Josephine Baker (Freda McDonald) Native of St. Louis, Missouri
February 10, 2008
Baker, Josephine (1906 – 1975)
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She left school early for the stage, and was performing professionally at the age of 13. Her life roles included a chanteuse, dancer, freedom fighter, and mother.She performed on Broadway in 1922 (“Shuffle Along”) and was a star by 1924 (“Chocolate Dandies”).
In 1925 she went to Paris, and became famous for her performances in the Revue Negre on the stage of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Even critics who gave the show negative reviews thought highly of Baker’s performance.
Josephine Baker, whose sensual antics took Paris by storm, had nicknames such as “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl” and “Creole Goddess.”
She performed in the Folies Bergere, and during the 1926-27 season she was doing her popular Banana Dance. Finding more acceptance as a “colored” performer in France then she had in the United States, she stayed in Paris.
Baker also sang. In July, 1930 she recorded 6 songs for Columbia records. It was noted that while she never suffered from stage fright when performing before an audience, if the technicians became too engrossed in their work to respond to her she froze.
Baker is considered to be one of the most sensual performers of all times. She inspired artwork by Alexander Calder and Georges Rouault. Writers, including ee cummings and Ernest Hemingway, also found her work inspiring.
She served with the French Red Cross during WWII. With the fall of France in 1940 she became active in the resistance movement. Using her career as a cover she became an intelligence agent. In 1961 she received the Legion d’Honneur for her efforts from Charles deGaulle.
Baker’s celebrity allowed her to travel much more freely then most people during that time period. She once carried military intelligence reports out of France to Portugal, written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She also used her charm to persuade foreign consulates to process visas for associates, some of who traveled with her as a cover.
She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and received a Medal of the Resistance in 1946.
Her resistance activities were curtailed by a serious illness for which she was hospitalized in the Mers Sultan Clinic in Casablanca from June 1941 until December 1942.
She married 4 times, and adopted 12 children of different races … her “Rainbow Tribe”.
Her family: Josephine Baker’s mother was Carrie McDonald and her father was Eddie Carson. Arthur Martin was her stepfather. Her siblings were Richard, Margaret and Willie Mae. Josephine’s first husband was Willie Wells; her second husband was Willie Baker; her third husband was Jean Lion; and, her fourth husband was orchestra leader Jo Bouillon. Her twelve adopted children were: Akio (male), Janot (male), Luis (male), Jari (male), Jean-Claude (male), Moise (male), Brahim (male), Marianne (female), Koffi (male), Mara (male), Noel (male), Stellina (female). Josephine’s last marriage was to American Artist Robert Brady.
She often combined performance with civil rights activism, refusing to perform in clubs that would not permit an integrated audience. Her performances, which usually included songs in a number of languages, can be viewed as an extension of her personal philosophy and belief in racial harmony.
The week before her death in 1975 she appeared on the stage in a tribute performance, still very much a captivating performer at 69. She died quietly, in her sleep, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
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