21.1.09

She Was The Toast of Paris


Josephine Baker.
(Text cited from Wikipedia)

She was born Freda Josephine McDonald on 3 June, 1906 in East St. Louis, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Baker's true ethnic background is unknown. Her father's identity is debated among historians. Nevertheless her estate credits vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson as her natural father, but according to a biography written by her foster son Jean-Claude Baker: "… (Josephine Baker's) father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw" … I think Josephine's father was white — so did Josephine, so did her family … people in St. Louis say that (Josephine's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). (Carrie) let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along … (but) Josephine knew better."

Her mother, Carrie, was adopted in Little Rock, AK in 1886 by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom were former slaves of both African and Native American descent. When Josephine was 8 she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her and burned Josephine's hands when she put to much soap in the laundry. She later went to work for another woman who treated her fairly.

Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12, and started her career as a dancer and street performer by the age of 13. She entered vaudeville joining the St. Louis Chorus at 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position in which the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if they were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point they would not only perform it correctly, but with additional complexity. She was then billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville."


On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Baker's success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave us the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in ethnic forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion.

In later shows in Paris she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.

After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her "… the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). Although Baker is often credited as a movie star, her starring roles ended with Princesse Tamtam in 1935.

At this time she also scored her greatest song hit, "J'ai deux amours" (1931) and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino — a Sicilian former stonemason who passed himself off as a Sicilian count — Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, went through a significant transformation. In 1934 she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La créole at the Théâtre Marigny in the Champs-Élysées of Paris, which premiered in December of that year for a six month run. In preparation for her performances she went through months of training with a vocal coach.

In the words of Shirley Bassey, who has cited Baker as her primary influence, "… she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique' … I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."

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