Seductive, talented, and notorious, Josephine Baker rose from being a St. Louis street performer to become the toast of Paris for decades. The daughter of musician Eddie Carson and laundress Carrie McDonald, Baker began performing on the St. Louis streets as a child and then became a chorine in musicals. When she was 15, she married Pullman porter William Howard Baker (according to some sources she first married a foundry worker at age 13). Tired of the racial discrimination the African-American beauty encountered in St. Louis, Baker abandoned her husband at age 17 and moved to Paris where the exotic young singer and dancer became the star of La Revue Negre. Word of her sexy singing, sinuous dances, and charisma spread and soon she was performing to packed houses. In the mid-'20s, she joined an all-black revue with the Follies Bergere where she gained notoriety for her somewhat salacious banana dance. It was during this time that she appeared in a few silent films; during the '30s, she also performed in a few talkies including Princesse Tam Tam (1935). Known as a bit of a chameleon when it came to changing her style, Baker began incorporating elements of jazz to her singing. Baker became a French citizen in 1937 and during the Nazi occupation of France between 1940 and 1944, was active in the Resistance. Baker also did much to entertain troops during the war. Following the war, Baker resumed her career for a time, but then began spending more time with her humanitarian efforts. She worked with WWII refugees and adopted 11 impoverished children of various nationalities. In 1961, Baker received France's coveted Legion of Honor for her work. A wealthy woman, Baker spent her fortune on her charities and on the Civil Rights movement; by the late '60s she was nearly destitute. Though she stopped performing in 1968, Baker returned briefly to the limelight in 1974 when she accepted Princess Grace's invitation to perform at a summer ball. Later that year, she performed for a week in New York. While preparing for a Paris revue to celebrate her 50 years on-stage, Baker suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, went into a coma, and died two days later.
Biography by Sandra Brennan
- Made professional debut in 1919 with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers; released initial music recordings in the 1920s.
- First show in Paris was the 1925 musical La Revue Nègre, in which she titillated with exotic dancing and costumes; the welcome from the French audience into their integrated society began her love affair with the country.
- Appeared in the legendary banana skirt in the 1926 musical La Folie du Jour.
- Autobiography Les Memoires de Josephine Baker published in 1927.
- In 1946, France awarded her the Medal of Resistance for her WWII service, including her work as a Red Cross nurse and intelligence gatherer.
- To prove different races can coexist peacefully, adopted 12 children of different nationalities from 1954 to 1965, dubbing them the "Rainbow Tribe."
- Among her honors: named the NAACP's Most Outstanding Woman of the Year (1951); inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and the Hall of Famous Missourians; received the French Lègion d'Honneur and Croix de Guerre (1961).
- Involved in the U.S. civil-rights movement and participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
- Was the first American woman buried in France with military honors; after her death, the French nicknamed her "The Eiffel Tower of the Music Hall."