Josephine Baker
1906–1975

Josephine Baker
00:00 / 03:55

This is Josephine Baker. Best known as the banana girl but she is so much more. There is a lot to her that is unseen so… look out for that. 

 

She was born in 1906 in St Louis Missouri to a poor woman who worked in show business.  Josephine was first brought her onto the stage when she was about a year old. Josephine’s mother was not able to provide for her new, unemployed husband and all her children so at age 12 Josephine dropped out of school to start working. She lived on the street for a time and made a living performing on street corners. 

 

Josephine was first married at age 13 and that marriage lasted less than a year. Her second marriage was at age 15 lasting a few years. But by that time she had begun to gain recognition as a performer so would keep the name Josephine Baker the rest of her life. She moved to New York and made a name for herself as the highest paid chorus girl. She was well known for her roles as “the pony”- the dancer at the end of the chorus line who is comically bad at all the dances until the very end of the show when she wows everyone with how talented she is.

 

Her work in New York led her to Paris where she was adored by audiences. This was the same time Art Nuevous had come into fashion. Non-western and African were very popular so Josephine’s arrival was perfectly timed. Her charm and presence captivated audiences and she was invited to star at Folies Bergère. She became well known for her eroitc dances appearing nude or nearly nude. Her most iconic work was the banana dance in which she did an erotic and comical dance in a skirt of artificial bananas and little else. 

 

To this day, burlesque dancers study and often replicate this dance. She also starred in multiple films, the first black woman to star in any film. She never had the same fame in the US and became a French citizen after marrying Jean Lion in 1937.

 

Josephine’s popularity had her traveling through Europe. This came in handy when she joined the French Resistance during World War II. French Resistance agents could travel easily through Europe masquerading as her band. She was also able to collect intelligence while at parties with powerful figures. They saw her simply as the celebrity Josaphine Baker and were just delighted to meet her. 

 

She would famously write notes in invisible ink on her sheet music or pin notes into the inside her underwear. She liked being able to use her fame to do something for her adopted country. She also saw the parallel between the treatment of Jewish people and the treatment of black people in America. She wanted to make a change in the world.

 

Throughout her whole career she refused to perform for a segregated audience, no matter the pay. This was met with much resistance but many locations eventually gave in because they wanted to have her. These venues had their first desegregated shows because of Josephine Baker.

 

Josephine had a vision of a world where the color of your skin would not matter or deny you any opportunities. She even went to the length of adopting children from all over the world and raising them with different religions. She called the family her rainbow tribe.  

 

You may want to tuck things you discovered back in their hiding places, now.

 

On 8 April 1975, Josephine Baker performed her final show, a retrospective of her 50 years in show business. She passed away peacefully four days later. A star till the very end.