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Josephine Baker

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Title: Josephine Baker  
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Subject: Princesse Tam-Tam, Lynn Whitfield, Adelaide Hall, Shuffle Along, Harlem Renaissance
Collection: 1906 Births, 1975 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Actresses, 20Th-Century American Singers, 20Th-Century French Actresses, 20Th-Century French Singers, Actresses from Illinois, Actresses from St. Louis, Missouri, African-American Actresses, African-American Catholics, African-American Dancers, African-American Female Dancers, African-American Female Singers, African-Americans' Civil Rights Activists, American Buskers, American Civil Rights Activists, American Emigrants to France, American Expatriate Actresses in France, American Expatriates in France, American Female Dancers, American Female Erotic Dancers, American Female Jazz Singers, American Film Actresses, American People of European Descent, American Roman Catholics, American Spies, Anti-Racism Activists, Articles Containing Video Clips, Bisexual Actors, Bisexual Musicians, Bisexual Women, Burials in Monaco, Burlesque Performers, Cabaret Singers, Chevaliers of the Légion D'Honneur, Columbia Records Artists, Deaths from Cerebral Hemorrhage, Disease-Related Deaths in France, Female Resistance Members of World War II, French Buskers, French Female Erotic Dancers, French Female Jazz Singers, French Film Actresses, French People of African-American Descent, French Resistance Members, French Roman Catholics, French Spies, Harlem Renaissance, Lgbt African Americans, Lgbt Dancers, Lgbt Musicians from France, Lgbt Musicians from the United States, Lgbt People from Illinois, Lgbt People from Missouri, Lgbt Roman Catholics, Lgbt Singers, Mercury Records Artists, Music Hall Performers, Musicians from Illinois, Musicians from St. Louis, Missouri, Naturalized Citizens of France, Rca Victor Artists, Recipients of the Croix De Guerre (France), Recipients of the Croix De Guerre 1939–1945 (France), Recipients of the Médaille De La Résistance, Recipients of the Resistance Medal, Singers from Illinois, Traditional Pop Music Singers, Vaudeville Performers, Vedettes, Women in World War II
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker in her famous banana costume.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald
(1906-06-03)3 June 1906
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.[1][2]
Died 12 April 1975(1975-04-12) (aged 68)
Paris, France
Cause of death Cerebral hemorrhage
Residence Roquebrun, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Nationality American, French
Occupation Dancer, singer, actress, civil rights activist, spy
Years active 1921–1975
  • William Wells (m. 1919–20)
  • William Baker (m. 1921–25)
  • Jean Lion (m. 1937–38)
  • Jo Bouillon (m. 1947–61)
Partner(s) Robert Brady (1973–75)
Children 12; including Jean-Claude Baker
Musical career
Genres Cabaret, music hall, French pop, French jazz
Instruments Vocals
Labels Columbia, Mercury, RCA Victor

Josephine Baker (3 June 1906 – 12 April 1975) was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the "Black Pearl," "Bronze Venus" and even the "Creole Goddess". Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker became a citizen of France in 1937. She was fluent in both English and French.

Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934), or to become a world-famous entertainer. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968 she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Baker turned down the offer. She was also known for assisting the French Resistance during World War II,[3] and received the French military honor, the Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.[4]


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • Early years 2.1
    • Paris and rise to fame 2.2
    • Work during World War II 2.3
    • Later career 2.4
  • Civil rights activism 3
  • Personal life 4
    • Relationships 4.1
    • Children 4.2
  • Later years and death 5
  • Legacy 6
    • Portrayals 6.1
  • Film credits 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10
  • External links 11

Early life

She was born as Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri,[1][2] the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Her estate identifies vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson as her natural father; Carson abandoned Baker and her mother.[5]

Carrie and Eddie had a song-and-dance act, playing wherever they could get work. When Josephine was about a year old they began to carry her onstage occasionally during their finale.

