Josephine Freda McDonald was born to unmarried couple Eddie Carson and Carrie McDonald in St. Louis
. Her parents had a song-and-dance act together, but when they separated, Carrie left show business and started taking in laundry to support Josephine and her younger brother. She later married Arthur Martin and had more children with him. The family was always poor, and Josephine tried to escape harsh reality -- first through her grandmother's fairy tales and later through show business
. She participated in neighborhood children's mock-vaudeville
shows, saw movies when she could afford it, and danced along with traveling musicians starting in her elementary school days. In addition to poverty, the family had to deal with racism
. Josephine later recalled watching refugees from the 1917
East St. Louis race riots fleeing over a bridge to St. Louis proper. "Mothers carried infants so that their men could use baby carriages to ferry the aged and infirm." This incident made a major impression on the little girl who was already working as a servant when she could find a place.
At the age of 13, Josephine briefly married a Willie Wells. She seemed to be seeking security, but after only a few months the couple fought so hard that Josephine cut her husband above one eye with a broken bottle; she said this was self-defense. Willie went off to the doctor and never came home. Josephine went back to working where she could, and while waitressing was spotted by the leader of the Jones Family Band. Fourteen-year-old Josephine was hired to dance with the group, and soon the group joined a touring show called the Dixie Steppers. She also served as dresser to blues singer Clara Smith on the tour. In Philadelphia, she met and soon married Willie Baker, though she was still only fifteen. She would keep his surname for the rest of her life.
She found her way to New York to audition for a popular black revue called Shuffle Along but was turned down for being too thin, too small, too young, and most devastating to her, too dark-skinned. She went back to Willie and Philadelphia for a while, but eventually returned to New York, auditioned again with the lightest available face powder on, and lied about her age. This time she was accepted as a sort of comedy dancer to appear at the end of the chorus line and look goofy. Luckily, Josephine enjoyed this role and performed so well that people started asking about her. As the show became more popular, she started appearing in comedy dance sketches while they toured. But the next show from the same producers was a flop, and Josephine had to find work elsewhere.
In 1925, producer Caroline Dudley wanted to put together a show of "authentic negro vaudeville" to perform in Paris and scoured New York for people to perform. She went to the show where Josephine was appearing with the intent of trying to sign singer Ethel Waters, who did not want to go to a foreign country. Caroline was impressed enough with the show to sign up Josephine as a dancer and comic, though. After the performers' trip across the ocean on an American ship, they all were amazed at France's lack of segregation, unlike the United States. The French involved in the show were less impressed with them at first -- the numbers and costumes were all revamped before public performances, and something reflecting the French idea of black people as wild African savages had to be added. Josephine was paired with a male dancer, Joe Alex, from the island of Martinique, and they were given costumes consisting of basically feathered loincloths and beaded jewelry. Josephine had to be talked into this role -- normally the only nudity in Paris revues was for chorus girls, not featured performers, and even that was a big step after the lack of nudity in American vaudeville.
However, this "danse sauvage" was a huge success -- both for its boundary-pushing costumes and for its wild new style of dancing. And Josephine became the darling of society. She could attend any party, pose for artists, live in an extravagant hotel suite and indulge her taste for eccentric pets (including a pig). When the revue toured other European countries, it and she were hits everywhere. However, Josephine quit mid-tour to appear in the Folies Bergère show La Folie du Jour (forcing the rest of the revue's tour to be cancelled and putting its producer in the red). In the Folies show, only blonde and red-haired chorus girls were cast, so that Josephine's looks were accented. One the numbers she appeared in inaugurated one of her trademark dance costumes -- a skirt made to look like bunches of bananas.
Her reviews were almost uniformly positive, and her reputation in Paris continued. She was a symbol of sexual liberation for her dancing and scanty costumes (as well as her lovers -- she did live up to the Folies performers' reputation of being available if you could give her enough gifts). However, when she fell in love with one of them and hinted at marriage, she was told that she was completely beneath this man in society, as well as being black. High society saw her as an entertaining companion but not on their own level. Her depression over this rejection, as well as a case of pneumonia, made her listless and kept her in bed for weeks.
Eventually she recovered and spent more time working on her singing. Her first record was made in October 1926, but she always preferred performing live to recording. Around this time she also met an Italian bricklayer seventeen years her senior, Giuseppe Albatino, who was working as a dance host in a club and affecting the title "Count Pepito de Albatino." After a few months, they were a firm couple. He helped her open her own club, Chez Josephine, where she was able to wander around and talk to people who were willing to pay outrageous food prices just to have the contact with her. Her personality was her biggest asset, especially when her appearance in another Folies show, Un Vent de Folie, seemed to reprise the same territory her earlier stage performances had. People such as author Colette frequented the club.
In 1927, she starred in the film La Sirène des Tropiques as a native of a tropical island who falls in love with a Frenchman. She did not particularly like the filming process and made this clear to everyone around her (including Luis Bunuel, an assistant on the set). During the filming, she and Pepito got married. The idea of "poor black American girl marries European nobility" charmed many Americans (though eventually it came out that Pepito wasn't really a count). After the movie was done filming, Josephine and Pepito went on tour through Europe and South America to prevent Josephine getting overexposed in France. Her performances in Austria and Germany were becoming controversial -- both because the supposed immorality of her semi-nude dancing shocked church representatives, because the growing Nazi parties did not approve of black people, and because in countries still not over the devastation of World War I, her glamorous lifestyle and high pay seemed wrong. However, enough people, in those countries, were willing to attend her performances even in those countries that the tour was a success.
