Josephine Baker - Biography

Josephine Baker was an entertainer from St. Louis, Missouri who gained fame in Europe for her provocative dancing. After achieving fame abroad, she began focusing on acting, singing and fighting racism.


Freda Josephine McDonald was born June 3rd, 1906 in St. Louis’s Mill Creek Valley, a large black neighborhood adjacent to one of the cradles of ragtime, Chestnut Valley (both of which no longer exist). Freda Josephine, early on, became better known in her family as “Tumpy.” Her mother, Carrie McDonald, listed on her daughter’s birth certificate “Edw” as her father. Although it’s assumed that this cryptic scribble referred to drummer Eddie Carson, it was widely considered an open secret that the baby’s real father was the German for whom Carrie worked at the time she became pregnant.


The McDonalds lived directly south of the railroad yards at 1534 Gratiot Street near the city’s rough-and-tumble tenderloin district, where the impoverished family endured numerous hardships. When Josephine was eight-years-old, she was put to work, first for a woman who burned her hands for using too much soap in the laundry. In 1917, roughly three thousand bloodthirsty Illini across the river in East St. Louis cut the fire departments fire hoses, started burning and looting and indiscriminately attacking black residents in what came to be known as “The East St. Louis Riot.” Hundreds died, over six thousand were left homeless and blacks across the nation were terrorized. Shortly afterward, Josephine dropped out of school, at twelve-years-old. When just thirteen, she was discovered to be in a relationship with a fifty-year-old steel foundry worker known as “Mr. Dad” who ran an ice cream and candy parlor on the side. After the ensuing neighborhood scandal, Josephine was living on the streets. However, with the blessings of her family, still just thirteen, she was married on December 22nd, 1919, to Willie Wells.


That same year she was noticed dancing on a street-corner by which resulted in her joining the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show that November. After she left that group and joined the Dixie Steppers, she relocated to New York City where she soon became the protégé and lover of blues singer Clara Smith and often performed at The Plantation Club. In 1921, she left her employees Russell-Owens to join the resident performing company at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia. In her new home, though she never bothered to divorce Wells, on September 17, 1921, she married a young Pullman porter (and son of a prominent black Philadelphia restaurateur) named Billy Baker. Her career picked up when she performed in Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s revues, Shuffle Along in 1922 and The Chocolate Dandies in 1924. Though many biographers have claimed that it took the French to value Baker’s talents, by 1925 she was advertised in The US as the “highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville.”


After achieving fame at home, American ex-pat Caroline Dudley Reagan invited Baker to Paris to perform in a European production of La Revue Nègre. That September, the nineteen-year-old sailed on the SS Berengiaria for France. After touring in Belgium and Berlin, Baker broke contract with Reagan and returned to Paris to perform at the Folies-Bergère. At the time, the French were deep in the throes of negrophilie (an example of what Jeffery Paul Chan and Frank Chin would later characterize as “racist love”). For fulfilling their Frankish fetishes — playing to their exoticist fantasy of blacks as animalistic primitives (famously dancing in nothing but a skirt of artificial bananas in “Danse Sauvage”) Baker was rewarded handsomely. She soon grew accustomed to a luxurious life and flaunted an obscene level of decadence. She even bought diamond jewelry for her pets, whom she referred to as her children, and which included Kiki (a snake), Albert (a pig), Chiquita (a cheetah), Ethel (a chimpanzee) as well as a parrot, two rabbits, and a humble pair of goldfish (who went jewelry free).


After she began a relationship with Giuseppe “Pepito” Abatino (a Sicilian stonemason/gigolo who passed himself off as a count), Baker underwent months of training with a vocal coach as Pepito convinced her to move acting and singing. In 1926, Baker released numerous 78s for Odeon, including “Always,” “I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight” b/w “Bam Bam Bamy Shore,” “Dinah” b/w “Sleepy Time Gal,” “Feeling Kind of Blue,” “I Want to Yodel” b/w “You are the Only One for Me,” and “Who?” b/w “That Certain Feeling.” In 1927 she released “After I Say I'm Sorry” b/w “Then I'll Be Happy,” “I Found a New Baby,” “I Love My Baby,” “Lonesome Lovesick Blues” b/w “I Love Dancing,” “Pretty Little Baby” b/w “Where'd You Get Those Eyes” and “Skeedle Um.” Her film career began with a role in La Sirène des tropiques. In 1930, Baker moved to Columbia, who released “Dis-moi Joséphine?” b /w “Voulez-vous de la canne à sucre?” (the B-Side a duet with Adrien Lamy) and “La Petite Tonkinoise” b/w “J'Ai Deux Amours.” At the same time, she also operated a club, Chez Josephine.