Josephine was always poorly dressed and hungry, and she played in the railroad yards of Union Station. From this she developed her street smarts.[6]

When Baker was eight, she began working as a live-in domestic for white families in St. Louis.[7] One woman abused her, burning Baker's hands when the young girl put too much soap in the laundry.[8]


Early years

Baker dropped out of school at the age of 13 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans.[9]

Her street-corner dancing attracted attention, and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. She headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall[10] and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line. Traditionally the dancer in this position performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. Baker was billed at the time as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville".[11]

Paris and rise to fame

Arrival of Josephine Baker in The Hague in 1928

Baker sailed to Paris, France, for a new venture, and opened in "La Revue Nègre" on 2 October 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.[5][12] In Paris, she became an instant success for her erotic dancing, and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts.

Baker performed the 'Danse sauvage,' wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave birth to the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in non-western forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris, she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.[11]

After a short while, Baker was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."[13][14]

In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.[15]

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926

At this time she also scored her most successful song, "J'ai deux amours" (1931). She became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers and sculptors, including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a count, Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, were transformed. In 1934, she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's opera La créole, which premiered in December of that year for a six-month run at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris. In preparation for her performances, she went through months of training with a vocal coach. In the words of Shirley Bassey, who has cited Baker as her primary influence, "... she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique'... I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."[16]

Despite her popularity in France, Baker never attained the equivalent reputation in America. Upon a visit to the United States in 1935–36, she was met with lukewarm audiences. Her star turn in the Ziegfeld Follies generated less than impressive box office numbers, and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run.[17] Time magazine referred to her as a "Negro wench".[18] She returned to Europe heartbroken.[5]

Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married a Jewish Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen.[19] They were married in the French town of Crèvecœur-le-Grand. The wedding was presided over by mayor Jammy Schmidt.

Work during World War II

In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence, as an "honorable correspondent". Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, while gathering information. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she heard. She attended parties at the Italian embassy without raising suspicions and gathered information.[20]:182–269

When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France. She housed friends who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and supplied them with visas.[21] As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal, as well as some in South America. She carried information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. Notes were written in invisible ink on Josephine's sheet music.[20]:232–269

Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the

  • Official website
  • Les Milandes- Josephine Baker's castle in France
  • Josephine Baker at AllMusic
  • Josephine Baker at the Internet Broadway Database
  • Josephine Baker at the Internet Movie Database (self)
  • Josephine Baker at the Internet Movie Database (character)
  • , official Josephine Baker websiteA la recherche de Joséphine
  • A Josephine Baker photo gallery
  • Photographs of Josephine Baker
  • The electric body: Nancy Cunard sees Josephine Baker (2003)—review essay of dance style and contemporary critics
  • Guide to Josephine Baker papers at Houghton Library, Harvard University
  • Josephine Baker Photographs collections at the University of Missouri–St. Louis

External links

  • The Josephine Baker collection, 1926–2001 at Stanford University Libraries
  • Atwood, Kathryn J., and Sarah Olson. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, Illinois : Chicago Review Press, 2011. ISBN 9781556529610
  • Baker, J. C. & Chase, C. (1993). Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679409157
  • Baker, Jean-Claude, Chris Chase. (1995). Josephine: The Josephine Baker Story. Adams Media Corp. ISBN 1-55850-472-9
  • Baker, Josephine, Jo Bouillon. (1995). Josephine. Marlowe & Co. ISBN 1-56924-978-4
  • Bonini, Emmanuel (2000). La veritable Josephine Baker. Paris: Pigmalean Gerard Watelet. ISBN 2-85704-616-2
  • Guterl, Matthew, Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014. ISBN 9780674047556
  • Hammond O'Connor, Patrick. (1988). Josephine Baker. Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-02441-8
  • Haney, Lynn. (1996). Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker. Robson Book Ltd. ISBN 0-86051-965-1
  • Jules-Rosette, Bennetta (2007). Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-07412-2
  • Kraut, Anthea, "Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham", Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 433–50.
  • Mackrell, Judith. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation. 2013. ISBN 978-0-330-52952-5
  • Mahon, Elizabeth Kerri. (2011). Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women. Perigee Trade. ISBN 0-399-53645-0
  • Rose, Phyllis. (1991). Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time. Vintage. ISBN 0-679-73133-4
  • Rosette, Bennetta Jules. (2006). Josephine Baker: Image and Icon. Reedy Press. ISBN 1-933370-02-5
  • Schroeder, Alan. (1989). Ragtime Tumpie. Little, Brown, an award-winning children's picture book about Baker's childhood in St. Louis and her dream of becoming a dancer.
  • Schroeder, Alan. (1990) Josephine Baker. Chelsea House. ISBN 0-7910-1116-X, a young-adult biography.
  • Theile, Merlind. "Adopting the World: Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe" Spiegel Online International, 2 October 2009.
  • Wood, Ean. (2002). The Josephine Baker Story. Sanctuary Publishing. ISBN 1-86074-394-3