They toured for more than two years, and on her return to Paris audiences were eager to see Josephine again. In the new shows she was part of, she did more singing and less dancing. She and Pepito bought an estate outside Paris where they could live, Josephine's pets could run free (even the cheetah she had received as a gift!) and she could start her own garden. She was involved in supporting an orphanage and other charity work; the orphans sometimes visited the estate and chased her pet monkeys around the house. For most of the 1930s it was a routine to alternate appearing in a Paris show and touring, although she did star in more films: Zou-Zou, which was a success with audiences although critics found it trite, and Princess Tam-Tam, which was not as popular.
A 1935 return to the United States did not go as well as she would have liked -- Josephine did not take kindly to being asked to use the service entrance of a hotel so that other guests would not know there was a black woman staying there. Audiences, both black and white, also found her performances too French, and not fitting in with the current styles of entertainment (especially from black performers). Pepito returned to France earlier than his wife, and died of cancer of the kidneys only a few weeks after it was diagnosed, long before she was able to come home.
Two years later she married Jewish sugar businessman Jean Lion. They bought an estate in the south of France and fixed it up, which turned out to come in quite handy in 1939 when World War II broke out in Europe. Josephine'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. Josephine immediately agreed, since she was against the Nazi stand on race not only because she was black but because her husband was Jewish. 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.
When the Germans invaded France, Josephine left Paris and went to her home in the south of France, where she had Belgian refugees living with her and others who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle from England. As an entertainer, Josephine had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral Portugal, coming back to France, and such. She helped mount a production in Marseilles on the south coast of France to give herself and her like-minded friends a reason for being there. She helped quite a lot of people who were in danger from the Nazis get visas and passports to leave France. Later in 1941, she and her entourage went to the French colonies in North Africa; the stated reason was Josephine's health (since she really was recovering from another case of pneumonia) but the real reason was to continue helping the Resistance. From a base in Morocco, she made tours of Spain and pinned notes with the information she gathered inside her underwear (counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search) and made friends with the Pasha of Marrakesh, whose support helped her through a miscarriage (the last of several) and emergency hysterectomy she had to go through in 1942. Despite the state of medicine in that time and place, she recovered, and started touring to entertain Allied soldiers in North Africa. She even persuaded Egypt's King Farouk to make a public appearance at one of her concerts, a subtle indication of which side his officially neutral country leaned toward. Later, she would perform at Buchenwald for the liberated inmates who were too frail to be moved.
After the war, Josephine was regarded as a heroine in France. She and Jean had divorced during the war, and in 1947 she married bandleader Jo Bouillon. They lived at the estate in the south of France when they were not touring, and had Josephine's mother and siblings come to France to live with them. She was trying to make the estate, "Les Milandes," into a tourist attraction, though her haphazard approach to managing it made it difficult to keep employees around. In 1951 she performed in the United States again, insisting on integrated audiences and bands when both were still unusual. Her American return was a great success, perhaps because Americans no longer expected all black performers to act the same. The NAACP had May 20, 1951 declared "Josephine Baker Day" in honor of her work, and this spurred her on. However, this started to hurt her career when she spoke out against Walter Winchell because he had not defended her when a club run by a friend of his refused to serve her. (Winchell, generally pro-civil rights, was outraged at the accusation; he said he simply hadn't known about the situation. His rants in his column about the issue hurt his career also.)
Josephine had always wanted to be a mother but was never able to have a child of her own. She and Jo decided to adopt what was originally meant to be four children -- "one black, one white, one yellow, and one red." In 1954, they started out with a Korean-American and a Japanese-American orphan, a Finnish orphan, and a black South American whose family could not afford to feed him, their eighth child. All of these were boys. Then a French Catholic boy and a French Jewish boy were added. In 1956, a Berber boy and a French girl were brought back from a tour of North Africa. Finally she added an African boy to the family. (Her husband was not sure they could afford to have all these children; he and Josephine had a very rough patch over it in 1957 and separated soon afterward.) Josephine continued to tour, needing the money; she added a South American Indian to the group in 1959 and then another French orphan that year, and her last adoption was of a Moroccan girl in 1962. She called her children "the Rainbow Tribe."
She appeared at the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and played Carnegie Hall later that year. However, she was not doing all that well financially; the strain and worry contributed to the heart attack she had in July 1964. Help from rich friends helped her stave off her creditors for a few years, but in 1968 they succeeding in forcing the sale of her estate to pay her debts. She managed to postpone her eviction a while, but was physically forced out in March 1969. She collapsed from exhaustion that day and was hospitalized, but two days later opened her planned show in Paris. Grace Kelly and her husband Prince Rainier found her and the Tribe a place to live in France (near Monaco).
Though she was getting older, she could still appear glamorous on stage, and kept performing even though she remarked "I'm too old to play Josephine Baker." In 1973, she appeared at Carnegie Hall again to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her performance in Shuffle Along. She was also a guest of Golda Meir that year for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the country of Israel. During a 17-city tour of the U.S. it started to become obvious that her memory was not at its best, and her performances suffered from her exhaustion. In 1974, she appeared in a semi-autobiographical show in Monaco to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her first appearances in France. The show then opened in Paris in April 1975. After its second performance there, she was intensely happy with its success and wanted to stay out late partying afterward. She did get home, slept a while, woke up and ate, then went for a nap before a scheduled interview at 5:00 p.m. However, she could not be roused from that nap. She had had a stroke in her sleep and was now in a coma. Though she was taken to the hospital, she died without regaining consciousness. Due to her service during World War II, she was given a full-scale military funeral in Paris and later buried in Monaco.
Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 2000.