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Josephine Baker - More Resources

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Josephine Baker  (b. June 3, 1906  d. April 12, 1975) 

by Dawn Lille 

The dancer/singer Josephine Baker helped to intoduce the Jazz Age to Europe when, as a basically untrained and uneducated nineteen year old, she became an instant star in Paris in 1925. Her beautiful body, her instinctive control of the stage, and her comfort with her sexuality attracted every eye in the audience and made this black woman an overnight American cultural sensation. Her amazing life was full of contradictions for the next fifty years, at the end of which she made a comeback in Paris. On the day of her funeral 20,000 people filled the streets of that city and she was given military honors. She was an inspsiration for people of color and the disadvantaged and became one of the most famous women in the world.

Born Freda J. McDonald in St. Louis, Josephine Baker grew up in poverty and never knew the identity of her father. Her grandmother, born a slave, greatly influenced this wild, proocative, rebellious young woman, who did not like the color of her skin; a light brown, it seemed to leave her either not white enough or not black enough. She married for the first time at thirteen, but divorced this husband and and married Willy Baker, whose name she kept, at fifteen. She married twice more, although she never seemed to be legally divorced again, and had numerous lovers, many of them well known theater, literary, and royal figures.

Baker, who saw the theater as  a way out of St. Louis, initiallly taught herself to dance by watching others. She started her career touring America with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. After working as a dresser, she finally got into the chorus of  Shuffle Along, an all black production touring the black theater circuit. She was last in line of the latter, but by displaying her rubbery legs in the charleston and using her natural comic talents to roll her eyes and make faces, she attracted immediate attention. She came to New York with that show, arriving during the Harlem Renaissance, She performed in two other all black revues before going to Paris in 1925 with La Rèvue Nègre, which appeared at the Theatre des Champs Elysées and was the turning point in her career.

She broke her contract in 1926 (the first of the many occasions she was to do this) to accept a job with the Folies Bergère, a primarily white presentation in a Paris that was  an integrated society at this time. Here she did the famous Banana Dance, wearing not much more than a skirt of bananas. Her immediate popularity was immense. Among the many accolades she received were those of “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.”  She toured all over the world and started singing in 1930, developing her untrained voice by copying others. She made dozens of reordings and appeared in three films.

Baker, a  successful and wealthy performer, came back to America in 1936 to appear in the Ziegfield Follies. The critics did not like her voice and she met with racism. She returned to France, married a Frenchman and became a French citizen.

She had no problem with nudity  or sexuality. If either made her the center of attention, that was fine. Although she was indifferent to criticism, she did not understand that, in addition to its racism, America’s Puritan side was not able to accept this quality. She resembled a national monument in France, but was deeply hurt that her color denied her full membership in the country of her origin. The song  “J’ai Deux Amours” [“I Have Two Loves”–i.e., Paris and America] was written especially for Baker and she performed it hundreds of times.

During World War II she worked for the Red Cross, entertained troops, and risked her life in the French Resistance, carrying information hidden in her music scores to Portugual and then to Moocco, where she lived for some time. She was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour and made an honorary member of the French military.

In 1947 she married the orchestra leader Joseph Bouillon and proceeded to adopt twelve children of different races and backgrounds, housing them at Les Milandes, her castle and working farm in the Dordogne countryside. The care of this “rainbow tribe” and her extravagant ways caused her to go bankrupt several times, in spite of her huge earning capacity. But there was always some wealthy industrialist or royal to bail her out.

During the 1950s and 60s Baker was adamant about fighting segregation and refused to appear in any segrated theater in America, to which she had started returning. In 1963 she spoke at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King.

Raised by a mother who did not nurture her, Josephine Baker spent her entire adult life seeking approval and could never accept the fact that she had won it. She was determined to give to others what she did not have, but her stong will often clashed with her naiveté, ending in personal and financial disaster.

She was not really a  great dancer or singer, but with her extraordinary body, called by one writer “democracy’s body,” the pure lines of which inspired the sculptor Alexander Calder, and her ability to touch an audience, Josephine Baker was one of the most superb performers of all time. Her ability to transform herself and create an illusion led the newspaper Le Figuro to say of her last performance, just before her death, that for the second time in fifty years she had seduced Paris.


Dawn Lille, trained in ballet, modern dance and labananalysis, has worked with dancers and actors as a performer and rehearsal coach. She has taught internationally, headed the graduate program in dance research and reconstruction at City College and taught dance history at Juilliard for fourteen years. Dr. Lille has written two books, chapters in five books and over one hundred articles in encyclopedias, numerous periodicals and Art Times.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles 

Baker wrote three autobiographies with three different coauthors, each contradicting the previous one. There are also many books by friends, lovers, colleagues, and historians.

The best is:

Baker, Jean Claude and Chris Chase. Josephine. The Hungry Heart. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.       

Jean Claude Baker was an adult and the very last of her “adopted” children. This book is well researched and has an excellent bibliography.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 2013.

Guterl, Matthew Pratt. Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe.  Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

Jules-Rosette, Benedetta. Josephine Baker in Art and Life: the Icon and the Image. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Lahs,-Gonzalez, Olivia, ed. Josephine Baker : Image and Icon. Essays by Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Tyler Stovall, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales. St Louis: Reedy Press; Sheldon Art Galleries, 2006.

Archives

There are collections in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center: 

Josephine Baker Collection, 1933-1975. At Schomberg Center. 

The collection consists of 25 letters and postcards written by the renowned dancer and cabaret singer Josephine Baker to her Japanese friend Miki Sawada and other parties; a scrapbook of press clippings assembled by Sawada; and material from Baker's 1952 South American tour. 

Josephine Baker programs, ephemera, and obituary, 1964-1991. At the Library for the Performing Arts

Autographed program, illustrated article on her life, career, and funeral from Ebony magazine, souvenir program from tribute to her, and ticket stub to visit her chateau in France. 

Moving Image 

YouTube has many examples of Baker performing the Banana Dance and the Charleston as well as excerpts from her films Princess Tam Tam and Zou Zou. There is also an interview with her in 1975 and Part I of the HBO film The Josephine Baker Story.

Baker’s films Siren of the Tropics (1927), ZouZou (1934), and Princess Tam Tam (1935) are available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Chasing a Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker is available on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHnOfKwAga0

Josephine Baker. Produced by the Greif Company in association with Lifetime Productions Inc.; directed by Mark Israel; produced by Kenny Golde and Laura Anne Edwards.U.S.: Lifetime Productions, c1998 ; Seattle, Wash. : Unapix Entertainment, Lifetime Home Video, c1999. Available for viewing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.