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Jacob M. Appel St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2 May 2009. Baker biography
  10. ^ 'Underneath a Harlem Moon ... The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall' by Iain Cameron Williams. Published 2003, Continuum Int. Publishing, ISBN 0-8264-5893-9:
  11. ^ a b c
  12. ^ "Le Jazz-Hot: The Roaring Twenties", in William Alfred Shack, Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars, University of California Press, 2001, p. 35.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Jazz Book Review, from Josephine Baker: Image & Icon, edited by Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, 2006
  15. ^ a b c d e f
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b c d e f g
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Hinckley, D. (9 November 2004). "Firestorm Incident at the Stork Club," New York Daily News, 1951. Retrieved May 21, 2015
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b
  32. ^ Assouline, P. Simenon, A Biography. Knopf (1997) pp 74-75. ISBN 0679402853.
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life By Marjorie Garber, p.122
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ Stephen Papich, Remembering Josephine. pg. 149
  39. ^
  40. ^ a b c
  41. ^
  42. ^ [1]
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  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^
  58. ^ Langston Hughes African American Film Festival 2009: Carmen and Geoffrey
  59. ^ see
  60. ^ Helen Gelzer biography:
  61. ^
  62. ^
  63. ^
  64. ^
  65. ^
  66. ^
  67. ^
  68. ^ (French)
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See also

  • La Sirène des tropiques (1927)[75]
  • Le pompier des Folies Bergères (1928), short subject
  • Zouzou (1934)[15]
  • Princesse Tam Tam (1935)[15]
  • Fausse alerte (1940)[76]
  • Moulin Rouge (1941)[15]
  • An jedem Finger zehn (1954)[15]
  • Carosello del varietà (1955)[15]

