Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906 to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Her father abandoned them shortly afterward, and her mother married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin.
Josephine grew up cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families who reminded her "be sure not to kiss the baby." At 13 years of age, she got a job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur's Club. While waiting tables she met and had a brief marriage to Willie Wells. While it was unusual for a woman during her era, Josephine never depended on a man for financial support. Therefore, she never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured. She was married and divorced three more times, to American Willie Baker in 1921 (whose last name she chose to keep), Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937 (from whom she attained French citizenship) and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 (who helped to raise her 12 adopted children).
Josephine got her start working with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919. She then tried to become a chorus girl for The Dixie Steppers in Sissle and Blake's production Shuffle Along. She was rejected because she was "too skinny and too dark." However, she learned the routines of the chorus line girls while working as a dresser. This made her the obvious replacement when a dancer left. The audience loved her touch of comedy and Josephine was a box office draw for the rest of the show's run.
When Josephine traveled to Paris for a new venture, La Revue Nègre, it proved to be a turning point in her career. The audience was captivated with Danse Sauvage, a new and exotic dance performed by her and dance partner Joe Alex. Josephine dressed in a feather skirt and worked the audience into a frenzy with her uninhibited movements. She was an overnight sensation.
Josephine's comfortable salary was spent mostly on clothes, jewelry and pets. She loved animals. She owned a leopard, a chimpanzee, a pig, a snake, a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs.
Her career thrived in the integrated Paris society. Josephine rivaled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the world, and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. She starred in only two movies in the early 1930s, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. Her family from St. Louis to Les Milandes, her estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, France.
Ms. Baker returned to Europe heartbroken after a failed return to the United States in 1936. It seems our country just wasn't ready to acknowled a black woman with so much sophistication and power.
Josephine served France during World War II in several ways. She performed for the troops, and was an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance (undercover work included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets) and a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She was later awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication.
The 50s and 60s found Josephine back in the United States fighting racism. This included a media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter winchell.
It was also during that her "Rainbow Tribe" as she often called them was formed. Josephine began adopting children of different ethnicities and religions to prove they could live as brothers.
During continued visites to the U.S., Josephine gained a close friendship with Robert Brady. Since she was divorced from her fourth husband, she was looking for a platonic relationship. Robert felt the same way and in September of 1973, in an empty church in Acapulco, Mexico, with no clergy present, they exchanged vows. Though they were never legally married, it was an important personal bond that she and Brady maintained the rest of her life. Josephine told very few people about the pseudo marriage, fearing the press would ridicule it.
In the same year, 1973, Josephine performed at Carnegie Hall. Because of past experiences, she was very nervous but received a standing ovation before the concert even began. This unexpected welcome brought Josephine to tears.
Josephine Baker died at the age of 68 on April 12, 1975 from a cerebral hemorrage.