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Josephine Baker Essay, Research Paper

While Jim Crow laws were reeking havoc on the lives of African Americans in the South, a massed exodus of Southern musicians, particularly from New Orleans, spread the seeds of Jazz as far north as New York City. A new genre of music produced fissures in the walls of racial discrimination thought to be impenetrable. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, “King” Oliver and Fletcher Henderson performed to the first desegregated audiences. Duke Ellington starred in the first primetime radio program to feature an African American artist. And a quirky little girl from Missouri conquered an entire country enthralled by her dark skin, curvaceous body and dynamic personality. Josephine Baker was more than a Jazz musician. She embodied the freedom and expressiveness of that which is known as Jazz.

Born Josephine Freda McDonald on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker was the product of a “footloose merchant of whom the family saw little, and a mother [who] supported herself and the children in a slum hovel by taking in laundry.” #

Later, her mother had three children with another man, Arthur Martin: Richard, Margaret and Willie Mae. Ms. Baker was enrolled in a school in St. Louis until the age of six. When the family was experiencing financial difficulties, she was sent to perform domestic chores in the homes of white families. “When only seven, she worked for a woman who frequently beat her, made her sleep in the cellar, and who, after Josephine accidentally broke some china, thrust her hands into scalding water. Neighbors, hearing her agonizing screams, called the police and she was taken to the hospital.”# By the age of ten, she had worked as a kitchen helper, baby-sitter and maid.

In early adolescence, Josephine Baker went to a vaudeville house at least once a week to watch the dancers and learn innovative dance steps. While still in elementary school, she began dancing part-time in a local chorus line. She left home at the age of 13; waiting tables most of the time and working on stage whenever possible. She joined a group of street musicians who called themselves the Jones Family Band. The work with the Band paid off when Baker acquired her first stage appearance at the Booker T. Washington Theater, St. Louis’s black vaudeville house. Also appearing was the all-black dance troupe, the Dixie Steppers. “The manager of the Dixie Steppers took a liking to Baker and decided to make her part of the group. Since he couldn’t find anything for her to do onstage, she became a dresser, principally for the troupe’s star, Clara Baker.”# By 1920, she was married, divorced and married again – the second time to Willie Baker, a Pullman porter, from whom Baker took the name she used on stage. In April 1921, while the Dixie Steppers were touring in Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls hurt herself. For nearly a year, Ms. Baker had been studying the choreography of the show and practicing the steps behind the scenes. Another dancer was aware of Baker’s abilities and suggested she fill in for the injured chorus girl. Ms. Baker took her place in the chorus line. Because she was much more lively and animated, she stood out from the rest of the ladies, which, obviously, is not the point of a chorus line.

When the lyricist/composer team of Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s show Shuffle Along came to Philadelphia, one of the chorus girls from the Dixie Steppers brought Baker to the theater and recommended her for the position. Unfortunately, Ms. Baker was only fourteen, and considered too young to join the company, which was going to Broadway. Baker was so obsessed with the idea of being a dancer for the troupe; she left her husband and went to New York City. Again, she took a job as a dresser and learned all the songs and dances. Ms. Baker caught her big break in 1922 when one of the chorus girls was too sick to perform. “Placed at the end of the line of dancers, she drew attention and applause by her flair for improvisation and mimicry.”# Langston Hughes, who attended a performance of Shuffle Along, recalled in the March 27th, 1964 New York Post “There was something about her rhythm, her warmth, her smile, and her impudent grace that makes her stand out.”# In one night Ms. Baker succeeded in becoming “a box office draw and was singled out for reviews. She joined the company when it went on the road, and remained with the show until it closed in January of 1924.”# Immediately after Shuffle Along, Sissle and Blake tapped Ms. Baker’s relentless energy and on-stage antics for their new production Chocolate Dandies. In spite of her effort, the show was unsuccessful and folded in 1925.

Soon she was offered parts in the floorshows at both the Plantation Club

and the Cotton Club. One night at the Plantation Club, a wealthy black producer, Caroline Dudley, visited with the intention of recruiting Ethel Waters, a featured performer, for a black revue Dudley wanted to take to Paris. Waters declined, so Baker took the part in La Revue Negre instead. Dudley had seen Ms. Baker in Shuffle Along and admired her abilities. For the new group being organized, Baker wanted to sing, but Dudley wanted her as a comic. After successfully persuading Dudley to raise her weekly salary from $125 to $200, Baker sailed for France on September 22, 1925. The American production opened in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysses. With this revue, jazz invaded France. In the eyes of audience and critics, Josephine Baker was its personification. “Baker’s exotic dancing, uninhibited sexuality, and negligible attire – which included a skirt of feathers – suited the continent much more than America, and she became an overnight sensation.”# New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner vividly described her opening night:

