Josephine Baker

(3rd June 1906 – 12th April 1975)



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Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, she worked as a cleaner and babysitter for rich white families before dropping out of school at the age of 12. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position where the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would not only perform it correctly but with additional complexity. Baker was then billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”

French producers came to New York looking to cast an all-black musical revue in Paris. They saw Josephine performing at the Plantation club and offered her a part in their production La Revue Negré. In 1925 she went to Paris to appear in in the show. The show opened on October 2, 1925 in Paris at the Théâtre Champs-Elysées. Josephine had two numbers in La Revue Negré. In the first routine she danced a frantic version of the Charleston while accompanied by a jazz band. Her second routine was the closing number of the show was called “Danse de Sauvage”. It was an erotic dance that she performed with the male dancer named Joe Alex. This dance was the hit of the show and proved to be the role that would launch Josephine towards stardom in Europe. The La Revue Negré began a tour of Europe but Josephine left the show in Berlin and returned to France, where she was offered a starring role at the famous Folies Bergère. In the show Josephine performed a dance that combined both comedy and eroticism were she wore only a skirt fashioned to look like bananas and comically crossed her eyes. The show was a big hit and Josephine became a major star in France based on this her performances at the Folies Bergère. In 1926 Josephine made her first recordings in Paris and opened her own night club called Chez Josephine.. In 1936 she returned to America to star in Ziegfeld’s Follies but the show was a flop and Baker broke her contract returning to Paris disgusted with the racism that she was subjected to while in New York. She became a citizen of France in 1937 and was renowned internationally as a musical and political icon.

During World War II she stayed in France and joined the French Air Force working with the Red Cross and performing for French and Belgian troops. During the Nazi occupation of France Josephine heroically stayed in Paris and was a member of the French Resistance. After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

Josephine visited the United States during the 50s and 60s with renewed vigour to fight racism. When New York’s popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honour of her efforts. In January 1966, she was invited by Fidel Castro to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba. Her spectacular show in April of that year led to record-breaking attendance. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje. In 1973, she opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation, and in 1974, she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. Baker was the first African American female to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou, to integrate an American concert hall and to become a world-famous entertainer. She was given such nicknames as the “Bronze Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, and the “Créole Goddess”.

It was also during this time that she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine wanted her 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 Les Milandes tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in “The Rainbow Tribe” were.

On April 8, 1975 Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theatre in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever, howeverdays later she slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral haemorrhage on 12th April 1975. More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honoured her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honours. Her gravesite is in the Cemetery of Monaco, Monaco.

 


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