(m. 1919; div. 1919)
(m. 1921; div. 1925)
(m. 1937; div. 1940)
(m. 1947; div. 1961)
|Partner(s)||Robert Brady (1973–1975)|
|Children||12 (adopted), including Jean-Claude Baker|
Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald, naturalised French Joséphine Baker; 3 June 1906 – 12 April 1975) was an American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. 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 renowned as a dancer, and 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 was known for aiding 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 once said: "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.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie, was adopted in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1886 by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom were former slaves of African and Native American descent. Baker's estate identifies vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson as her natural father despite evidence to the contrary. Baker's foster son Jean-Claude Baker wrote a biography, published in 1993, titled Josephine: The Hungry Heart. Jean-Claude Baker did an exhaustive amount of research into the life of Josephine Baker, including the identity of her biological father. In the book, he discusses at length the circumstances surrounding Baker's birth:
The records of the city of St. Louis tell an almost unbelievable story. They show that (Baker's mother) Carrie McDonald ... was admitted to the (exclusively white) Female Hospital on May 3, 1906, diagnosed as pregnant. She was discharged on June 17, her baby, Freda J. McDonald having been born two weeks earlier. Why six weeks in the hospital? Especially for a black woman (of that time) who would customarily have had her baby at home with the help of a midwife? ... The father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw"... I think Josephine's father was white – so did Josephine, so did her family ... people in St. Louis say that (Baker's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant)... I have unraveled many mysteries associated with Josephine Baker, but the most painful mystery of her life, the mystery of her father's identity, I could not solve. The secret died with Carrie, who refused to the end to talk about it. She let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along, (but) Josephine knew better.
Josephine spent her early life at 212 Targee Street (known by some St. Louis residents as Johnson Street) in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood of St. Louis, a racially mixed low-income neighborhood near Union Station, consisting mainly of rooming houses, brothels, and apartments without indoor plumbing. Josephine was poorly dressed and hungry as a child, and developed street smarts playing in the railroad yards of Union Station.
Josephine's mother married Arthur Martin, "a kind but perpetually unemployed man", with whom she had a son and two more daughters. She took in laundry to wash to make ends meet, and at eight years old, Josephine began working as a live-in domestic for white families in St. Louis. One woman abused her, burning Josephine's hands when the young girl put too much soap in the laundry. By age 12, she had dropped out of school.
At 13, she worked as a waitress at the Old Chauffeur's Club at 3133 Pine Street. She also lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters, scavenging for food in garbage cans, making a living with street-corner dancing. It was at the Old Chauffeur's Club where Josephine met Willie Wells, and subsequently married him at age 13; however, the marriage lasted less than a year. Following her divorce from Wells, she found work with a street performance group called the Jones Family Band.
In Baker's teen years she struggled to have a healthy relationship with her mother, who did not want Josephine to become an entertainer, and scolded her for not tending to her second husband, Willie Baker, whom she married in 1921 at the age of 15. She left him when her vaudeville troupe was booked into a New York City venue and divorced in 1925; it was during this time she began to see significant career success, and she continued to use his last name professionally for the rest of her life. Though Baker traveled, she would return with gifts and money for her mother and younger half-sister, but the turmoil with her mother pushed her to make a trip to France.
Baker's consistent badgering of a show manager in her hometown led to her being recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. At the age of 15, she headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club, Florence Mills' old stomping ground, and in the chorus lines of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall and The Chocolate Dandies (1924).
Baker performed as the last dancer on the end of the chorus line, where her act was to perform in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. A term of the time describes this part of the cast as "The Pony". Baker was billed at the time as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville."
Her career began with blackface comedy at local clubs; this was the "entertainment" of which her mother had disapproved; however, these performances landed Baker an opportunity to tour in Paris, which would become the place she called home until her final days.
