Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906 in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her parents, Eddie Carson and Carrie McDonald, had a vaudeville act. The family was impoverished, and Baker never had enough to eat or clothes to wear. Her family’s poor material condition drove her to seek work as a domestic for wealthy white families in Saint Louis beginning at the age of eight. She was horribly abused, constantly beaten, and in one case, her hands were burned because she put too much soap in the family’s laundry.
Baker lived her teenage years as a street child, eating from garbage cans and fighting for day-to-day survival. She began her entertainment career by dancing on street corners for tips, and this led to a gig as part of the Saint Louis Chorus show when she was 15 years old. Eventually, through her talent and novel performances, she became known as the best paid performer of her type in the nation.
The United States became too small for Baker, and in 1925, she took her show and her talent to Paris and performed in La Revue Négre. She became known for her “Danse sauvage” (Savage dance) as she sashayed and shimmied across the stage wearing a skirt made of artificial bananas. Another trademark was her pet cheetah, which often performed with her at shows and terrorized the orchestra musicians when it escaped from the stage.
During these “Roaring Twenties,” Baker also performed in silent films that proved extremely successful in Europe, and attracted the admiration of Ernest Hemingway, who called Baker “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” At her height, Baker was the most successful entertainer in Europe and became extremely wealthy. In 1937, Baker became a French citizen.
During World War II, Baker served as an intelligence agent for the Free French government, carrying messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music and taking advantage of her high status to visit neutral countries and transmit information and news. She also was noted for offering free performances for Allied troops in North Africa. After the war, she was awarded several decorations by Charles de Gaulle, including the Croix de Guerre and Rose de la Résistance. She was also a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
In the early 1950s, Baker returned for a tour of the United States, and was made the NAACP’s Woman of the Year. However, she eventually ran into trouble due to segregation, and was labeled a Communist sympathizer and was expelled from the United States. From France, Baker supported the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; she returned in 1963, replete with Free French uniform, to be the only female speaker at the March on Washington.
During her work with the Civil Rights Movement, Baker began adopting children of all nationalities and ethnic groups, forming a sort of “Rainbow Family.” Baker died in 1975, the result of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 68 years old, and left behind a lifetime of service to France, the people of her birth country, and humanity.
About Josephine Baker: A Biography