Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3rd, 1906. Having been born to an impovershed mother, and without a present father to turn to, at the age of 8, she entered the workforce, living with and working for a succession of two white families. Both work situations ended in trauma as the first resulted in her hands being dipped in boiling water for using too much laundry detergent, while in the second, the husband of the household began to take an interest to the young Josephine.
In 1917, when Josephine was 11 years old, the East St. Louis Riots broke out, resulting in the intimidation, torture, and deaths of many of the areas black residents. The riots made an indellible mark on Josephine, who would cite this event as a major spark to fuel her wanting out of the United States, as well as fertalizing the soil for the civil rights activism she would do as an adult. “I was haunted until I finally understood that I was marked by God to try to fight for the freedom of those that were being tortured,” she told a St. Louis audience in a speech in 1952. By 13, Josephine ran away from home and became a waitress in a club, taking her first of 4 husbands over the course of her lifetime.
At 15, Josephine was scouted as she danced on a St. Louis street corner and cast in a vaudeville show. Not long thereafter, she made the exodus of a true performer to New York City, dancing on Broadway. Wanderlust caught the better of her at 19; it was then that she would make the pilgrimage to Paris, a city which would embrace her with open arms, to the contrary of her life experience in the United States. Her success was instant and massive. Her erotic dancing and set the country ablaze and her comedic portrayals charmed the French audiences. Her costumes caused as much of a stir as her dancing, as in La Folie du Jour she wore only a skirt made of Bananas. She also had a pet cheetah who would often join her on stage, donning a diamond collar and answering to the name Chiquita.
By 1930, Josephine expanded her routines to include singing. In 1934, she took her first film role in Zouzou, followed up soonafter with a role in Princesse Tam Tam (haven’t we heard that name somewhere before?) Despite her massive European successes, her return starring in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936 was a massive disappointment, as she was met with hostility and a pervasive racism which was reflected in her media reviews. That was it. She returned to Paris, married a Jewish Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became an official citizen of France. The couple would adopt 12 children of different ethnic backgrounds, calling them their “Rainbow Tribe”, with whom they lived in their “World Village”, or their estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac.
“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
During WW2, having the perfect excuse for travel given her stature and lifestyle, and in devotion to a cause she felt was right, Josephine became a spy for the French Resistance against the Nazi’s. She easily mingled with the upper echelons in society and politics, recording messages in invisible ink on her sheet music, and even smuggling information in her underwear across borders! (Lingerie once again saves the day.) She also entertained the troops abroad and worked for the Red Cross. The 50’s would keep her busy with civil rights movement. She very publicly sued New York’s famous Stork Club when they refused her service (side note: Grace Kelly was in the club to witness the event, came to Josephine’s aid, and proceeded to create a scene, leaving the club in protest. Josephine and Grace became good friends from there on out.) Josephine refused to perform in to any segregated audiences, writing the clause into her contracts, and effectively integrating shows she had booked in Las Vegas. She demonstrated alongside with the NAACP, and was one of the speakers, along with Martin Luther King at the great March on Washington.
From the late ’60s to the mid 70’s, Josephine performed at a handful of shows in exclusive venues, such as the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. After years of discrimination, she finally performed in 1973 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which brought her a standing ovation and finally the sort of accolades in the US that she had deserved all along. She created a retrospective show of her works in Paris in 1975. Opening night brought, once again, incredible reviews. The story goes that she was found 4 days later in bed having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68 which would take her life. Surrounding her in bed were scattered about were newspapers heralding her successes of her latest show.