Remembered as a spirited entertainer, the glamorous "Josephine" who became the toast of France. But there was a great deal more to Josephine Baker than the banana skirt she wore in the Folies-Bergeres or the leopard she walked along the streets of Paris. She was a great lover of life and of humanity, who devoted herself to making the world a more hospitable place and to securing a better future for its citizens. She was born Josephine Carson on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, the first child of Eddie Carson, a drummer, and Carrie McDonald. Before Baker was a year old, her father left the family. Her mother later had three children with another man, Arthur Martin: Richard, Margaret, and Willie Mae. When Baker was eight, she began work as a live-in maid for white families. In 1918, she moved with her family from their apartment to a house. She became friends with the boy next door, in whose basement the neighborhood children put on shows for each other, with Baker as one of the stars. At thirteen, Baker moved out of her parents' house and worked as a waitress to support herself. She married a man named Willie Wells and quit her job. But the marriage was short-lived, and soon she was back to waitressing. She joined a group of street performers who called themselves the Jones Family Band, and her first appearance on stage was at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louis's black vaudeville house. Also performing at the theater were the Dixie Steppers, an all-black traveling troupe. The manager of the Dixie Steppers took a liking to Baker and decided to make her a part of the group. Since he couldn't find anything for Baker to do onstage, she became a dresser, principally for the troupe's star, Clara Smith. While the Dixie Steppers were touring the United States, Josephine met Willie Baker, a Pullman porter, whom she married in 1920, and through the marriage changed her name to Josephine Baker. In April of 1921, when the Dixie Steppers were touring in Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls hurt herself and was unable to perform. Baker took her place. She stood out from the other girls: she was much more lively and more interesting to watch. When the lyricist/composer team Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, a chorus girl named Wilsie Caldwell brought Baker to the theater and recommended her for the production, which was to go on Broadway. But Baker was only fourteen and thus too young to join the company. Baker was so obsessed with the idea of performing with the cast of Shuffle Along on Broadway that she left her husband and went to New York City. She took a job as a dresser and learned all the songs and dances. Finally, after one of the chorus girls got sick, Baker went on for her. Phyllis Rose, author of Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, recreated the scene: "Onstage, the old magical transformation took place. She burst into frenetic action. She seemed to move every part of her body in a different direction at once. She clowned outrageously, unable to stop herself. She crossed her eyes. Her feet tripped over each other while the other girls were kicking neatly in step. The effect of her performance was to mock the very idea of a chorus line, a row of people mechanically repeating the same gestures. The chorus line hated her. They had a simple term for what she was doing: scene stealing. But audiences loved her." Baker became a box office draw and was singled out in reviews. She joined the company when it went on the road and remained with the show until it closed in January of 1924. She then went almost immediately into Sissle and Blake's new production, Chocolate Dandies, as one of the featured performers. But the show was unsuccessful, and it folded in 1925. Baker then went to the Plantation Club in Harlem and joined the chorus. One night Caroline Dudley, a wealthy black producer, visited the club in an effort to recruit singer Ethel Waters, who was featured there, for La Revue Negre, a black revue Dudley wanted to take to Paris. But Waters declined, so Dudley took Baker instead. She had admired Baker in Shuffle Along. For the new group that Dudley was organizing, Baker wanted to sing, but Dudley wanted her as a comic. After persuading Dudley to raise her weekly salary from $125 to $200‹a considerable sum in 1925‹Baker agreed. The troupe set sail for France on September 22. La Revue Negre opened at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris and was received with enthusiasm. French audiences' fascination with black culture was apparently based on dubious impressions‹Baker remarked that "the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks"‹and La Revue Negre catered to that fascination with exaggerated stereotypes. When the theater owners decided that something exotic needed to be added to the tap dancing and blues singing, they hit on the idea of a more "authentic" dance and called it the "Danse Sauvage"‹the Savage Dance. Baker was featured in the "Danse Sauvage" with a male partner, Joe Alex. Their costumes consisted of feathers and not much else; Baker wore only a feather skirt. She became an overnight sensation. Shortly after La Revue Negre opened, Baker was asked to join the Folies-Bergeres, the premier Paris music hall, for its new show, which was to open in April of 1926; she accepted. In the meantime, she went with La Revue Negre to Germany, where she was hailed as a genius by German intellectuals and artists. Back in Paris, Baker joined the Folies-Bergeres and starred in a production called La Folie du Jour. As with La Revue Negre, the Folies-Bergeres featured Baker in an "exotic" tableau: in this one, she danced in the nude except for a skirt of plush bananas. Her quick, sensual movements, her good humor, and her grace were just what audiences were looking for, and she became immensely popular. As Donald Bogle commented in an article on Baker in Essence magazine: "For a weary, disillusioned, post-World War I era, she epitomized a new freedom and festivity." By the fall of 1926, a merchandise boom began in France: there were "Josephine" dolls and perfume, and women wore their hair slicked-down like hers, using a product called "Bakerfix" to do the job. She opened her own club, "Chez Josphine," in December of 1926, but closed it down a year later. She also recorded several songs for the Odeon recording company and made a motion picture called La Sirene des Tropiques in 1927. From late 1927 to 1930, Baker underwent something of a transformation: the awkward, gawky‹but never ugly‹duckling became a swan. Some Baker biographers have attributed her metamorphosis largely to a man named Pepito Abatino, who became her business manager, lover, and unofficial husband, but it is quite likely