“She made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the splits on the shoulders of a black giant [Joe Alex]. Mid-stage he paused, and with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around her waist, swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood . . . . She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater. Whatever happened next was unimportant. The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable – her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe – Paris.” #

Shortly after La Revue Negre opened, Baker was asked to join Folies-Bergeres, the premier Paris music hall, for its new show. “French audiences’ fascination with the black culture was apparently based on dubious impressions – Baker remarked that the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks – and La Revue Negre catered to that fascination with exaggerated stereotypes.”#

At the Folies-Bergeres, Baker was billed as “Dark Star.” She created a sensation by dancing on a mirror; nude except for a string of plush bananas swathed around her waist. She became immensely popular with European audiences. Her good humor, grace and sensual movements were exciting for people looking for a break from their war-torn reality. Donald Bogle commented in an article in Essence magazine: “For a weary, disillusioned, post-World War I era, she epitomized a new freedom and festivity.”# By the fall of 1926, thousands of banana-clad “Josephine” dolls were being sold to both children and tourists. Baker also cashed in on perfume and a substance, used by women to duplicate her slicked-down hairstyle, called “Bakerfix.” In December 1926, she opened a nightclub, “Chez Josephine,” but it closed down a year later. She also made a motion picture, “La Sirene des Tropiques,” and recorded several songs for the record company Odeon. By the end of 1927, Baker had received approximately 40,000 love letters, nearly 2,000 of them proposing marriage.

From 1928 to 1930, Josephine Baker embarked on a twenty-five-country tour, which included both the United States and Argentina. More importantly, however, she underwent a transformation from a gawky, chorus line dancer, to a complete artist and master of her skills and abilities. Several biographers have attributed this “metamorphosis . . . to a man named Pepito Abatino, who became her business manager, lover, and unofficial husband, but it was quite likely that a good deal of her new style and worldliness was achieved on her own initiative.”#

She learned to speak French in order to converse, and sing, to a country that adopted her so completely that, eventually, she officially became its citizen.

In the fall of 1930, the “new” Josephine Baker opened at the Casino de Paris. Henri Varna, the show’s producer, bought Baker a leopard. Ms. Baker and the leopard, Chiquita, became a sensation in fashionable Parisian circles. Varna produced the show Paris qui Remue, which featured Baker singing in French and wearing glamorous costumes. By the end of the 1930’s, “she ventured outside the music hall into two other professional areas. One was a motion picture . . . and the other . . . was light opera.”# Baker starred in two films, Zou-Zou, the story of a laundress who becomes a music hall star, and Princesse Tam-Tam. Jacques Offenbach’s operetta La Creole, a light opera about a Jamaican girl, was Ms. Baker’s most challenging role thus far. It opened at Theatre Marigny in Paris on December 15, 1934, and had a successful run for six months.

In 1935, Baker decided she wanted to return to the United States. It was arranged so that she would perform with the Zeigfeld Follies. The show opened in 1936 after extensive rehearsals. The reviewers did not disguise their disapproval. Jo Bouillon, Baker’s third husband, explained the reasons for her failure in America: “Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl.”# White audiences were used to black performers in “Negro” roles – Mammies and blues singers. Josephine Baker was too refined for the white public in America. Unfortunately, Baker’s personal life was not doing much better than her professional one. Shortly after opening her American version of “Chez Josephine,” Baker reportedly had an argument with her business manager/lover, Pepito Abatino, which resulted in him taking the first ship back to France. He died in the spring of 1936, just before the Zeigfeld Follies ended.

Before returning to France, Baker obtained a divorce from her second husband, Willie Baker, to whom she was still legally married. By 1937, Baker had married again. With this marriage to a French citizen, Jean Lion – a sugar broker, Baker was now a legal citizen of the country she loved. Unhappily, the Baker-Lion marriage was tumultuous and ended in divorce a little more than a year later.

In the fall of 1939, France declared war on Germany as a result of Germany’s invasion into Poland. The French military intelligence, Deuxieme Bureau, recruited Baker as an “honorary correspondent.” Baker spent the years of World War II gathering information, and smuggling documents for the Allies. Ms. Baker used her influence, and charm, to smuggle both intelligence and Jewish people across boarders. “Among many of the brave things she did was carry important messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She also took, as part of her entourage, secret agents who wouldn’t have been able to travel otherwise, and she also helped to smuggle out Jews – knowing her life was in jeopardy if their identities were discovered.”#

In May of 1940, “Josephine Baker became a Red Cross volunteer, [and] attended to refugees who were flooding into France.”# But the mood in Europe began to change, and Ms. Baker found it too dangerous to stay. Reluctantly, Baker moved to Morocco for four years. During that time she experienced several medical problems, which sent her to the hospital each time. In 1942, she was well enough to go on a North African tour, performing for French, British, and American soldiers. From there, she toured the Middle East doing benefit concerts for the Resistance. “For her efforts on behalf of France, Baker was made a sub lieutenant in the Woman’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force.”# In August of 1944, France was liberated, and Baker returned home. “In 1946 she was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.”#

