Josephine Baker

Tamara Warta
vaudeville

Josephine Baker made a name for herself in the entertainment industry for balancing both a glamorous and risqué lifestyle. Read on to learn more about this international beauty who has gone down in history for her unique resume and bold personality.

Who is Josephine Baker?

While once a huge star, Josephine Baker is less known today as a performer. However, to Hollywood historians and those within the industry, she will always be considered a legend. She was born in the summer of 1906 in Illinois, where she was raised by her mother and carried the genetics of a mysterious father. No one ever confirmed for sure who Josephine's father was, making her complete ethnic makeup unknown. There are many rumors that Josephine's father was Caucasian, while her mother was African American. Due to her blended race, Josephine was a special beauty who identified with many different ethnic groups, but primarily with the black community as she became credited as the first African American woman to star in a major film, to perform at an American concert hall, and to lend a famous hand to the Civil Rights Movement.

An Early Start

Josephine Baker was never one for the traditional lifestyle, dropping out of school at age 12 and working as a street performer by the time she turned 13. She worked professionally as a vaudeville performer at 15, and then relocated to New York City to perform at the then famous Plantation Club. She has been credited as the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville, often working as the last dancer in the line, which is a notorious position which demands both incredible dance skill as well as comedic timing.

Shortly thereafter, Josephine's career made a complete 180 degree turn as she moved to France and became known in Paris as an exotic dancer who performed almost completely nude on stage. Always a wild child, she took an erotic performance tour through Europe and then later incorporated her pet cheetah into her acts.

Due to the conflicts of race back home in the U.S., she preferred to stay in France, where she became one of the most celebrated American performers in the nation without any judgment based upon her ethnic makeup.

An Eclectic Resume

Josephine Baker was a triple threat, excelling in song, dance and drama. She had a brief movie career spanning three French films, and also debuted a song hit during the early 1930s. Despite her risqué acts and plucky demeanor, she became an inspiration to some of creative history's greats, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picaso, Langston Hughes, and even Christian Dior.

However, quite contrary to surviving photographs of her revealing costuming and broad grins, Josephine worked hard for her success, training mercilessly with a vocal coach before stage debuts, and even found time to express her political loyalty to her adopted nation of France, working underground against the Nazis during World War II.

Skewed Roots

Though an American, Josephine never found stability in the states. She starred in a failed musical and burned through six marriages, only some of which were recognized by the law. She was even disrespected by the wait staff at a dinner party, further confirming America's dismissal of both her talent and success that had carried her so far in Europe. Finally abandoning her American citizenship, she became a French citizen in 1937.

Civil Rights

Although she was more comfortable in France, she did not give up her passion for her homeland completely, as she became an avid Civil Rights supporter. She adopted 12 orphans, a multi-cultural bunch that included Asian, South American and European children. She also refused to perform for segregated audiences and became the only woman to speak at the March on Washington rally, flanked by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Josephine Baker died on April 12th, 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage. She had enjoyed her final performance and received rave reviews only two days prior.

Josephine Baker