Film credits

  • In 2006, Jérôme Savary produced a musical, A La Recherche de Josephine – New Orleans for Ever (Looking for Josephine). The story revolved around the history of jazz and Baker's career.[50][51]
  • In 1991, Baker's life story, The Josephine Baker Story, was broadcast on HBO. Lynn Whitfield portrayed Baker, and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special—becoming the first Black actress to win the award in this category.[52]
  • In 2002, played by Karine Plantadit in Frida.[53][54]
  • Josephine Baker appears in her role as a member of the French Resistance in Johannes Mario Simmel's 1960 novel, Es Muss Nicht Immer Kaviar Sein (C'est pas toujours du caviar).[55]
  • The 2004 erotic novel Scandalous by British author Angela Campion uses Baker as its heroine and is inspired by Baker's sexual exploits and later adventures in the French Resistance. In the novel, Baker, working with a fictional black Canadian lover named Drummer Thompson, foils a plot by French fascists in 1936 Paris.[56]
  • Her influence upon and assistance with the careers of husband and wife dancers Carmen De Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are discussed and illustrated in rare footage in the 2005 Linda Atkinson/Nick Doob documentary, Carmen and Geoffrey.[57][58]
  • Diana Ross famously portrayed Josephine Baker in both her Tony Award-winning Broadway and television show An Evening with Diana Ross. When the show was made into an NBC television special entitled The Big Event: An Evening with Diana Ross, Ross further embellished her role as Josephine. She worked for years to make a feature film of her life; to no avail. Diana considers it a "lost dream".[59]
  • In 1986, Helen Gelzer[60] portrayed Josephine on the London stage for a limited run in the musical Josephine - ‘a musical version of the life and times of Josephine Baker’ with book, lyrics and music by Michael Wild.[61] The show was produced by Josephine Baker’s longtime friend Jack Hocket in conjunction with Premier Box-Office and the musical director was Paul Maguire. Gelzer also recorded a studio cast album titled, "Josephine".
  • The italo-belge francophone singer composer Salvatore Adamo pays tribute to Josephine Baker with the song "Noël Sur Les Milandes" (album: Petit Bonheur – EMI 1970).
  • Beyoncé Knowles has portrayed Baker on various accounts throughout her career. During the 2006 Fashion Rocks show, Knowles performed "Dejá Vu" in a revised version of the Danse banane costume. In Knowles's video for "Naughty Girl", she is seen dancing in a huge champagne glass à La Baker. In I Am... Yours: An Intimate Performance at Wynn Las Vegas, Beyonce lists Baker as an influence of a section of her live show.[62]
  • In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, Baker appears with her cheetah during the musical number "Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)".[63][64]
  • A character clearly based on Baker (topless, wearing the famous "banana skirt") appears in the opening sequence of the 2003 animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville.[65]
  • A character loosely based on Baker is featured in an episode of Hogan's Heroes titled, "Is General Hammerschlag Burning?", which originally aired on 18 November 1967. The character, Kumasa (played by Barbara McNair), is a chanteuse based in Paris. She later reveals herself to be Carol Dukes, a high school classmate of Sergeant James Kinchloe (Ivan Dixon), on whom she had a secret crush.
  • A German submariner mimics Baker's Danse banane in the film Das Boot.[66]
  • In 2010, Keri Hilson portrayed Baker in her single "Pretty Girl Rock".[67]
  • Artist Hassan Musa depicted Baker in a series of paintings called Who needs Bananas?[68]
  • In 2011, Sonia Rolland portrayed Baker in the film Midnight in Paris.[69][70]
  • Josephine Baker was heavily featured in the 2012 book Josephine's Incredible Shoe & The Blackpearls by Peggi Eve Anderson-Randolph.[71]
  • In July 2012, Cheryl Howard opened in The Sensational Josephine Baker, written and performed by Howard and directed by Ian Streicher at the Beckett Theatre of Theatre Row on 42nd Street in New York City, just a few doors down from the restaurant "Chez Josephine", run by two of her children.[72][73]
  • In July 2013, Cush Jumbo's debut play Josephine and I premieres at the Bush Theatre,London[74] It was re-produced in New York City at The Public Theater's Joe's Pub from 27 February to 5 April 2015.
Baker pictured in her most famous costume for the Danse banane


Château des Milandes, a castle near Sarlat in the Dordogne, was Josephine Baker's home where she raised her twelve children. It is open to the public and displays her stage outfits including her banana skirt (of which there are apparently several). It also displays many family photographs and documents as well as her Legion of Honour medal. Most rooms are open for the public to walk through including bedrooms with the cots where her children slept, a huge kitchen, and a dining room where she often entertained large groups. The bathrooms were designed in art deco style but most rooms retained the French chateau style.

Château de Milandes which she rented from 1940 before purchasing in 1947.

Two of Baker's sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York. It celebrates Baker's life and works.[49]

Writing in the on-line BBC magazine in late 2014, Darren Royston, historical dance teacher at RADA credited Baker with being the Beyonce of her day, and bringing the Charleston to Britain.[48]

Place Joséphine Baker in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor. She has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame,[46] and on 29 March 1995, into the Hall of Famous Missourians.[47] The Piscine Joséphine Baker is a swimming pool along the banks of the Seine in Paris named for her.


Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on 12 April 1975.[40][41] She received a full Roman Catholic[42] funeral which was held at L'Église de la Madeleine.[43][44] The only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Baker's funeral was the occasion of a huge procession. After a family service at Saint-Charles Church in Monte Carlo,[45] Baker was interred at Monaco's Cimetière de Monaco.[40]

Baker was back on stage at the Olympia in Paris in 1968, in Belgrade in 1973, at Carnegie Hall in 1973, at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1974, and at the Gala du Cirque in Paris in 1974. On 8 April 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed notably by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.[40]

In 1964, Josephine Baker lost her castle due to unpaid debts; after, Princess Grace offered her an apartment in Roquebrune, near Monaco.

Later years and death

During Baker's work with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe". Josephine wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were chez Château des Milandes, she arranged tours so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe" were.[37] Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.[38][39] For some time, Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château des Milandes, in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon.


