Writing about Josephine Baker—the “Bronze Venus,” the “Black Pearl,” the “Creole Goddess”— is problematic: she was the first African-American to do so many things, my post could easily become a list. Among her other achievements, she was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-renown entertainer.
Her beginnings certainly weren’t promising. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she dropped out of school at the age of 12 to live as a street child in the slums of the city, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans.
She began her career dancing and singing on street corners, and eventually joined the vaudeville circuit, ending up in New York’s Harlem and joining the cast of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along in 1921. Still only 15, she made a name for herself as a comic and dancer when she improvised on her role at the end of the show’s chorus line.
She didn’t stay in the U.S. though; instead she took the Harlem Renaissance with her to Paris and, in 1925, became an instant success for her oddly original and erotic dancing — and, incidentally, for appearing almost nude on stage. “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.” She was soon the most successful American entertainer working in France.
Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She described herself this way: “Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”
She was especially famous for her Banana Dance, and anyone reading this really must go watch some of the old clips of her performances on YouTube. If I had a technically advanced blog (they cost money so I don’t), I would put them on this post. Please go look. See. You will find yourself in another time and place—sensational, exciting, the beginning of the modern era. Josephine Baker, more than any other single person, became a muse to Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior and dozens of other artists, authors and composers. She was a lover to both men and women, and among the women was the wonderful Colette.
In 1937, as World War II loomed, Josephine Baker became a French citizen and married a French Jew. She was so popular with the citizens of her adopted country, that the Nazis were careful to leave her alone, which made her a perfect agent for the French resistance. From Paris and on tour in Europe, and then after the Germans invaded, in the south of France and North Africa, she smuggled messages and provided information to the French underground and the Allies. She later received France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s she supported the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., refusing to play to segregated audiences, and speaking at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. With her usual flare, and disappointed in her failure to have a child, she adopted 12 multi-ethnic orphans in the 1950s (Korean, Japanese, Colombian, Finnish, French, Israeli, Algerian, Ivorian, Venezuelan and Moroccan). Take that Angelina Jolie! For sometime she lived with all of her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Chateau de Milandes in Dordogne, France.
Even her death had magic about it. On April 8, 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, celebrating 50 years in show business. Financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it opened to rave reviews. Four days later, after a cerebral hemorrhage, she was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded with glowing reviews of her performance. She died on April 12, 1975.