Baker sailed to Paris for a new venture, and opened in La Revue Nègre on 2 October 1925, aged 19, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
In a 1974 interview with The Guardian, Baker explained that she obtained her first big break in the bustling city. "No, I didn't get my first break on Broadway. I was only in the chorus in 'Shuffle Along' and 'Chocolate Dandies'. I became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn't stand America and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris. Oh yes, Bricktop was there as well. Me and her were the only two, and we had a marvellous time. Of course, everyone who was anyone knew Bricky. And they got to know Miss Baker as well."
In Paris, she became an instant success for her erotic dancing, and for appearing practically nude onstage. After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France in 1926 to star at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts.
Baker performed the "Danse Sauvage" wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave birth to the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in non-Western forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris, she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah "Chiquita," who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.
After a while, Baker was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." The author spent hours talking with her in Paris bars. Picasso drew paintings depicting her alluring beauty. Jean Cocteau became friendly with her and helped vault her to international stardom.
In 1929, Baker became the first African-American star to visit Yugoslavia, while on tour in Central Europe via the Orient Express. In Belgrade, she performed at Luxor Balkanska, the most luxurious venue in the city at the time. She included Pirot kilim into her routine, as a nod to the local culture, and she donated some of the show's proceeds to poor children of Serbia. In Zagreb, she was received by adoring fans at the train station. However, some of her shows were cancelled, due to opposition from the local clergy and morality police.
During her travels in Yugoslavia, Baker was accompanied by "Count" Giuseppe Pepito Abatino. At the start of her career in France, Baker had Abatino, a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a count, and who persuaded her to let him manage her. Abatino was not only Baker's management, but her lover as well. The two could not marry because Baker was still married to her second husband, Willie Baker.
During this period, she scored her most successful song, "J'ai deux amours" (1931). Baker starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.
Under the management of Abatino, Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, were transformed. In 1934, she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's opera La créole, which premiered in December of that year for a six-month run at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris. In preparation for her performances, she went through months of training with a vocal coach. In the words of Shirley Bassey, who has cited Baker as her primary influence, "... she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique' ... I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."
Despite her popularity in France, Baker never attained the equivalent reputation in America. Her star turn in a 1936 revival of Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway generated less than impressive box office numbers, and later in the run, she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee. Time magazine referred to her as a "Negro wench ... whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris", while other critics said her voice was "too thin" and "dwarf-like" to fill the Winter Garden Theatre. She returned to Europe heartbroken. This contributed to Baker's becoming a legal citizen of France and giving up her American citizenship.
Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married the French industrialist Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. They were married in the French town of Crèvecœur-le-Grand, in a wedding presided over by the mayor, Jammy Schmidt.
In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, the French military intelligence agency, as an "honorable correspondent". Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, while gathering information. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she heard. She attended parties and gathered information at the Italian embassy without raising suspicion.:182–269
When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the Dordogne département in the south of France. She housed people who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carried information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. Notes were written in invisible ink on Baker's sheet music.:232–269 As written in Jazz Age Cleopatra, "She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, but at the same time trying to remember interesting items to transmit."
Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa. The stated reason was Baker's health (since she was recovering from another case of pneumonia) but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain. She pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search). She met the Pasha of Marrakech, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several). After the miscarriage, she developed an infection so severe it required a hysterectomy. The infection spread and she developed peritonitis and then sepsis. After her recovery (which she continued to fall in and out of), she started touring to entertain British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. The Free French had no organized entertainment network for their troops, so Baker and her entourage managed for the most part on their own. They allowed no civilians and charged no admission.
After the war, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Baker's last marriage, to French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, ended around the time Baker opted to adopt her 11th child.
In 1949, a reinvented Baker returned in triumph to the Folies Bergère. Bolstered by recognition of her wartime heroics, Baker the performer assumed a new gravitas, unafraid to take on serious music or subject matter. The engagement was a rousing success and reestablished Baker as one of Paris' pre-eminent entertainers. In 1951 Baker was invited back to the United States for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club's audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. Rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences accompanied her everywhere, climaxed by a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem in honor of her new title: NAACP's "Woman of the Year."
