Original 1956 silver gelatin A.G.I.P. photograph of Josephine Baker's farewell appearance and celebration gala. Image size: 6 1/4 x 4 7/8 inches; overall size with mat and frame: 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975) renounced her U.S. citizenship to became a French national and American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. Her international career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in France. She was also the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics.
During her early career Baker was renowned as a dancer, and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in Paris. Her costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, became an iconic image and a symbol of the Jazz Age and the 1920s. She became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life both in her professional career and personal life to fighting racism.
She first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances. By 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, Josephine married a man Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Along as a member of the chorus. The comic touch she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to parlay these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favorite.
In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker traveled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt. The following year, at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era, Baker’s career would reach a major turning point. In a performance called La Folie du Jour, Baker danced wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe, having the admiration of cultural figures like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings and earning herself nicknames like “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” She also received more than 1,000 marriage proposals.
Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the “Black Venus”, the "Black Pearl", the "Bronze Venus", and the "Creole Goddess". She was also known for aiding the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. When she arrived in New York with her husband, composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because of racial discrimination. She was so upset by this treatment that she wrote articles about the segregation in the United States. She also began traveling into the South. She gave a talk at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, on "France, North Africa and the Equality of the Races in France.
Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Baker was the only official female speaker. While wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur she introduced the "Negro Women for Civil Rights," Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates.
In 1968 Baker was back on stage at the Olympia in Paris. She also performed in Belgrade and at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium and at the Gala du Cirque in Paris in 1974. On 8 April 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris: Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue, financed notably by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.
Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, April 12, 1975.