She married French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon in 1947, but their union also ended in divorce. She was later involved for a time with the artist Robert Brady, but they never married.[33][34] Her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker describes his mother as a bisexual, having had relationships with men and women.[35] In her later years, Baker converted to Roman Catholicism.[36]

In 1937 Baker married Frenchman Jean Lion. She became a French citizen and became a permanent expatriate. She and Lion separated before he died.

[32] Baker was married four times. Her first marriage was to American


Personal life

After King's assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in the Netherlands to ask if she would take her husband's place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were "too young to lose their mother".[31]

In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.[29] Baker was the only official female speaker. While wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur, she introduced the "Negro Women for Civil Rights."[30] Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates were among those she acknowledged, and both gave brief speeches.[31]

Baker worked with the NAACP.[3] Her reputation as a crusader grew to such an extent that the NAACP had Sunday 20 May 1951 declared Josephine Baker Day. She was presented with life membership of the NAACP by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Ralph Bunche. The honor she was paid spurred her to further her crusading efforts with the "Save Willie McGee" rally after he was convicted of the 1948 beating death of a furniture shop owner in Trenton, New Jersey. As Josephine became increasingly regarded as controversial, many blacks began to shun her, fearing that her reputation would hurt their cause.[20]

When Baker was near bankruptcy, Kelly offered her a villa and financial assistance (Kelly by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco). (However, during his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Josephine Baker's sons. Having read a Blumenthal-written story about Leonard Bernstein's FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother's FBI file and, using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.[28])

In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in Manhattan, where she alleged that she had been refused service.[25][26] Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (although she returned on 3 January 1956 with Prince Rainier of Monaco). The two women became close friends after the incident.[27]

She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States, although she was offered $10,000 by a Miami club.[3] (The club eventually met her demands). Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate live entertainment shows in Las Vegas, Nevada, then one of the most segregated cities in America.[11] After this incident, she began receiving threatening phone calls from people claiming to be from the Ku Klux Klan but said publicly that she was not afraid of them.[20]

Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. When she arrived in New York with her husband Jo, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black. She was so upset by this treatment that she wrote articles about the segregation in the United States. She also began traveling into the South. She gave a talk at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, her subject being "France, North Africa And The Equality Of The Races In France".[20]

Josephine Baker in Havana, Cuba, 1950

Civil rights activism

In her later career, Baker faced financial troubles. She commented, "Nobody wants me, they've forgotten me"; but family members encouraged her to continue performing. In 1973 she performed at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation. In 1974 she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, and then at the Monacan Red Cross Gala, celebrating her 50 years in French show business. Advancing years and exhaustion began to take their toll; she sometimes had trouble remembering lyrics, and her speeches between songs tended to ramble. She still continued to captivate audiences of all ages.[20]

In January 1966, Fidel Castro invited Baker to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba at the 7th anniversary celebrations of his revolution. Her spectacular show in April broke attendance records. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje.

An incident at the Stork Club interrupted and overturned her plans. Baker criticized the club's unwritten policy of discouraging black patrons, then scolded columnist Walter Winchell, an old ally, for not rising to her defense. Winchell responded swiftly with a series of harsh public rebukes, including accusations of Communist sympathies (a serious charge at the time). The ensuing publicity resulted in the termination of Baker's work visa, forcing her to cancel all her engagements and return to France. It was almost a decade before US officials allowed her back into the country.[24]

In 1951 Baker was invited back to the US for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club's audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. Rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences accompanied her everywhere, climaxed by a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem in honor of her new title: NAACP's "Woman of the Year." Her future looked bright, with six months of bookings and promises of many more to come.

In 1949, a reinvented Baker returned in triumph to the Folies Bergere. Bolstered by recognition of her wartime heroics, Baker the performer assumed a new gravitas, unafraid to take on serious music or subject matter. The engagement was a rousing success, and reestablished Baker as one of Paris' preeminent entertainers.

Later career

After the war, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.[23]

In Cairo, Egypt's King Farouk asked her to sing; she refused because Egypt had not recognized Free France and remained neutral. However, she offered to sing in Cairo at a celebration of honor for the ties between Free France and Egypt, and asked Farouk to preside, a subtle indication of which side his officially neutral country leaned toward.[22]


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