Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became famous as an American expatirate in France in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also the time of the lost generation of American writers who lived there such as Ernest Hemingway from Oak Park, Illinois, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Because there is much incorrect information about her life on internet sites, I need to state that most of this information and quotes come from either the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Second Edition or from the Black History Biographical Index of Thomson-Gale publications. Far too many sources site her birthplace as St. Louis, Missoui. This is not correct and comes from careless researchers who apparently do not understand that East St. Louis is a separate city in Illinois on the east side of the Mississippi River and not a section of the Missouri city. While this is a common mistake it is still careless and the fact that internet misinformation is so often duplicated makes the job of finding accurate information more challenging.
Josephine was born in a poor, Black slum in East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 3, 1906, to 21-year-old Carrie MacDonald. Her mother hoped to be a music hall dancer but made her living in 1906 taking in laundry to wash for neighbors. Josephine had a mixed ethnic heritage. She descended from Apalachee Indians and Black slaves in South Carolina. Her father was Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, who had little contact with Josephine.
According to the Dale-Thomson Black History series,
"At the age of eight Josephine was hired out to a white woman as a maid; she was forced to sleep in the coal cellar with a pet dog and was scalded on the hands when she used too much soap in the laundry. At the age of ten she returned, thankfully, to school. "There is no Santa Claus," she said. "I'm Santa Claus." Josephine witnessed the cruel East St. Louis race riot of 1917. She moved from the St. Louis area at the age of 13 and emigrated out of the United States at 19. "That such a childhood produced an expatriate is not surprising," Phyllis Rose, one of her biographers, commented."
"Because I was born in a cold city, because I felt cold throughout my childhood ... I always wanted to dance on the stage," Josephine offered as explanation of why she was determined to be a dancer (in the first of her five autobiographies). From watching the dancers in a local vaudeville house she "graduated" to dancing in a touring show based in Philadelphia (where her grandmother lived) at age 16. She had already been married twice: to Willie Wells (for a few weeks in 1919) and to Will Baker (for a short time in 1921). She took her second husband's name as her own--Josephine Baker."
"It is hard to discover true biographical facts, especially when it comes to show people. We know that Josephine joined the chorus line of the touring show of Shuffle Along in Boston in August 1922. The comedy was produced in Manhattan by a renowned African American songwriting team, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake; it was the first all-Black Broadway musical. Subsequently, Josephine was in New York for the Chocolate Dandies (at the Cotton Club) and the floor show at the Plantation Club in Harlem (with Ethel Waters). She drew the attention of the audience (at the end of the chorus line) by clowning, mugging, and improvising. With her long legs, slim figure, and comic interludes, her special style as an entertainer evolved."
It is particularly hard in the case of Josephine Baker to sort out true stories from legends. She cooperated in the writing of five different autobiographies during her life and each has a different version of events filtered by the perspective of the time it was written.
According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography:
"African American performers were established in France already in the 1920s. "Bricktop" (Ada Smith, with her signature red hair) had moved from Harlem to Paris, where she owned a locally famous nightclub on the rue Pigalle. Bricktop claimed to have taught Josephine personal grooming, clothes-sense, and even writing--everything--from the moment the younger woman's arrived in Paris in October 1925. This is an exaggeration. Josephine went to Paris for a top salary ($250 a week; more than twice what she was paid in New York) to gyrate at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées as a variety dancer in La Revue Nègre. With other African Americans, including jazz star Sidney Bechet, she introduced le jazz hot and went on to international fame on the wave of French intoxication for American jazz and exotic dancing."
"The Parisian cultural scene was ready for things African in the 1920s. African American music had penetrated to such European classical composers as Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky since at least 1908. But Parisians became aware of jazz only in the 1920s (the first jazz band in Paris played in 1917). African art and sculpture was one of the influences on the Cubist movement and Art Deco. Josephine's oval head, resembling a temple sculpture, and lithe body, her "geometry" (according to Dance Magazine) was perfect for anything Cubist or in the Art Deco style."