After World War II, Ms. Baker regularly starred at the Follies- Bergeres and appeared on both French and British television. She also recorded several of her “signature” songs, such as “Pretty Little Baby” and “J’ai Deux Amones.” Ms. Baker married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947. The two of them restored Les Milandes, a 300-acre estate which, eventually, included two hotel, three restaurants, a miniature golf course, a wax museum of the scenes from Josephine Baker’s life, stables, a patisserie, a foie gras factory, a gas station and a post office. Being a friend to animals, Josephine “populated . . . Les Milandes with dogs, cats, monkeys, parakeets, ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys and pheasants.”# Baker expected the proceeds of tourism to help with the expenses of running the massive estate. The rest of the expenses would be paid through her various performances.

Baker returned to the United States in 1948, but, just as in 1936, was not well received. This time, however, she decided to use her influence, limited as it was in America, to take a stand against racism. Ms. Baker insisted on a nondiscrimation clause in her contracts, and integrated audiences at all her performances. “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared May 20, 1951, Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts to fight racism.”# An example of Ms. Baker’s fight against racism occurred in a segregated Miami nightclub, the Copa City, in 1951. No entertainer had ever played to a non-segregated audience in Miami, and negotiations were taxing. At one point, she turned down $10,000 a week because they refused to guarantee integrated audiences. Ms. Baker did not give up, and finally opened at Copa City to its first integrated audience. The Philadelphia Inquirer said of Josephine Baker: “Her appearances have been marked by perhaps the most outspoken opposition to racial discrimination and segregation ever shown by a Negro artist, except [Paul] Robeson.”#

In 1954, Baker decided to return to France and start a family. It was her intense desire to prove that people of different races could live in harmony. She adopted twelve children – ten boys and two girls – all of various ethnic backgrounds. She called her group her “Rainbow Tribe.” Her adopted children, in order from oldest to youngest, were “Akio (Korean), Louis (Columbian), Jarri (Finnish), Jean Claude (French), Jannot (Japanese), Moses (Israeli), Brahim (Arab), Marianne (French), Mara (Venezuelan Indian), Cokoffi (African), [Stellina (unknown)] and Noel (French). Each child [was] privately tutored with consideration to his or her religious and cultural background.”# Her husband, Jo Bouillon, became increasingly concerned with the expenses incurred by running Les Milandes, caring for the children, and Baker’s unrealistic attitude toward money. He left in 1960 to live in Argentina.

In 1963, a black producer had the idea to bring Josephine Baker to the United States to participate in a historical event in which over 200,000 people converged on Washington, D.C., to protest racism. The reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Later, Baker admitted it was one of her most memorable experiences.

By 1964, Baker’s 300-acre estate was in serious financial trouble. She spent four years performing, scrimping and praying that Les Milandes would, somehow, stay in her possession. In spite of all her hard work, the French government seized the estate in 1968. Although she was evicted, Princess Grace of Monaco, moved by Baker’s predicament, arranged for Josephine and her children to live in a villa near Monte Carlo.

Ms. Baker experienced health problems during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, which kept her in and out of hospitals. She was married, for the last time, in 1973, at the age of sixty-nine, to American artist Robert Brady. The marriage fell apart within a year. “In 1974, the Societe de Bains Mer of Monte Carlo invited Baker to star in their annual benefit for the Monacan Red Cross, the organization that helped subsidize her home near Monte Carlo. The show was called Josephine and told the story of Baker’s life in a series of scenes.”# Four days after the successful opening of the show in Paris, April 12, 1975, Ms. Baker experienced a stroke while she slept, which led to coma and eventually her death. Her lavish funeral was attended by more than 20,000 mourners at the church of the Madeleine in Paris. The service was broadcast on French national television.

Josephine Baker can be given many titles – jazz innovator, civil rights activist, World War II hero, and star – but her most prized title was, probably, that of “loving mother.” Baker’s dream of a world filled with brotherhood was realized with her greatest achievement: her “Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine Baker once said: “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”# I certainly hope I am alive to experience this wonderful world born from the imagination and initiative of Josephine Baker.



“Baker, Josephine,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1964: 19 – 21.


Lamb, D., “Having Our Way: What Is It Really?” Aesthetic Realism Foundation 9/3/98: 2


http://search.biography.com/print_record.pl?id=12499 http://www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/quote.html http://www.gis.net/~dlamb/Josephine_Baker.html

http://www. npg.si.edu/exu/noir/broch3.htm


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