… “I wasn’t naked, I just didn’t have any clothes on.”, is another quote I ran across while looking for quotes from Josephine Baker this week.
You see, Wednesday was her 109th birthday, and in the spirit of being too lazy to come UP with something Wordless Wednesday and honoring her birthday, I thought I’d use quote about all men getting along.
But, all that did was whet the appetites of a few of my readers – not that they are legion – and since they asked so nicely, I thought I’d oblige.
Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou, back in 1934, and she was the first to become a world-renowned entertainer.
She was quite the barrier breaker.
She refused to perform for segregated audiences in America and left the USA for France!
While there, she became famous, or I should say more famous, and worked with the French Resistance during World War II. France honored her with the Croix de guerre, and made her a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.
They liked her, they really, really liked her!
But, before all that, she was born Freda Josephine McDonald back in St. Louis, MO. Her biological father was vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Eddie and Carried McDonald had a song and dance act, which included 1 year old Josephine from time to time.
Eventually, Eddie would abandon Carrie and the baby Josephine.
At the age of eight, Baker started work! She worked as a live in house servant for affluent families in the St. Louis area.
Dropping out of school at 13, Baker lived on the streets – sleeping in shelters, scavenging for food, and living off her wits.
She was noted for her street-corner dancing, and when 15, was “hired” by the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show.
Realizing she was more than that, she took off for the Big Apple, and wound UP at the Plantation Club during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She also wound UP on Broadway and became the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
Tired of being discriminated against in the US, she took off for France where her real fame began. She said, “I have walked into the houses of kings and queens, and the houses of Presidents, and much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Once in Paris, she became an overnight, instant success.
It was her erotic dancing that brought the crowds. Appearing practically nude on stage, she wowed audiences with her Danse sauvage. She wore a costume made of a string of artificial bananas.
You don’t have to Freud to figure that one out!
She was the toast of Paris, the toast of the American Ex-pats, and Hemmingway referred to her as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Thinking her fame in France would translate to success back home, she returned to the US to star in the Ziegfeld Follies. Even in New York, the epicenter of diversity, multi-culturalism, and acceptance, the audience couldn’t believe that a black woman could be as sophisticated as Baker was supposed to be.
The box office was terrible, and Flo Ziegfeld replaced her with Gypsy Rose Lee!
Time Magazine referred to her as a “Negro Wench”!!!
Heartbroken, she returned to France, married, became a French citizen, and stayed there.
During WW II, she collected information at parties and reported back to the Free French movement. She also – at her own expense – traveled over France and entertained British, French, and American troops!
When the Nazis took Paris, she headed to her home in the South of France where she worked for the resistance and harbored friends hunted by the Germans.
During the 1950s, while still living in France, she supported the Civil Right Movement in the US. When she and her husband came to the US, 36 hotels refused to give them a room simply because she was black.
Baker made history when she refused to perform for segregated audiences in Miami, Florida. One club offered her ten grand to perform, but she stood her ground.
She not only won there, she integrated Las Vegas as well.
Baker married four times.
She adopted 2 daughters, and 10 sons. She referred to her brood as “the Rainbow Tribe”. Her kids were French, Moroccan, Korean, Japanese, Colombian, Finnish, Israeli, Algerian, Venezuelan, and Ivorian (Ivory Coast). She wanted to prove that people of different races could be brothers.
Oh, there were rough patches. Yes, she had fame, fortune, and family, but life wasn’t always kind.
She lost most of her money, lived on charity from time to time, and took some guff for her beliefs and behaviors.
In 1975, she starred in a revue celebrating her 50 years in show business. Financed mostly by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jackie O, it opened to rave reviews and sellout crowds.
Sophia Loren, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and even Mick Jagger were there for opening night.
Four days later, tragedy struck.
Found lying in her bed, surrounded by glowing reviews of her show, she was in a coma having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.
She died on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68.
Buried at Monaco’s Cimetiere de Monaco, she is the only American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.
Her legacy lives on. She may be gone, but her activism, artistry, and daring still inspire artists and art lovers today.