Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker's childhood was defined by a strained relationship with her mother and the ever-present question of who her father was. She worked as a domestic helper for white families in St. Louis and dropped out of school by the time she was 12. At 13 she was a homeless waitress, making money dancing on street corners, when she married her first husband, Willie Wells. The union lasted less than a year, and at 15 she married Willie Baker. The same year she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. When the troupe travelled to New York City, Baker abandoned her husband and stayed, performing in chorus lines at the Plantation Club during the Harlem Renaissance and in successful Broadway reviews such as "Shuffle Along" and "The Chocolate Dandies." In 1925, Baker sailed to Paris to begin an incredibly successful career as a dancer, entrancing patrons that included Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Starting in the 1920s, Baker began appearing in a number of films including "La folie du jour" (1927), and "Siren of the Tropics" (1927), which, although popular in Europe, failed to make an impression in the U.S. In the 1930's Baker added singing to her arsenal of talents, but a starring role in "Ziegfeld Follies" on Broadway in 1936 was poorly received and she returned to France, trading her U.S. citizenship for French. When France declared war on Germany in 1939, the French utilized Baker's fame to gain information from the high-ranking officials she rubbed elbows with. Baker smuggled information to British and French authorities, sometimes on invisible ink on her sheet music. She later toured to entertain troops in North Africa. For her contribution to the war effort, Baker was given a number of awards including a Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur. In the 1950s Baker returned to the U.S. for a series of shows and refused to perform in any segregated venues, resulting in desegregation in many locations, including stages in Las Vegas. She became a leading voice for the Civil Rights Movement and spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr at the March on Washington in 1963. On April 8, 1975, Baker performed a retrospective at the Bobino in Paris, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The show was an event, with a number of celebrities in attendance to honor the occasion. Four days later, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away. Baker was the only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. She has been portrayed in a number of film and TV productions including the high praised "The Josephine Baker Story" (HBO, 1991) and influenced performers from Diana Ross to Beyoncé.