Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Diesel Era Legend: Josephine Baker

I have to say that there are few women celebrities of the diesel era that can get my heart racing as Josephine Baker can. Known to the French as "La Baker" to me the nickname "Black Pearl," which was used in some English speaking nations, may be the most descriptive for she was indeed as beautiful and rare as any pearl one will ever find.

Josephine Baker started life as Freda Josephine McDonald born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. While her father was officially listed as Eddie Carson, who was a Vaudeville drummer, there are questions concerning who her father actually was. Her mother was working for a German family as a maid at the time she became pregnant and Josephine's foster son, Jean-Claude Baker, in a biography wrote that, though Josephine’s mother stuck to the story that her father was Carson, Josephine always believed that her father was white.

Baker’s childhood was extremely hard. At eight years old while working as a servant her employer, a white woman, burned her hands because she used too much soap in the wash. Later, when she was 12 she ran away to live on the streets in cardboard boxes and eating from garbage cans.

Her luck changed when at 15 she was discovered for her street-dancing and was signed up by the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville. From there she moved to New York where she performed at the Plantation Club as well as others. Her talent and reputation quickly grew as she became known as the "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville."

In 1925, Baker traveled to France where she opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Her erotic dance style and near nudity catapulted her to stardom. After touring Europe she returned to France and became the star of the Folies Bergères. It was there that she performed her famous Danse sauvage in which she wore a costume with a skirt of artificial bananas.

As her fame quickly grew to mega-stardom she became close to famous individuals such as Christian Dior, Pablo Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway called her, "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." She made several movies and recorded several successful songs. Briefly she returned to the States and appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies but never received acclaim in America. In fact, she was ridiculed in the American press such as by The New York Times, which called her a "Negro wench." In 1937 she returned to France, married a Frenchman named Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. Later, in 1947 she married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon.

Upon success Baker showed a love for the good life and living how she saw fit. According to the Josephine Baker Official site she loved to spend her money on jewelry and clothes in addition to all kinds of exotic pets, which included a chimpanzee, a leopard, a snake, a pig, a parrot, a goat, three cats and seven dogs. This love for enjoying life and independence included her personal relationships. In his biography of her, Jean-Claude Baker stated that she was bisexual and had several female lovers while she was single as well as married.

Baker’s fame was such that during the Nazi occupation of France, even though she was black and her husband was Jewish, she was able to continue to perform and interacted with Axis officers and government officials. What the Nazis didn’t know was that she was working as a spy for the French Resistance by passing on information that she picked up in her interactions with the Nazis. In addition, as she traveled to neutral countries she assisted the Resistance by transporting secrets written in invisible ink. Baker was also successful in helping individuals fleeing the Nazis to obtain papers allowing them to escape France during the occupation. At the end of World War II the French military awarded her the Croix de guerre.

In the years after the war Baker became active in the American Civil Rights movement. Baker was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. She stood before the crowd wearing her Free French uniform and her medal of the Légion d'honneur. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King she was asked by Coretta Scott King to take over leadership in the American Civil Rights movement but she declined. Baker continued to fight for racial equality until her death on April 12, 1975.


Alan Berber said...

Even now in 2011, a person like me sees her as his great inspiration.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

I share the same feelings, Alan. I find Josephine Baker to be a great inspiration to me as well.

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