Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker grew up to be one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th Century, a born entertainer, resistance fighter, humanitarian and vintage style icon.

The granddaughter of former slaves, Jospehine was only eight when she was sent to work as maid to a woman who was cruel to her, scalding her hands with hot water and hitting her when she made mistakes. She eventually left school, only aged 12, and lived as a street kid in the slums of St Loius, Illinois.

She would often dance as a way of begging for food and money, and eventually her natural grace and talent got her hired to a local Vaudeville show.

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Baker headed to New York, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924).

On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.

Virtually an instant hit, Josephine Baker became one of the best-known entertainers in both France and much of Europe. She was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar, further adding to Baker’s embodiment of Art Deco’s fascination with the exotic.

“I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on. ”
Josephine Baker

Already a successful musical star, Josephine went on to appear in various silent films and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. During her visit to the United States in 1935-1936, her performances received poor opening reviews for her starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Disappointed Baker returned to Paris in 1937 and married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen.

When World War II broke out, Josephine Baker worked with the Red Cross, gathered intelligence for the French Resistance and entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France, where she continued to aid The Resistance by attending parties in the Italian embassy to gather information and smuggling secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

A keen civil rights activist, Josephine and her second husband adopted twelve children from around the world whom she called the “Rainbow Tribe”,  making her home a World Village, a “showplace for brotherhood.” She returned to the stage in the Fifties to finance this project.

She also refused to entertain in any club or theater that was segregated, and in 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Josephine Baker’s World Village fell apart in the Fifties, and in 1969 she was evicted from her chateau which was then auctioned off to pay debts. Friend and admirer Princess Grace of Monaco gave her a villa for her and her children.

In 1973 Baker married an American, Robert Brady – her fourth husband – and began her stage comeback. Her 1975 Carnegie Hall comeback performance was a success, as was her subsequent Paris tour. But only two days after her last Paris performance, she died of a stroke.

3 Responses

  1. Annabelle

    I’ve been listening to her nonstop on Spotify lately! I didn’t know about the war efforts she participated in.. fascinating tidbit about the invisible ink. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Fergal O'Doherty

    I had the honor of visiting Museo Robert Brady in Cuernavaca, Mexico, three years ago. There was evidence of Josephine’s electric all over the house. What a lady of grace, style, ethics and spirit. The house is a museum to Robert Brady (we can safely assume that Robert was gay – from his excellent taste in the nude male – and his love for Josephine is crowned by a bedroom built and designed especially for her. She is a queen of vintage and soul.