Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Josephine Baker

In the 1920s, Josephine Baker sashayed onto a Paris stage with a comic, sensual appeal the likes of which had never before been seem, and tore the place apart; she took Europe by storm. Wearing dresses that were barely-there and dancing with abandon, she was a celebration; she was the "Black Venus," the "Black Pearl" and the "Creole Goddess."

And yet, this fabulous life started quite simply.
She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin. Their family eventually grew to include a son and two more daughters.
Josephine grew up working hard, cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families who reminded her "be sure not to kiss the baby." At 13, waitressing at The Old Chauffeur's Club, she met and married, briefly, Willie Wells.
Women in those days depended on their men for support; but not Josephine. She never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured. Willie Wells lasted about a year.

During her lifetime, Josephine married, and divorced, three more times. Marriage number two, when Josephine was just fifteen, was to another Willie....Baker this time; and she chose to keep his last name.
Husband number three was Frenchman Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937--from whom she attained French citizenship.
Her last husband, French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, helped to raise her 12 adopted children.
But before all that. Before moving to Europe and setting the world on fire, Josephine toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919; when the troupes split, she auditioned for a role in the chorus in Shuffle Along. She was told she was "too skinny and too dark" to be a chorus girl. In those days chorus girls were boobs and butts--tits and ass--and white.
Still, while working as a dresser for the show, Josephine learned the chorus line's routines, and became the obvious replacement when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy; audiences adored her comedic touch. She was a box office draw for the rest of the show's run. Josephine had found her niche.
She enjoyed moderate success at The Plantation Club in New York after Shuffle Along, but when she traveled to Paris for a new venture, La Revue Nègre, it was a turning point in her career. Josephine and dance partner Joe Alex captivated the audience with the Danse Sauvage; everything about the routine was new and exotic. Josephine, boldly dressed in nothing but a feather skirt, worked the audience into frenzy with her uninhibited movements.
She was an overnight sensation.
Her career thrived in the integrated Paris society; no one cared that she was skinny and dark, she wan an entertainer! When La Revue Nègre closed, Josephine starred in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. Her jaw-dropping performances, including one in which she wore the infamous banana skirt--a costume made up solely of 16 bananas strung into a skirt--cemented her celebrity status. By 1927 she was earning more money than any entertainer in Europe.
Josephine Baker starred in two movies in the early 1930s, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. Still, her popularity and fame rose, and she was able to move her family from St. Louis to Les Milandes, her estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, France.
But a 1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies proved disastrous. Despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe, American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. In those days black women were maids and nannies; Josephine was sex; Josephine was on fire. Newspaper reviews were equally cruel--The New York Times called her a "Negro wench--and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.

America wasn't ready for a strong black woman.
During WWII, Josephine served France in several ways; performing for the troops, as a correspondent for the French Resistance--she worked undercover to smuggle secret messages written on her music sheets--and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She was awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government.
In the 1950s and 60s, Josephine visited the United States again, with renewed vigor to fight racism. When New York's popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.
It was also during this time that she began adopting children, forming a family she referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe." Josephine wanted to prove that "children of different ethnic backgrounds and religions could still be brothers."

In 1973, Josephine agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall. The reaction to her last performances in the US still fresh in her mind, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage.
On April 8, 1975 Josephine Baker premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Royalty and celebrities were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever.

Days later, Josephine Baker slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at on April 12. More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Her gravesite is in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.
From poverty to riches beyond her imagination; from washerwoman to diva to inspiration for every black female entertainer who came after her; from songstress to spy.
La Baker.

1 comment:

Joy said...

How interesting! I read it earlier today, and the storm knocked out my cable. I didn't know much about her and enjoyed learning!

I'm so glad you're writing these posts for Black History Month! Well done!