Josephine Baker, the most sensational woman anybody ever saw
By Melanie Zeck
Perhaps Ernest Hemingway knew best when he claimed that Josephine Baker was the “most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.” Indeed, Josephine Baker was sensational–as an African American coming of age in the 1920s, she took Paris by storm in La Revue Nègre and relished a career in entertainment that spanned fifty years. On what would be her 108th birthday, Baker’s fans on both sides of the Atlantic still celebrate her legendary charisma.
Born in St. Louis as Freda Josephine McDonald, Josephine’s early years were marked by financial struggles and racial conflict. She managed to escape what promised to be an otherwise dismal future with her innate ability to charm others through singing and dancing. Having taken the surname of her second husband (she had already been married once before at the age of thirteen), Josephine Baker left for New York City. She started out as a chorus girl in Shuffle Along, a vaudeville revue by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and subsequently starred in Blake’s Chocolate Dandies. Later, she performed at New York’s renowned Plantation Club where she was “discovered” by producer Caroline Dudley and asked to be in La Revue Nègre. As part of Dudley’s assemblage of performers, Baker traveled to Paris in 1925, where she received rave reviews for her opening night performance at Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. Shortly thereafter, she appeared on stage at the Folies-Bergère wearing only a “skirt” of bananas, a costume for which she became famous and one which left an indelible impression on the audience. After this, she often danced scantily clad, exuding a kind of exoticism that captivated her Parisian public.
Successful live performances led to her foray into film, beginning in 1927 with La Sirène des Tropiques. By 1930, she had dabbled in a career as a singer, having recorded for both Odeon and Columbia Records. Her Columbia recordings included songs such as “J’ai deux amours,” which she would perform at the Casino de Paris, one of the city’s great music halls. The Casino’s impresario, Henri Varna, not only showcased Baker’s talents, but he insisted that she act with the pizzazz and mystique of a superstar. To enhance her image, Baker was given a pet leopard named Chiquita, adorned with a diamond studded collar. The pair delighted (and occasionally shocked) the French public.
In the mid-1930s, she starred in two films, including Zouzou (1934), Princess Tam Tam (1935), neither of which was made readily available to the American public for another fifty-plus years. She also appeared in Moulin Rouge (1939), Fausse Alerte (1945), An Jedem Finger Zehn (1954), and Carosello Del Varietà (1955), but, as she also realized when doing studio recordings, she was only truly in her element on the stage.
After completing Princess Tam Tam, she returned to New York to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies, which featured choreography by George Balanchine, music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and notable performers including Bob Hope. In spite of the Follies’ display of talent, its appearance in New York was subjected to intensely vitriolic reviews. Some of the reviews attacked Baker specifically, by mapping current racial stereotypes and crippling expectations onto her and her performance–expectations which had not affected her career in France in such an irrevocably stark manner.
Although Baker was hurt by the Follies’ flop and the discrimination she faced in her home country, she chose to remain in the United States for the time being. In 1936, she announced her plans to open a night club on East 54th Street called Chez Josephine Baker. Within a year America’s racist climes became too much to bear and Baker returned to France, but France was no longer the utopian escape it once had been. Initial tensions with Germany and the subsequent German occupation ultimately made it very difficult for African-American entertainers to earn a living in France, despite the fact that they had been thriving just a decade earlier.
Baker, who had married a French Jew, Jean Lion, in 1937, soon became involved in the Resistance, eventually working out of Casablanca as an air auxiliary lieutenant. She received the Croix de Guerre in recognition for her services in the Resistance. Those services included carrying classified information, written in invisible ink on her sheet music, to Portugal for transmission to England.
During World War II, she performed for American and British troops and war workers. These appearances put to rest all rumors circulating in the press that she had died, rumors prompted by the fact that she suffered a series of illnesses in the 1940s.
She reemerged in the 1950s as a staunch supporter and champion of human and civil rights. In 1951, she cancelled an appearance at the NAACP meeting in Atlanta because she, as an African American, was refused lodging. In 1959, returned to the stage to raise funds for the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme–LICRA).
Her most demonstrative gesture was to come. Beginning in 1953, Baker adopted the first of twelve children representing different races and ethnicities. She called her brood the “Rainbow Tribe,” and they are featured in Matthew Pratt Guterl’s book Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe (Harvard University Press, 2014). They lived in a fifteenth-century castle, “Les Milandes,” which Baker purchased in 1947 but relinquished under extreme financial duress in 1968. Fortunately, her friend and supporter, Princess Grace, offered Baker and her tribe a home in Monaco.
As she aged, Baker found it increasingly challenging to maintain her career on the stage, but she persevered. In fact, on 8 April 1975, she gave a triumphant performance at the Bobino Theatre in Paris, which seemed to foreshadow prosperous days to come. That was not to be.
Four days later, on 12 April 1975, Baker went to sleep and never woke up. Thousands of adoring fans paid their respects, and nearly 2,000 mourners, led by Princess Grace, attended funeral services in Monaco, where Baker was buried.
A woman as sensational as Josephine Baker indubitably lives on–a number of books and articles have been written about Baker’s life, including five autobiographies. Her life and career have also served as inspiration for biographies, novels, films, plays, a musical, a restaurant, and even a tribute featuring a woodwind quintet. In 2007, the Grammy Award-winning woodwind quintet “Imani Winds” released Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot! in celebration of Baker’s centennial. The recording features two original pieces composed by Imani members that depict Baker’s life, including French horn player Jeff Scott’s seven-movement La Belle Sirène Comme le Comédien and flautist Valerie Coleman’s Suite: Portraits of Josephine.
These and other materials about Josephine Baker, including a robust clipping file, can be found at the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) in Chicago.
Founded at Columbia College Chicago in 1983, The Center for Black Music Research is the only organization of its kind. It exists to illuminate the significant role that black music plays in world culture by serving as a nexus for all who value black music, by promoting scholarly thought and knowledge about black music, and by providing a safe haven for the materials and information that document the black music experience across Africa and the diaspora.
Melanie Zeck is the Managing Editor of the Black Music Research Journal, the peer-reviewed journal of the Center for Black Music Research. She is currently co-authoring a book (OUP, forthcoming) on aspects of black music history with Samuel A. Floyd Jr., CBMR founder and Director Emeritus.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.