In 1952 Baker was hired to crown the Queen of the Cavalcade of Jazz for the famed eighth Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles which was produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. on 1 June. Also featured to perform that day were Roy Brown and His Mighty Men, Anna Mae Winburn and Her Sweethearts, Toni Harper, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Witherspoon and Jerry Wallace.
An incident at the Stork Club in October 1951 interrupted and overturned her plans. Baker criticized the club's unwritten policy of discouraging Black patrons, then scolded columnist Walter Winchell, an old ally, for not rising to her defense. Winchell responded swiftly with a series of harsh public rebukes, including accusations of Communist sympathies (a serious charge at the time). The ensuing publicity resulted in the termination of Baker's work visa, forcing her to cancel all her engagements and return to France. It was almost a decade before U.S. officials allowed her back into the country.
In January 1966, Fidel Castro invited Baker to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba, at the 7th-anniversary celebrations of his revolution. Her spectacular show in April broke attendance records. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje. In her later career, Baker faced financial troubles. She commented, "Nobody wants me, they've forgotten me;" but family members encouraged her to continue performing. In 1973 she performed at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation.
The following year, she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, and then at the Monegasque Red Cross Gala, celebrating her 50 years in French show business. Advancing years and exhaustion began to take their toll; she sometimes had trouble remembering lyrics, and her speeches between songs tended to ramble. She still continued to captivate audiences of all ages.
Although based in France, Baker supported the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. When she arrived in New York with her husband Jo, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because of racial discrimination. She was so upset by this treatment that she wrote articles about the segregation in the United States. She also began traveling into the South. She gave a talk at Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, on "France, North Africa and the Equality of the Races in France."
She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States, although she was offered $10,000 by a Miami club. (The club eventually met her demands). Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate live entertainment shows in Las Vegas, Nevada. After this incident, she began receiving threatening phone calls from people claiming to be from the Ku Klux Klan but said publicly that she was not afraid of them.
In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in Manhattan, where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (although she returned on 3 January 1956 with Prince Rainier of Monaco). The two women became close friends after the incident.
When Baker was near bankruptcy, Kelly offered her a villa and financial assistance (Kelly by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco). (However, during his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Baker's sons. Having read a Blumenthal-written story about Leonard Bernstein's FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother's FBI file and, using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.))
Baker worked with the NAACP. Her reputation as a crusader grew to such an extent that the NAACP had Sunday, 20 May 1951 declared "Josephine Baker Day." She was presented with life membership with the NAACP by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Ralph Bunche. The honor she was paid spurred her to further her crusading efforts with the "Save Willie McGee" rally. McGee was a Black man in Mississippi convicted of raping a white woman in 1945 on the basis of dubious evidence, and sentenced to death. Baker attended rallies for McGee and wrote letters to Fielding Wright, the governor of Mississippi, asking him to spare McGee's life. Despite her efforts, McGee was executed in 1951. As the decorated war hero who was bolstered by the racial equality she experienced in Europe, Baker became increasingly regarded as controversial; some Black people even began to shun her, fearing that her outspokenness and racy reputation from her earlier years would hurt the cause.
In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Baker was the only official female speaker. While wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur, she introduced the "Negro Women for Civil Rights." Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates were among those she acknowledged, and both gave brief speeches. Not everyone involved wanted Baker present at the March; some thought her time overseas had made her a woman of France, one who was disconnected from the Civil Rights issues going on in America. In her powerful speech, one of the things Baker notably said was:
I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, 'cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world ...
After King's assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in the Netherlands to ask if she would take her husband's place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were "too young to lose their mother."
Her first marriage was to American Pullman porter Willie Wells when she was only 13 years old. The marriage was reportedly very unhappy and the couple divorced a short time later. Another short-lived marriage followed to Willie Baker in 1921; she retained Baker's last name because her career began taking off during that time, and it was the name by which she became best known. While she had four marriages to men, Jean-Claude Baker writes that Josephine also had several relationships with women. Josephine Baker was bisexual.
