Josephine Baker was the first African-American actress to star in a major motion picture. She also served as spy in World War II.
She was born as Freda Josephine McDonald 3rd June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Born in poverty, Josephine Baker went on to become an incredibly successful singer, dancer, and actor, especially in Europe. In addition she is known for her work for the French resistance during WWII, using her celebrity status as an entertainer to work as a spy for the French.
While she lived and worked primarily in France, she was highly invested and involved in the American Civil Rights movement as well. This post is about her time as a performer, take a look at our other article Josephine Baker, Her Life in World War II and Beyond.
Josephine’s mother was Carrie McDonald, a black woman who had been adopted by former slaves. Baker’s officially recognized father was Eddie Carson, a Vaudeville drummer, though Baker’s son Jean-Claude, who researched his adopted mother extensively, did not believe Carson was Baker’s true father.
“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”.
Unfortunately, only McDonald knew the truth, and she never told anyone, so we will never know for sure. McDonald and Carson performed a song and dance routine together, and when Baker was young they sometimes brought her on stage at the finale.
Baker did not receive much formal education
She started working at age 8 as a live-in domestic, and dropped out of school completely at age 12. By 13, she worked as a waitress at The Old Chauffeur’s Club, which is where she met and married her first husband, Willie Wells, at the age of 13. Their marriage did not last long.
When Baker couldn’t find other employment, she made money dancing on street corners she started working for the Jones Family Band, a street performing group. Her street performances brought her to the attention of an African-American Theater troupe, and at the age of 15 she ran off to join their troupe.
At the age of 15, she also married Willie Baker and changed her name to Josephine Baker. While her marriage to Baker also did not last long, and they divorced four years later, her career was starting to take off and so she kept this name for the rest of her life.
By 15, Baker was starting to see success as a performer, especially as a dancer.
She went to New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance and participated in Vaudeville performances and danced in the chorus for a couple of successful Broadway shows: Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies. These performances paved the way for Baker to head to Paris, where she opened in La Revue Nègre on 2 October 1925 at the age of 19. Baker credits her success to Paris rather than New York, saying
“No, I didn’t get my first break on Broadway. I was only in the chorus in ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Chocolate Dandies…. I became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris. Oh yes, Bricktop was there as well. Me and her were the only two, and we had a marvellous time. Of course, everyone who was anyone knew Bricky. And they got to know Miss Baker as well”.
In Paris, Josephine Baker’s career really took off, performing in Cabaret and Burlesque shows.
Her arrival in Paris coincided with the World Faire that was held in Paris at the time which gave birth to both the Art Deco movement and non-Western Arts. Baker’s performances played into this, performing African inspired dances accompanied by her pet Cheetah. She is particularly known for her performance in La Folie du Jour of the Danse sauvage while wearing little more than a skirt of artificial bananas.
During the 20s, she was also the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, the silent film The Siren of the Tropics in 1927. She went on to star in three other films, Zouzou in 1934. Princesse Tam Tam in 1935, and Fausse Alerte in 1940.
Under her manager Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, she transformed her stage presence, especially her singing voice, and in 1934 she took the lead in Jacques Offenbach’s opera, La Créole She returned briefly to Broadway to star in a revival of Ziegfeld Follies in 1936, but American audiences and reviewers were not kind to her, and she returned to Paris in 1937, where she married Jean Lion and became officially a French citizen.
Baker continued to perform, though less frequently toward the end of her life. Her last show was Joséphine à Bobino 1975, a show commemorating her 50 years in show business. Baker, in 1975, described herself as lucky in her love of the stage.
This performance received rave reviews and was sold out. Four days later, Baker died of a stroke on 12th April 1975. Over 20,000 showed up to watch her funeral procession in Paris. The French Government honored her with a 21 gun salute, making her the first American Woman to be so recognized with full military honors.
Continue on for more about Josephine Baker and her time during World War II as part of French Military Intelligence and her life beyond performing.