that a good deal of her new style and worldliness was achieved on her own initiative. During this time, she went on a tour of Europe and also performed in Argentina. But she was bound to Paris, saying, as documented in Jazz Cleopatra: "I don't want to be without Paris. It's my country. Understand? I have to be worthy of Paris. I want to become an artist." She learned French in order to be able to converse, and to sing, in her adopted language. The ³new² Josephine Baker opened at the Casino de Paris in 1930. The producer, Henri Varna, bought Baker a leopard, and she and the leopard, whose name was Chiquita, became a sensation in fashionable Parisian circles. Baker performed in a show called Paris qui Remue at the Casino de Paris, singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes. In July of 1930 she made recordings of the songs in the revue for Columbia Records. She also starred in two films in the 1930s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam, and in the fall of 1934, she was featured in La Creole, an operetta by nineteenth-century French composer Jacques Offenbach. In 1935, Baker decided that she wanted to return to America and do there what she had done in Paris: create a sensation. It was arranged that she would perform with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. She sailed for the United States in September of 1935 and began the extensive rehearsals that were required. When the show opened, reviewers did not disguise their displeasure. Her husband Jo Bouillon explained her lack of success in America: "Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl." White audiences were reportedly used to seeing, and wanted to see, blacks in what they considered "Negro" roles‹Mammies and blues singers‹and were not interested in a black woman of style, grace, and sophistication. As was her custom when on tour, Baker opened her own club, "Chez Josephine Baker," in New York, and again it closed shortly thereafter. In the meantime, Pepito Abatino went back to Paris after an argument with Baker. He died in the spring of 1936, just before the Ziegfeld Follies ended its run in May. Before Baker returned to France, she made a clean break with her past by divorcing her second husband, Willie Baker, to whom she had legally been married since 1920. While Baker was still in the Follies, Paul Derval, the director of the Folies-Bergeres, offered her the starring role in a new show, which was to open in the fall of 1936. The next year, she married Jean Lion, a French sugar broker, and through the marriage became a French citizen. But the Baker-Lion marriage was a turbulent one and ended in divorce fourteen months later. In September of 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to Germany's invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxieme Bureau‹the French military intelligence. She spent the years of World War II obtaining information for the bureau as an "honorable correspondent." When the war began, Baker left for Les Milandes, the French country estate she had bought in 1936. But the atmosphere became too dangerous, and Baker moved to Morocco four years later. While there, she experienced a great many health problems that kept her from performing. In 1942, as her health returned, she went on a tour of North Africa, performing for French, British, and American soldiers. From there, she toured the Middle East, where she did benefit performances for the resistance. For her efforts on behalf of France, Baker was made a sublieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force. Paris was liberated in August of 1944, and Baker returned to France. In 1946, she was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 1947, Baker married Jo Bouillon, a French orchestra leader. The two of them spent the years immediately following the war restoring Les Milandes. "When the work was all finished," Phyllis Rose wrote in Jazz Cleopatra, "there would be two hotels, three restaurants, a miniature golf course, a wax museum of scenes from Josephine Baker's life, stables, a patisserie, a foie gras factory, a gas station, and a post office." Baker expected the proceeds from tourism to help with the expense of running Les Milandes. The rest of the money would come from her own performances. She went to the United States again in 1948 but was no more of a success then than she had been in 1936. This time, however, she decided to take a stronger stand on racism: she began to insist on a nondiscrimination clause in her contracts, and on integrated audiences at her performances. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared May 20, 1951, Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts to fight racism. Back in France in 1954, Baker decided to start a family. She wanted to raise a group of ethnically mixed children in an atmosphere of harmony. She called the group her "Rainbow Tribe." By 1962, she had adopted twelve children--ten boys and two girls. In the meantime, Jo Bouillon had become increasingly uneasy about the problems of running Les Milandes and what he considered Baker's unrealistic attitude, and in 1960 he left to live in Argentina. In 1963, Jack Jordan, a black producer, got the idea of bringing Baker to the United States for the march on Washington, D.C., where, on August 28, she participated in the historic event in which over 200,000 people took part, the most notable being the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is said to have been one of Baker's most memorable experiences. By February of 1964, Les Milandes was in serious financial difficulties. For the next four years, Baker was able to keep it from being seized by the French government, but in the fall of 1968, she was evicted. Her predicament attracted the attention of Princess Grace of Monaco, who arranged for Baker and her children to live in a villa in Roquebrune, near Monte Carlo. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baker experienced health problems that kept her in and out of hospitals. In 1973, at the age of 69, she married her last husband, American artist Robert Brady. The marriage lasted one year. In 1974 the Societe de Bains de Mer of Monte Carlo invited Baker to star in their annual benefit for the Monacan Red Cross, the organization that helped to subsidize her home in Roquebrune. The show was called Josephine and told the story of Baker's life in a series of scenes. It was a success and opened in Paris on April 8, 1975. Four days later, Baker had a stroke in her sleep and lapsed into a coma. She died later that day. Twenty thousand people attended her funeral at the church of the Madeleine in Paris, and the ceremony was broadcast on French national television.
Josephine Baker, French (1906 - 1975) Original Works for Sale - Click to View.