During her time in the Harlem Renaissance arts community, one of her relationships was with Blues singer Clara Smith. In 1925, she began an extramarital relationship with the Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. In 1937, Baker married Frenchman Jean Lion. She and Lion separated in 1940. She married French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon in 1947, and their union also ended in divorce but lasted 14 years. She was later involved for a time with the artist Robert Brady, but they never married. Baker was also involved in sexual liaisons, if not relationships, with Ada "Bricktop" Smith, French novelist Colette, and possibly Frida Kahlo.
During Baker's work with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe." Baker wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Château des Milandes, she arranged tours so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe" were. Her estate featured hotels, a farm, rides, and the children singing and dancing for the audience. She charged admission for visitors to enter and partake in the activities, which included watching the children play. She created dramatic backstories for them, picking with clear intent in mind: at one point she wanted and planned to get a Jewish baby, but settled for a French one instead. She also raised them as different religions to further her model for the world, taking two children from Algeria and raising one Muslim and the other Catholic. One member of the Tribe, Jean-Claude Baker, said: "She wanted a doll."
Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and 10 sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. For some time, Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in the château in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon.
In her later years, Baker converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1968, Baker lost her castle owing to unpaid debts; afterwards Princess Grace offered her an apartment in Roquebrune, near Monaco.
Baker was back on stage at the Olympia in Paris in 1968, in Belgrade and at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium and at the Gala du Cirque in Paris in 1974. On 8 April 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed notably by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.
Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on 12 April 1975.
She received a full Roman Catholic funeral that was held at L'Église de la Madeleine. The only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Baker's funeral was the occasion of a huge procession. After a family service at Saint-Charles Church in Monte Carlo, Baker was interred at Monaco's Cimetière de Monaco.
Place Joséphine Baker () in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor. She has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and on 29 March 1995, into the Hall of Famous Missourians. St. Louis's Channing Avenue was renamed Josephine Baker Boulevard and a wax sculpture of Baker is on permanent display at The Griot Museum of Black History.
In 2015 she was inducted into the Legacy Walk in Chicago, Illinois. The Piscine Joséphine Baker is a swimming pool along the banks of the Seine in Paris named after her.
Writing in the on-line BBC magazine in late 2014, Darren Royston, historical dance teacher at RADA credited Baker with being the Beyoncé of her day, and bringing the Charleston to Britain. Two of Baker's sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York City. It celebrates Baker's life and works.
Château des Milandes, a castle near Sarlat in the Dordogne, was Baker's home where she raised her twelve children. It is open to the public and displays her stage outfits including her banana skirt (of which there are apparently several). It also displays many family photographs and documents as well as her Legion of Honour medal. Most rooms are open for the public to walk through including bedrooms with the cots where her children slept, a huge kitchen, and a dining room where she often entertained large groups. The bathrooms were designed in art deco style but most rooms retained the French chateau style.
Baker continued to influence celebrities more than a century after her birth. In a 2003 interview with USA Today, Angelina Jolie cited Baker as "a model for the multiracial, multinational family she was beginning to create through adoption." Beyoncé performed Baker's banana dance at the Fashion Rocks concert at Radio City Music Hall in September 2006.
Writing on the 110th anniversary of her birth, Vogue described how her 1926 "danse sauvage" in her famous banana skirt "brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination" and "radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today, from Prada to Beyoncé."
On 3 June 2017, the 111th anniversary of her birth, Google released an animated Google Doodle, which consists of a slideshow chronicling her life and achievements.
On Thursday 22 November 2018, a documentary titled Josephine Baker: The Story of an Awakening, directed by Ilana Navaro, premiered at the Beirut Art Film Festival. It contains rarely seen archival footage, including some never before discovered, with music and narration.
In August 2019, Baker was one of the honorees inducted in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood noting LGBTQ people who have "made significant contributions in their fields."