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Josephine Baker (Freda Josephine McDonald) was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents were Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson. After Eddie left them both alone, her mom married a man named Arthur Martin. Her mother had a son and two daughters, with him giving Josephine siblings. She grew up cleaning houses, and other things for a very wealthy family. When she turned twelve years old she dropped out of school. After she dropped out she lived as a street child for awhile and she slept in cardboard boxes, and started rummaging through garbage cans for food.
Josephine toured with the Junes Family Band and the Dixie Steppers in 1919.When she turned thirteen she got a job as a waitress at The Old Chauffer’s Club. While there she met Willie Wells who she then married in 1921. That same year they divorced and she then married Willie Baker whose last name she kept. When the tour was over everyone went their separate ways.
Josephine then tried to get a part as a chorus girl for the Dixie Steppers in a production called “Shuffle Along”. Sadly she was rejected because they said she was “too dark and too skinny”.
Turned down, she still learned the chorus line’s while working as the dresser. So when one of the dancers’s had to leave, Josephine was the obvious person for the job. Onstage she rolled her eyes and acted clumsy. The audience absolutely loved it. This made Josephine a big person in the show that people really paid to see.
She enjoyed her success at The Plantation Club after “Shuffle Along”. But shortly after when Josephine traveled to Paris for “La Revue Negre” it was definitely the turning point in her career. Her and her partner Joe Alex dazzled the audience with the Danse Sauvage. The whole routine was new and out of this world and Josephine wore nothing but a banana skirt. By the end of the show she was an overnight sensation. Due to her popularity she got paid a good amount of money, which was mostly spent on clothes, jewelry, and pets. Josephine adored animals; she owned a leopard named Chiquita, a chimpanzee named Ethel, a pig named Albert, a snake named Kiki, a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats, and seven dogs. Her career was very successful in Paris when La Revue Negre closed.
Her performance, including a costume made of sixteen bananas strung into a skirt, also made her very famous. Josephine was in competition with Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as one of the most photographed woman in the world. By 1927 she earned more money than any entertainer in Europe. In addition to dancing she also was a singer. Her most famous song was J’ai deux amours which she made in 1931. Although she was very famous in France she could never gain the same reputation in America. When she visited America in 1935-1936 her performances received such poor reviews for her role in Ziegfeld Follies. The American audience didn’t accept the idea of a black woman with so much power. The New York Times called her a “Negro Wench” and she returned back to France melancholy. When she returned she later married Frenchman Jean Lion. When asked if she was ready to give up being American she said yes without hesitation.
When World War II started she volunteered to spy for her country. She had to report to the French government if she heard anything. Josephine agreed since she was against the Nazi and not only because she was black but because her husband was Jewish. She also smuggled secret messages by writing on her sheet music with invisible ink. In 1942 she gave birth to a stillborn child that almost killed her, resulting in an emergency hysterectomy. She was then told she wouldn’t be able to have children on her own. In 1946 she was awarded with the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance. In 1947 she married Jo Bouillon who was an orchestra leader. In 1951 Josephine returned to the United States for a tour. The main reason she went to The United States was to fight segregation. Josephine desperately wanted the venues that she performed at to be equally mixed (with African-Americans, and Caucasians). She also refused to stay in hotels that were segregated.
After she said this she was then given The Outstanding Woman of the Year award by the NAACP. Between 1954 and 1965 she adopted twelve children of different races, which consisted of ten boys whose names were Akio, Janot, Luis, Jari, Jean-Claude, Moise, Brahim, Koffi, Mara, and Noel. The two girl’s names were Marianne, and Stellina. She referred to her kids as the Rainbow Tribe. She adopted all of these kids to prove that children of different cultures and religions could still be united. She always brought them cross-country with her so everyone could see how happy they were and that being from different races didn’t make them feel any type of way. Josephine agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1973. She was very nervous about how the audience and critics would judge her because of previous experience.
At this point in time culture and race was very much understood. The audience gave her a standing ovation before she even performed. She was so happy that she cried while onstage. On April 8, 1975 she made a debut at The Bobino Theater. Lots of celebrities were there to see Josephine (who was 68 at the time) perform a combination of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews that were written were the best she ever received. A few days later Josephine fell into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12. Lots of people crowded the streets in Paris to watch the funeral go to the church. The French government appreciated her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman buried in France with military honors.
Work’s Cited Page
Louck, Tracie, and Barbara Haberman. “The Official Josephine Baker Website.”Http://www.cmgworldwide.com. CMG Worldwide. Web. 17 Feb. 2012. <http://www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/index.php>.
“In God We Trust and Other Poems.” In God We Trust and Other Poems. Gibbsmagizine, 01 Aug. 2005. Web. 17 Feb. 2012. <http://www.gibbsmagazine.com/Josephine%20Baker.htm>.
Baker, Jean-Claude, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Print.
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