On this day in 1906 was the birth of Josephine Baker, the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, and the first to become a world-famous entertainer. Throughout her career she was known as: “Black Pearl,” “Jazz Cleopatra”, “Bronze Venus”, and the “Creole Goddess”, but she was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri; the daughter of two vaudeville performers. Having started out cleaning houses and babysitting for white families at a young age, Josephine eventually dropped out of school; at one point she lived on the streets and made money dancing on street corners. At the age of 15 however, she was recruited into a vaudeville act and eventually headed to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. She performed at the Plantation Club, and two successful Broadway reviews where she was the last girl in the chorus line; this was a set role where the dancer would perform each dance comically, until the very end when she would suddenly show her true talent and dance not just correctly, but with more complexity than the regular steps. At the time, Josephine was billed as the “highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”.
Her career really took off when she began to do blackface comedy at local clubs– she was already black, but would darken her face and perform comedy routines. (At the time, (racist) white audiences generally only wanted to see black performers if they were darker-skinned, so some black performers took advantage.) Her new role lead to her eventually touring in Paris, France. It was in France that she rose to fame, first doing musicals and then movies; she starred in Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934), and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). Around this same time, she became somewhat of a muse for numerous contemporary artists and authors, including Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior. However, Josephine never attained the same level of popularity in America and eventually gave up her American citizenship to become a French citizen.
During WW2, Josephine was recruited by the French Military Intelligence as an “honorable correspondent”, which meant she would go to parties and gatherings at ministries and embassies, gather information, and pass it along. Later she traveled around Europe, using her fame again as a cover to carry information about harbors, air fields, and German troops to the British. (Her notes were written in invisible ink on her sheet music!) Following the war, she received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and she was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
In the 1950s, Josephine began to get involved in the Civil Right’s Movement after being refused stay at thirty sixNew York hotels for being black. She wrote about her treatment and began to speak out against segregation while traveling the Southern U.S. She refused to perform at segregated clubs, causing some to cave. In 1951, she accused the Stork Club of racism, alleging that they refused to serve her. (Actress Grace Kelly, then Princess Consort to Ranier III of Monaco, was there at the time, took Josephine’s arm, and swept out of the club with her, swearing she would never come back.) However in the aftermath, Josephine scolded a columnist she knew for not rising to her defense. He turned on her and accused her of being a communist. Her work visa was revoked, and she did not return to the U.S. for almost 10 years.
Despite that, she was still involved in the Civil Right’s Movement and was made a lifetime member of the NAACP. In 1963 (after she been allowed back to the U.S.), she spoke at the March on Washington right at Rev. Martin Luther King’s side; she was the only official female speaker that day. After MLK’s assassination, his widow apparently approached Josephine and asked if she would take over as the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement in his place; after several days of thinking it over, she refused– but only because, as she said, her children were “too young to lose their mother”. Josephine had four marriages through her life (her first at only age 13, her second at age 15), and twelve children; two daughters and ten sons, who she collectively referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe”. Her adopted son has since stated that Josephine was in fact bisexual; she had relationships with men and women, including Frida Kahlo (while both women were married).
In April of 1975, Josephine starred in a revue (financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), celebrating her 50 years in show business. The show opened to rave reviews, and with an audience filled with celebrities. Four days after opening night, Josephine was found in bed, comatose from a cerebral hemorrhage, surrounded by newspapers with positive reviews of her performance. She died at that day at the age of 68, and was the only American-born woman ever to receive full French military honors at her funeral.