JOSEPHINE BAKER

"[The Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?" - Josephine Baker

By: Katerina Vorotova

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


May 20th is Josephine Baker Day



PROFILE: Josephine Baker (1906-1975), is known as the "girl who danced her way through the 20's and 30's only dressed in bananas". A dancer, singer, actress and a comedian all in one, Josephine Baker was the first black female entertainer to break through racial prejudice in Europe and the United States. Her acts were both outrageously funny and quite sexy. She was a star of stage, screen and recordings, a civil rights activist and an honored military woman during World War II. She adopted 12 children of different races, whom she called the "Rainbow Tribe". Josephine sought to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could be brothers". Josephine's stardom lasted for 50 years; her fans gave her extravagant gifts such as diamonds and cars, and she received over 1,500 marriage proposals.


BIO: Josephine Baker was born Freda McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906. She was raised in a poor family and grew up babysitting for rich white families and waiting tables. She dropped out of school at an early age, and the time she was 13 Freda was performing on Broadway.

In 1922 Josephine auditioned as a dancer in "Shuffle Along" but was not selected because of her skin color. Freda was hired as a wardrobe assistant and while working in this position, she learned the various roles. When a dancer left, she filed in as their understudy. Josephine would intentionally move clumsy for laughs and to mock the dance itself. While the staff hated her, the critics loved her and in 1924 she became a star by performing in "Chocolate Dandies".

Moving to Paris in 1925 and performing in La Revue Negre was a turning point in Baker's career. Dancing in nothing but a feather skirt in the Danse Souvage and a costume made of bananas strung to her skirt in La Folie de Jour earned her major popularity. Her outrageous performances made her the most photographed woman in the world and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. She bought a castle in France, and spent a lot of her money on clothes and pets. She owned a leopard, a chimp, a baby pig, a goat, a snake, a parrot, multiple parakeets, fish, 3 cats and 7 dogs. In the 1930s she starred in two movies, "Zou-Zou" and "Princess Tam-Tam".

In 1936, Baker went to the United States where the conservative audience and the critics refused to welcome a black woman, despite of her being a major celebrity in Europe. It was her first negative review in 20 years.

When the World War II struck, Josephine helped by performing for the troops, working for the Red Cross, and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She received military honors for her undercover work for the French Resistance. As a celebrity, she would pass through country borders easily, to slip important information written on her music sheets in invisible ink.

When the war was over, Baker visited the U.S. again in the 50's with a strong intent to fight racism. She worked with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell, to fight racism through media.

At this time period, she began to adopt children throughout the world. Her family now consisted of 10 boys and 2 girls whom she called her "Rainbow Tribe". The 60ęs weren't her decade. She had to sell her castle, making all her adopted children homeless. In the beginning of the 70ęs she was hospitalized. That could have been the end of the story if it hadn't been for Princess Grace of Monaco who had helped Josephine to make one of the world's most remarkable comebacks and Josephine reached the high point of her career.

She was married and divorced four times in her life. Josephine never depended on a man financially, so she left relationships as soon as they'd began to fall apart. However, having met an American artist Robert Brady in the early 70s, she has built a spiritual bond with him. They exchanged marriage vows in an empty church without ever being pronounced legally married.

In 1973 she gave New York a second chance by performing at Carnegie Hall. The public has grown culturally since her last visit, and the audience venerated Baker this time. She was so touched, she cried on stage.

On April 8, 1975, a 68-year-old Josephine Baker performed a mix of routines from throughout her 50-year career. She got the best reviews she had ever received. That was her last performance, for the legend passed away in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage 3 days later.

On her funeral procession, 20,000 people gathered on the streets of Paris to pay respects. Baker was the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Josephine Baker became an idol in all respects. Not only was she a breathtaking performer, but she was also a very intelligent woman who fought for civil rights. She inspired people even after her death—"The Josephine Baker Story" motion picture was released in 1991. The film won two Emmys and was nominated for Golden Globe.

 

"Her magnificent dark body, a new model to the French, proved for the first time that black was beautiful." - Janet Flanner, New Yorker correspondent.

 

Links:

J. Baker

Women's Stories

 

 

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