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Baker, immensely popular in Paris as sensuous yet comical dancer in the
1920's, was unfortunately not accepted in racist America until 1973.
Famous for her almost non-existent clothing and uninhibited dances,
Josephine was known as "Black Venus", "Creole Goddess"
and "Black Pearl". Men bestowed on her a myriad of gifts
such as diamonds and cars, and she supposedly had 1,500 marriage
proposals. She continued her successful stage career for fifty years
until her death in 1975.
from humble beginnings, Josephine was born as Freda Josephine Carson in St.
Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1906 to Carrie McDonald, a washerwoman, and
Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer. Eddie soon abandoned them and
Carrie married Arthur Martin, who was kind but usually without work.
young Josephine found work cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy
white families. When she was thirteen she became a waitress, met a
man there named Willie Wells whom she married. She left him when the
relationship went bad and later married three more times first to Willie
Baker in 1921 (she kept his name), Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937 (whom she
became a French citizen through), and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon
in 1947 who helped to raise her twelve adopted children.
began her stage career touring with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie
Steppers in 1919, performing in skits. She worked as a dresser for
the Dixie Steppers learning the dance routines, so when they needed an
extra dancer she got her chance. Her added comical touches made her a
found stage success at The Plantation Club in New York City, but when she
traveled to Paris for "La Revue Negre" they went crazy for
her. Her stage success brought money which she spent on clothes,
jewelry and pets. At one time she enjoyed owning a leopard, a
chimpanzee, a pig, a snake, a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats
and seven dogs.
Josephine was one of the most photographed women in the world, along with
personalities like Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. Her earnings set
her above any other entertainer in Europe at the time. She was the
star in two early movies, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam.
Although her celebrity status was unrivaled in Europe, when she returned to
the United States in 1936 to star in the Ziegfield Follies the public
rejected her due to her color.
to France, Josephine participated in World War II as a performer for the
soldiers as well as doing undercover work for the French Resistance.
She smuggled secret messages written in invisible on her music. She
also served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.
The France government awarded her with the Medal of Resistance and
was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
the U.S. again in the 1950's, Josephine continued to fight against
racism. The Stork Club rejected her as a customer, she began a media
battle with pro-segregationist Walter Winchell as her opponent. The
NAACP named May 20 as Josephine Baker Day to honor her efforts.
this time Josephine began adopting children of different races and
ethnicities and called them affectionately her "Rainbow
Tribe". She lived and promoted her belief that people of various
ethnicities can live together harmoniously. She continued to visit
the U.S. and met an artist Robert Brady whom she became involved
with. Divorced from her fourth husband, Josephine and Robert decided
to say wedding vows in an empty church in Acapulco, Mexico to cement their
platonic friendship in 1973. Strides had been made in black
acceptance, and also in 1973 Josephine performed at New York's Carnegie
Hall to a standing ovation even before she had begun.
April 8, 1975 Josephine performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris before
people like Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren. Even though
she was 68 years, she thrilled the audiences with a medley of her routines
from her 50 year career. On April 12, only days later Josephine died
from a cerebral hemorrhage.
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