Born Josephine Carson, June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, MO; died of a stroke, April 12, 1975, in Paris, France; daughter of Eddie (a drummer) and Carrie McDonald Carson; married Willie Wells, 1918 (divorced), Willie Baker (a Pullman porter), 1920 (divorced), Jean Lion (a sugar broker), 1937 (divorced), Jo Bouillon (an orchestra leader), 1947 (separated; Bouillon later died), and Robert Brady (an artist), 1973 (divorced); children (all adopted): Akio, Janot, Jari, Luis, Jean-Claude, Moise, Marianne, Brahim, Koffi, Mara, Noel, Stellina. Worked as a maid, beginning in 1914, and a waitress, beginning in 1919; joined the Jones Family Band; joined the Dixie Steppers; appeared in Shuffle Along, 1921-24, and Chocolate Dandies, 1924-25; performed at Plantation Club, New York City, 1925; appeared with various troupes in numerous stage productions, including Revue Negre, Folies-Bergeres, and Ziegfeld Follies, beginning in mid-1920s; starred in films, including La Sirene des Tropiques, 1927, Zou-Zou, 1934, and Princesse Tam-Tam, 1935; recorded for Odeon label, 1927, and Columbia Records, 1930; "honorable correspondent" during World War II, participating in intelligence activities for French resistance, became sublieutenant in Women's Auxiliary of French Air Force; transformed country home Les Milandes into education center/tourist attraction, beginning c. 1945; participated in civil rights march on Washington, 1963. Author, with Bouillon, of autobiography Josephine, Harper & Row, 1977.
Josephine Baker is remembered primarily 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 humanity and devoted herself to making the world a more hospitable place and securing a better future for its citizens.
Born Josephine Carson on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, she was 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 13, 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 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 whose name she took.
In April of 1921, when the Dixie Steppers were appearing 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 interesting to watch. When the Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, a chorus girl named Wilsie Caldwell took Baker to the theater and recommended her for the production, which was on its way to Broadway. But Baker was only 14 and thus too young to join the company.
Baker was so obsessed with the idea of performing in 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 became ill, Baker got her chance. 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 show, Chocolate Dandies, as one of the featured performers. But the show was unsuccessful, and it folded in 1925.
So Baker 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. Baker wanted to sing for the group that Dudley was organizing, 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 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, dubbing 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 production, 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, good humor, and grace were just what audiences desired, and she became immensely popular. As Donald Bogle commented in Essence, "For a weary, disillusioned, post-World War I era, she epitomized a new freedom and festivity." By the fall of 1926, a merchandising 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 Josephine," 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 much of her new style and worldliness was achieved on her own initiative. During this period she toured Europe and also performed in Argentina. But she was bound to Paris, insisting, 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 converse--and sing--in her adopted language.
The "new" 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, singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes. In July of 1930 she recorded songs from 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 19th-century French composer Jacques Offenbach.
In 1935, Baker decided to return to America and do there what she had done in Paris--create a sensation. She would perform with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. She sailed for the U.S. in September of 1935 to begin the extensive rehearsals that were required. When the show opened, reviewers did not disguise their displeasure. Baker's 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 could not accept 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 but again closed it shortly thereafter. In the meantime, Pepito Abatino had returned to Paris after an argument with Baker. He died in the spring of 1936, just before the Ziegfeld Follies ended its run that 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 14 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 agency; she spent 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 even there she was in danger. Baker moved to Morocco four years later. In North Africa she experienced health problems that kept her from performing. In 1942, her health renewed, she went on a tour of the region, 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.
The following year Baker married Jo Bouillon, a French orchestra leader. The two spent the years immediately following the war restoring Les Milandes. "When the work was all finished," Rose wrote in Jazz Cleopatra, "there would be two hotels, three restaurants, a miniature golf course, a wax museum of scenes from ... Baker's life, stables, a patisserie, a foie gras factory, a gas station, and a post office." Baker expected proceeds from tourism to help fund Les Milandes; the rest of the money would come from her 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 12 children--ten boys and two girls. But by then 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.
Three years later, Jack Jordan, a black producer, decided to bring Baker to America 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 difficulty. 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 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 suffered a stroke while she slept and lapsed into a coma; she died 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, countless fans tuning in to pay their respects to their beloved adopted national treasure, their Josephine.
Josephine Baker's Career
Josephine Baker's Awards
Croix de Guerre; Rosette de la Resistance; Legion d'Honneur.
- Selective Works
- Josephine Baker Sandstone, 1992.
- The Josephine Baker Story (recorded 1926-37), Pro Arte/Fanfare, 1992.
- Baker, Josephine, and Jo Bouillon, Josephine, translated by Mariana Fitzpatrick, Harper & Row, 1977.
- Haney, Lynn, Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker, Dodd, Mean, 1981.
- Rose, Phyllis, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, Doubleday, 1989.
- Periodicals American Heritage, November 1989.
- Ebony, June 1991.
- Essence, February 1991.
- New York Times, March 10, 1991.
- --Joyce Harrison