Josephine Baker (1906-1975) dazzled audiences around the world. She starred on stage and screen and used her fame to support and promote causes she believed in.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s leading lady dazzled audiences around the world. Her story will take us from the midwestern United States to the Harlem Renaissance to France and back again. She starred on stage and screen and used her fame to support and promote causes she believed in. We’re talking about Josephine Baker.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Performance ran in the family-both of Freda’s parents were in the business, though neither were successful. Growing up, Freda kept a variety of odd jobs and sometimes danced on street corners to make ends meet.
When she was 15 years old, Freda caught the eye of the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. She joined the group and her career was born. That same year, Freda also got married. She took her husband’s last name and dropped her given first name, making her from then on, Josephine Baker.
Josephine’s vaudeville career quickly flourished. She danced in Vaudeville shows across the country and then moved to New York where she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. When she was 19 years old, Josephine hopped across the pond to Paris, where her popularity continued to grow as part of an all Black revue. The cultural and entertainment scenes in Paris at that time were obsessed with Black culture in general and Jazz music specifically. Josephine danced and sang in front of rapt crowds. In a performance for the Folies Bergere that made her an instant star, Josephine famously danced wearing a short skirt made of fake bananas and strings of pearls. The performance was iconic. It served as a revolutionary means of reappropriating racist stereotypes thrust upon Black people,
Josephine was an international sensation. It was a particularly remarkable feat for a Black woman at that time as she was performing for largely white audiences in an era of widespread prejudice. Her performances, including the famous one with the banana skirt, not only entertained but served to disrupt widely accepted racist norms and tropes . She also took her talents offstage and onscreen in several successful movies, and she sold products to the adoring fans who wanted to emulate the way she looked, including a skin-darkening lotion and hair pomade.
Josephine was extremely successful, allowing her to live in a mansion in Southwestern France. She also adopted 12 children from around the world. And, she had a pet cheetah named Chiquita.
In 1937, Josephine renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French citizen. Around that same time, Josephine remarried, this time to a French-Jewish sugar broker. The marriage would last until 1941. Josephine was openly bisexual and had a number of public relationships with women throughout her life.
Josephine’s skills as an entertainer earned her access and clout all over the world. After Germany invaded France in World War II, Josephine took on a new role: Spy. Her performances were put on hold because of the war, but her fame bought her access to rooms most people could never enter. The French Resistance recruited her and Josephine gathered intelligence and housed other resistance fighters. Nazis even came and searched her house at one point, but she charmed them into leaving before discovering anyone else. After that visit, Josephine left Nazi-occupied France. She took with her an impressive amount of classified information, which she snuck out of the country by writing with invisible ink on sheet music.
At the end of the war, Josephine was given military honors by the French government for her valuable espionage work.
When Josephine returned to the U.S., she made an impact there, too. She had performed and traveled around the world, yet as a Black woman in America, her rights at home were extremely restricted. It was the Jim Crow era.
Josephine refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, forcing clubs to integrate, even if just for her performances. She was dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, receiving recognition from the NAACP for her work. She was the only woman officially on the speaking agenda at the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
She said, "You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Josephine continued her work on stage and as an activist for the rest of her life. She died on April 12, 1975. She was the first American-born woman to be buried in France with full military honors.
Josephine Baker, an unlikely but wildly successful megastar, left a lasting legacy as a performer, patriot, and activist.
All month we’re talking about Leading Ladies. Tune in tomorrow for the story of one of the most iconic women in Hollywood history.
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