"She was the favorite of artists and left-intellectuals such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, e.e. cummings, Jean Cocteau, Aleksander Wat, and Ernest Hemingway (who thought she was "the most beautiful woman there is, there ever was, or ever will be," in hyperbole). But Josephine had not been to Africa and she knew nothing of the culture there, at that time. She had a relatively small repertoire of dance steps ("Charleston knock-knees for eight counts, camel-walk eight counts") and a small vocal repertoire, too (her keynote song, "J'ai deux amours," was repeated over and over again in various contexts); but the core materials were absolutely perfect with her body style and fitted to the era."
In 1926, she recorded her throaty voice for the first time. Magazine covers and posters added to her fame.
In December 1926 she opened her own nightclub in Pigalle called Chez Joséphine and later moved the club to a more fashionable Paris district.
"She became a chic, affluent woman with expensive idiosyncracies, like parading her pet leopard down the elegant Champs Elysées. She went on a world tour for two years in 1928-1930, and received thousands of love letters. But back in France she said: "I don't want to live without Paris.... It's my country.... I want to be worthy of Paris."
"Josephine Baker evolved from a mere eccentric dancer to integrating her songs and speech and dance in performances; from being "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville" to being "one of the high-paid stars in the world," in part by controlling her scripts and the first two volumes of her memoirs. Returning to the Follies in the 1930s, her photographs, 20 feet high, flanked the theater entrance. In France she was called simply "Joséphine" or "La Baker." In 1937 Josephine officially became a French citizen. "
"She married Jean Lion, a French industrialist. She had a miscarriage in 1938, and Lion divorced her in 1940, during the early months of World War II. When Germany occupied Belgium, Josephine became a Red Cross nurse, watching over refugees. When Germany finally occupied France itself, she worked for the French Resistance as an underground courier, transmitting information "pinned inside her underwear" to Captain Jacques Abtey. In October 1940 she began complicated journeys from London to Pau in southwestern France, through Spain and Portugal, and to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (where she had theatrical bookings), back to Marseilles. In December 1940 she had the leading role in the Marseilles municipal opera production of La Créole, but she was sued for breach of contract after leaving Algiers, Algeria in 1941. A mysterious near-fatal illness with peritonitis kept her in a Casablanca clinic from June 1941 to December 1942. It left Josephine weak, but not too weak to entertain troops in North Africa and the Middle East as a sublieutenant in the women's auxiliary of the Free French forces. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance."
"After the war Josephine returned to her beloved Paris, regularly appearing in the Follies. In June 1947 she married Jo Bouillon, a jazz bandleader; after several miscarriages they separated in 1957. In 1950 at her 300-acre estate in the Dordogne (with a medieval chateau), Les Milandes, she began adopting orphaned babies of all races and religions. She retired to look after the estate and family in 1956, but soon debts amounting to $400,000 were accrued, and she was forced back into show business in 1959, in a musical autobiography called Paris mes Amours,which opened at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in May."
Josephine Baker remained very critical of racism in America during her exile. She thought that nothing had changed in America during nearly forty years from the early 1920s to the 1960s. But she did return to America in August 1963 to attend the large civil rights march at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. She was still performing in her late fifties and in fact often lied about her age by adding on a few years for shock value.
"In France there were also problems: she was evicted from her chateau with her adopted family in 1969. Princess Grace Kelly of Monte Carlo (who was also an American expatriate) and her husband, Prince Rainier, offered the Baker family a villa in Monaco. The Rainiers helped to put on the spectacle Joséphine in 1975, in which Josephine, aged 69, had a dozen costume changes and, with tears streaming down from sequined eyelids, "stole the show" once again."
"Describing herself, Josephine Baker said "I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed." (Ebony report of interview in 1975.) More than that, Josephine Baker pulled herself out of poverty and the trauma of humiliation and made herself an international star, principally due to her love of dancing."
Josephine Baker died in her sleep of a stroke on April 12, 1975. She had just finished her 14th successful performance in a series at age 68. The Roman Catholic funeral service was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, which she regarded as her European home. He awards from the Fourth and Fifth Republics of France for her resistance work in World War II included the Croix de Guerre; the Légion d'Honneur; and the Rosette of the Résistance.