More music and movies followed. “C'est lui” b/w “Haïti” was taken from another film, Zouzou. In December, she starred in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La créole at the Théâtre Marigny which ran for the next six months. Another film, Princesse Tam Tam, followed, which produced the single “Sous le ciel d'Afrique” b/w “Espabilate” on Columbia. In 1935, she ended her relationship with Pepito and her recording career was temporarily put on hold.


That September she returned to the US where, after visiting her estranged husband whose name she took, Baker finally filed for divorce. From the end of the year though early 1936, she starred in the Ziegfeld Follies but, after receiving mostly negative press, was replaced by the younger Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous stripper of the day. Afterward Baker returned to France where she married French sugar broker Jean Lion on November 30th, 1937 and became a French citizen. Baker demonstrated her loyalty to the French when she joined the resistance during World War II as a spy. After the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, she retreated to her enormous residence, Château des Milandes, in Aquitaine. In 1941, Baker gave birth to her only child, who was born stillborn and required an emergency hysterectomy. That April, Baker and Lion were divorced. Baker continued used her role as an entertainer to travel around Europe and North Africa, where she was placed under the production of Ahmed Belbachir Haskouri, on behalf of the caliph of Spanish Morocco, and continued her work as a spy. After the war ened in 1945, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.


A film, Fausse alerte, which had been filmed in 1940 but delayed during the war, was released in 1945. Two years later, Baker again married, this time to a French bandleader Joe Bouillon, whom she’d met in the early 1930s. Though their relationship lasted until Baker’s passing, it was a front marriage designed to keep their primarily homosexual private lives out of the disapproving public eye.


In 1951, after Baker was refused service at New York’s Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club, Grace Kelly, who was in attendance, was outraged and the two left together and became longtime friends as result.


That year she also revived her recording career, releasing her debut full-length album, Chansons Américaines (1951 EMI), followed closely by The Inimitable Josephine Baker (1952 Mercury) and Josephine Baker (1953 Columbia). In 1954, Baker and Bouillon began adopting the first of ultimately twelve children of different ethnicities, whom they called the Rainbow Tribe. Baker released Dis-moi Joséphine EP (1957 Columbia) followed by a split single with Peter Kreuder Und Seine Solisten, “Don't Touch Me Tomato” b/w “Die Regenbogenkinder” on Ariola. In 1959, she released Chante l'amour (1959 Guilde du Jazz) “La Seine” b/w “Clopin-Clopant” on RCA and Paris mes amours (1960 RCA), The Fabulous Josephine Baker (1960 RCA) and Une soirée avec Joséphine Baker EP (1961 Vargal).


In 1960, Bouillon moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he established a new life as a restaurateur. Though Baker, as mentioned, engaged in many homosexual relationships herself and was a tireless crusader against racism, she still held extremely homophobic opinions. After one of her adopted sons was discovered to be in a homosexual relationship, he was sent to live with Bouillon lest he contaminate the other members of the Tribe. Though her expenses mounted as her fortunes waned, Baker continued to adopt children through 1963. That year she also worked with the NAACP and participated in the March on Washington where she was the only woman to speak. Baker became so vocal in her denunciations of racism that The FBI and CIA both maintained files on her. No doubt she did little to improve her standing with those organizations when, at the invitation of Fidel Castro, she performed at the Teatro Musical de Habana in January, 1966 — a recording of which was released decades later as …en La Habana (1996 Edgar).


After Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, Josephine Baker was offered the leadership of the movement but, after consideration, turned it down for the sake of her children, whom she felt were too young to lose her. She continued performing, releasing Olympia - Palmarès des Chansons (1968 Columbia). Nonetheless her fortunes continued to decline and her creditors foreclosed on Château des Milandes. Her children increasingly were forced to rely on her friend Grace Kelly, who had gained a fortune after becoming Princess Grace of Monaco. In 1971, backed by Otto Lington's Orchestra, she released another recording, At Tivoli (1972 Joker). After opening Carnegie Hall in 1973, where she received a standing ovation, another live album resulted, Josephine Baker at Carnegie Hall 5 June 1973 (1974 AEI).


On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at the Bobino in Paris. The performance, billed as Joséphine à Bobino 1975 was staged in recognition of Baker’s fifty years in show business. Four days after the performance, Josephine Baker was discovered in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died aged 68 on April 12th, 1975 in Paris. The posthumous Josephine A Bobino 1975 (1975 Disques Festival) was released with added applause noise dubbed in.


Today Josephine Baker is honored in many ways both in her birthplace and adopted home. For her work against racism, May 20th has been designated Josephine Baker Day in the United States. In Paris, an area of Montparnasse has been designated Place Joséphine Baker. She’s also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and the Hall of Famous Missourians. In 1991, Baker's life story, The Josephine Baker Story, was broadcast on HBO and she remains one of the most recognized icons of the ‘20s.

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