Entertainer and activist Josephine Baker is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. June 3rd, 2017, would be her 111th birthday. Baker is best known for being the first African American to become an internationally recognized performer, and the first to headline her own film, Zouzou, in 1934. Today, she remains a defining cultural figure of the period.
Baker, also known by a variety of different nicknames, including “Bronze Venus,” “Creole Goddess,” and “Black Pearl,” was born on June 3rd, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri and died on April 12th, 1975 in Paris, France.
“With her kohl-rimmed eyes and exotic costumes, Josephine Baker pounced onto the global stage in the 1920s, becoming a Jazz Age icon and one of the first internationally recognized African-American entertainers,” Google says. “A celebrity in Europe – and one of the most photographed women on the planet – Baker nonetheless faced racially charged comments from the press when she returned to the U.S. in 1936 for a short-lived starring turn in the Broadway series Ziegfeld Follies. Championing diversity and fighting for civil rights would become an enduring concern throughout her life…There’s little doubt why Ernest Hemingway once called her “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw—or ever will.”
Learn more about Baker, her personal life, and her groundbreaking career here:
1. She Began Performing At An Early Age
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri. She was born to Carrie McDonald, a stage performer, and Eddie Carson, McDonald’s song-and-dance partner and the man that Baker’s estate identifies as her biological father. There is some controversy surrounding this however, as is documented in the 1993 biography Josephine: The Hungry Heart, written by Baker’s step-son Jean-Claude Baker. Nevertheless, McDonald and Carson began exposing their daughter to show business at an early age, bringing her out on stage after their performances and living in a neighborhood that was home to several vaudeville theaters.
After a falling out with her mother at age 8, Baker took on a series of odd jobs to support herself, including doing laundry as a live-in domestic. It was her street-corner dancing, however, which she did on her off hours, that brought her back into the limelight, as she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. During her time as a chorus dancer, Baker traveled to New York City and appeared in seminal Broadway revues like Shuffle Along (1921) and Chocolate Dandies (1924). She was billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.”
Ironically, it was not Baker’s dancing, but her ability to do blackface comedy that landed her the opportunity to tour Paris, according to the 2009 documentary Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar. She sailed to Paris and opened her first show, La Revue Négre, in 1925. She was 19.
2. She Rose to Fame In Paris During the 1920s
Almost instantly, Baker became a sensation in Paris for her erotic dancing and seductive outfits. She caused a sensation when she performed the “Danse sauvage,” a dance that saw her don a costume made completely out of bananas. It remains the first of its kind and arguably the most iconic fashion statement of her career. Baker would later add a cheetah to her act, who wore a diamond collar and accompanied her onstage.
In Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Jean-Paul adds that the cheetah, named “Chiquita,” would often escape into the orchestra pit during Baker’s performance, and would terrorize the musicians and the audience. It wound up only adding the excitement and unpredictability of her show. Her most popular song at the time was “J’ai deux amours.”
This stage success led to exposure in other mediums, as Baker would become the first African American to star in her own films– namely, Zouzou and Princess Tam Tam (1935). Both films are public domain and are available for streaming on YouTube.
3. She Served As French Military Intelligence During WWII
While known primarily for her risqué dance numbers and sultry presence, Baker proved a vital asset to the allies during World War II. In 1939, nearly three years before the United States got involved, Baker was recruited by French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent.” This meant that she would collect information on German officers that came to see her perform or that she met at parties in Paris. According to the 1989 biography Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, her fame allowed her to “rub shoulders,” with those that were otherwise off limits, including Japanese officials and Italian bureaucrats.
As WWII continued, Baker toured Spain to collect information on the enemy, where it was said that she smuggled written notes inside of her underwear– given her celebrity status, she was not subject to strip searches. After the war ended, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by legendary General Charles de Gaulle.
4. She Was Married Four Times
In the midst of her globe-trotting career, Baker also found time to get married four times. She wed her first husband, Willie Wells, when she was only 13. Needless to say, the marriage didn’t have much of a leg to stand on, and the couple separated soon after. She married another Willie, Willie Baker, in 1921, and his greatest claim to fame is that he gave her the surname she would use onstage for the rest of her career. Outside of this, the marriage was all but done for when Baker began having an affair with famed Belgian novelist Georges Simenon in 1925.
In 1937, Baker married Frenchman Jean Lion, and while the marriage enabled her to attain citizenship in France, she and Lion separated three years later. Her fourth and final marriage was to Jo Bouillon, a French composer, in 1947, which ended yet again in divorce. She never had children with any of her husbands.
In addition to these marriages, Baker was romantically linked to artist Robert Brady, and, according to her step-son Jean-Claude Baker, also had relationships with women in secret. In his biography, Jean-Claude claims that Baker and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo were involved for a brief time.
5. She Was A Pivotal Figure During the Civil Rights Movement
Despite being based in France, where she would spend most of her life, Baker was a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. She published articles about segregation in the United States, she traveled to Tennessee to give speeches at Fisk University, and, most notably, refused to perform for segregated audiences. In one instance, a Miami nightclub offered her $10,000 to do so, and she flatly refused. Her insistence was largely responsible for the move towards integrated crowds comes the 60s. Baker also worked closely with the NAACP, to the point where the organization dubbed May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.” Watch an interview from the inaugural 1951 ceremony above.
During this time period, Baker took the notion of equality into her own life, as she began adopting children who she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” According to CMGWW, she wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” In total, she adopted twelve children: daughters Marianne and Stellina, and sons Jeannot, Akio, Luis, Jari, Moïse, Brahim, Koffi, Noël, Mara and Jean-Claude. In her later years, Baker took her family with her when she toured cross-country, so that they could share in the sights and sounds of the world.
Baker died as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12th, 1975. She was the only American-born woman in history to receive full French military honors at her funeral.