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Josephine Baker

*3rd June 1905, St Louis, Missouri, today USA

† 12th April 1975, Paris, today France

Josephine Baker (née Freda Josephine McDonald) was an American-born French singer, dancer, and actor.

Baker grew up in St. Louis, Missouri (USA) in an environment characterised by racism and segregation. At the age of eleven she witnessed a pogrom against African Americans in which dozens were killed.

Josephine Baker was only 16 when she toured across America with a vaudeville troupe and performed in New York as a chorus girl. It was there that she was discovered by German poet and talent scout Karl Gustav Vollmoeller.

In 1925 she turned her back on the United States and pursued an opportunity in Paris. On 2nd October 1925, Baker joined La Revue Nègre, a dancing ensemble made up of black women, and became a star in the French capital overnight. Her erotic, seductive “Danse sauvage” (“Wild Dance”) caused a sensation on the continent. Within two years Josephine Baker emerged as a celebrated style icon of the 20s and 30s. Baker also made a name for herself as a singer and actor. Throughout her tours, Baker was confronted with racism on the continent – a special mass was held in Vienna before her performance to discourage her alleged “moral violations”, while in Germany her performances were forbidden. During the Second World War, Baker (by this time a French citizen by marriage) joined the resistance as a spy and earned her pilot’s licence. Baker was involved in the American independence movement from the 1950s and in 1963 became the only woman to speak alongside Martin Luther King.

As a statement against racism and national fervour, Baker adopted 12 children from various different continents along with her fourth husband, forming her alternative family. She disowned her son Jarry, however, because he loved men.

Josephine Baker had many relationships with both men and women in her time, although she kept the latter secret. She is purported to have had an affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, for example. Josephine Baker was bisexual.

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