Do you know about Josephine Baker ? Today is Josephine Baker’s 111th Birthday.
Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald, June 3rd 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Her estate identifies the vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson, as her natural father. A biography written by her foster son Jean-Claude Baker stated:
|“… (Josephine Baker’s) father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as “Edw” … I think Josephine’s father was white — so did Josephine, so did her family … people in St. Louis say that (Josephine’s mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). (Carrie) let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along … (but) Josephine knew better”|
Her mother, Carrie, was adopted in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1886 by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom were former slaves of both African and Native American descent.
When Baker was eight she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her, burning Baker’s hands when she put too much soap in the laundry. She later went to work for another woman.
On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.
Baker’s success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave us the term “Art Deco”, and also with a renewal of interest in ethnic 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.
After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her “… the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. 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). Although Baker is often credited as a movie star, her starring roles ended with Princesse Tam Tam in 1935.
Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Baker’s agent’s older brother approached her about working for the French government as an “honorable correspondent” — if she happened to hear any gossip at parties that might be of use to her adopted country, she could report it. Baker immediately agreed, since she was against the Nazi stand on race not only because she was black but because her husband was Jewish. Her café society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in-the-know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and report back what she heard. She was able to do things such as attend parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gather information that turned out to be useful. She also helped in the war effort in other ways, such as by sending Christmas presents to French soldiers.