A pioneer who defined the prejudice of society and made her own success. Most of the fads of Hollywood can be traced back her. Fearless and fabulous, she was known by many names; Black Venus, Black Pearl, Creole Goddess. Behold the icon, Josephine Baker.
Born Freda Jospehine Baker on 3rd June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her early life was spent in poverty and abandoned by her father. She even worked as a live-in domestic for a white family from the age of 8, where at one point she had her hands burned for using too much soap. One of the few joys from her childhood came from performing with her parents in vaudeville. Professionally Baker’s start sprang from comedy, during 1919 Baker toured with The Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. Performing comedic skits at first, but she aspired to be in the chorus. Thus the first of many incidents of racism that made Baker leave the U.S occurred. For Baker was turned down for being ‘too skinny and too black’. However as would be part of Baker’s defiance in the face of adversity, instead of giving up. She just learned the routine and when a dancer left the troupe, Baker took her place. Finding her way to New York, Baker performed at the Plantation Club. Later appearing in several Broadway Revue ‘Shuffle Along’ in 1921 and ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ in 1924. Here Baker showcased her dancing prowess with complex routines. Once one is dubbed ‘the highest-paid chorus girl of Vaudeville’, most would think that the only place to go is up. Sadly, for a black entertainer, Baker had hit the glass ceiling. This was as good as her career was only ever going to get. Thankfully for Baker, her story would not be typical.
On 2nd October 1925, Baker left for Paris for a new revue at the Thearte de Champes Élysées. In America, Baker was a second class citizen. In France, Baker was an exciting performer with a tinge of the erotic (No one could ever accuse Baker of being shy about showing off her beautiful body, performing nearly nude). After touring around Europe, Baker chose to return to Paris. Appearing in the Folie Bergère. Within a short time, Baker was the most successful American performing in France. Since Paris has always been a magnet for artists, it should come as no surprise that Baker served as inspiration to a multitude artists. Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior, all fell under her spell.
Her most legendary dance was the Banana Dance. Now with greater racial sensitivity a black woman dancing with a banana skirt, is a questionable choice. However at the time, people wanted to see ‘the exotic’ so Baker gave her public what they wanted. A grand, glitzy affair; just as Baker wanted for her act to be. Her most successful song was ‘Jai deux Amours’ in 1931. With further training Baker improved her vocal talents, joining the pantheon of grand dames.
With all her theatrical and singing work, it was only a matter of time before the new invention of cinema called out to Baker. Her debut came in ‘Siren of the Tropics’ in 1927, but it was ‘ Zouzou’ that saw Baker became the first black leading lady.
Now with success, Baker indulged. As an animal lover, her menagerie included a chimpanzee, cheetah, leopard, pig, snake, goat, parrot, multiple cats, parakeets and dogs. One wonders if Baker ever met Marchesa Casati, they were both in Paris at same time, both had a flare for the dramatic and loved exotic animals. Her beloved Cheetah, Chiquita was known to escape and head for the musicians in the Orchestra pit adding another element of excitement to Baker’s shows. Can only imagine the pressure the musician must have felt when trying to focus on the task in hand. Then dear old Chiquita rocks up in her diamond encrusted collar sizing you up as a possible snake.
Before Angelina Jolie, before Mia Farrow. Josephine Baker was the first celebrity to adopt multiple children of varied ethnicities. Referred to by Baker herself as ‘The Rainbow Tribe’, the aim was to show that a family could be made of different races and be happy as any other family. Another occasion of Baker challenging conventions regarding a mixed race family before they became acceptable. Baker shied away from convention in her romantic life too. Besides multiple marriages; (in showbiz circles, divorce was a far from rare event) choosing to have affairs with both men like Georges Simenon and women like Frida Kahlo.
Baker proved an important figure for the French Resistance, smuggling messages to the allies in her sheet music. Baker was so grateful for the success and respect that her adopted homeland had given her. She would willingly risk her life in order to save France from the Nazis. She received the Croix de Guerre from the French Military. Rosette de la Resistance and was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.
Even with all her fame and acclaim, Baker was still treated with contempt back in the USA. In France with the Ziegfield Follies Baker was a roaring success. However in the U.S, between 1935-36 Baker tried to crack her homeland. America did not want a black woman in a major revue. Even ‘The Times’ referred to her as a ‘Negro Wench’. Baker returned to France, saddened that she was a pariah in her motherland. When Baker married Jean Lion in 1937 and offered the chance of citizenship to France, she willing said farewell to be an American. Most of Baker’s engagements were abroad, Cuba etc. During the 50’s and 60’s, Baker was an integral part of the fight against racism in the US. Given lectures, refusing to play for segregated audiences. With all the publicity surrounding her efforts for equality, it should come as no surprise that the KKK threatened Baker on multiple occasions. Did she cowers? Of course not. However when Coretta Scott King, Widow of Martin Luther King and activist in her own rights. Asked Baker to take up King’s place as the leader of the CR movements, Baker declined. Claiming that her children were too young to loose their mothers. One famous incident was when Baker visited the famed Stork Club in 1951, she was refused entry and the ensuing controversy (she accused noted columnist, Walter Winchell of not coming to her aid) ended her US tour. Another sour note in Baker’s relationship with America. In appreciation of her effort work for racial equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) marked 20th May as Josephine Baker Day. Laters years were marked with financial woes, so Baker was forced to perform again. However it was during this Renaissance that Baker finally achieved the success in America she had tried and failed previously. Her standing ovation during her performance in Carnegie Hall in 1973, was so overwhelming to Baker that she was visibly weeping. One can only imagine the pay off for all the years of struggle for acceptance. Long over due but welcome I am sure for Baker. Following up with a performance at the Royal Variety Show at the London Palledium.
After a staggering 50 years entertaining audiences, Baker died on 12th April 1975 from a brain bleed. In appreciation of her contribution to the war effort, Baker was the only American born woman to receive full military honours.
Josephine Baker’s life was so extraordinary; war heroine, civil rights activist, glamour puss, entertainer, film star and singer. What makes her achievements even more remarkable was that she had everything set against her. Her ethnicity at a time of great bigotry was a barrier that few could penetrate at that time. This is what I love so much about Baker. Her resolute defiance. It would have been understandle for her to give up her dreams, to go back to the life that she knew to be wrong but normal. She had her dreams and no one was going to stop her. Baker believed so much in herself, in her own worth that she would not allow anyone to dictate what she could and could not be. When not only did she have her race against her, but as a woman she would have endured similar sexiest expectations of what she could or could not do.
Baker’s influence can be felt and seen thanks to current performers such as Perle Noire, who has performed The Banana Dance with vigour and pazance. While Hollywood does still have a problem with racism today, at least black women can become stars and judged on their talent and beauty alone. I serious doubt much would have changed had Baker not stuck her neck out. An absolute inspiration.