27 August 2013

Imported from the USA: Josephine Baker

Today, we continue our new series 'Imported from the USA'. Tall and dark Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was an American singer and dancer who became a legend in Europe. In 1925 'the Bronze Venus' became an instant success in Paris with her coffee skin, ebony eyes, long legs, and 'smile to end all smiles'. She was the first African American female to become a world-famous entertainer, to integrate an American concert hall, and to star in a major film, the French production La Sirene des Tropiques/Siren of the Tropics (1927).

Josephine Baker
Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 5293. Photo: Walery, Paris

Racial Discrimination

Josephine Baker was born Frida Josephine McDonald in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, US. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a laundress, and her father, Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer.

Josephine dropped out of school at the age of 12, and first danced for the public on the streets of St. Louis for nickels and dimes.

At 15, she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show, and she married a Pullman porter named William Howard Baker. Two years later she left him and ran away from St. Louis, feeling there was too much racial discrimination in the city.

She headed to New York City and during the Harlem Renaissance, she performed 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.

Josephine Baker was then billed as 'the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.'

Albert Préjean
Albert Prejean. German Postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6201/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Paramount.

Banana Dance

In 1925, Josephine Baker opened in Paris in La revue negre 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. She quickly became a favourite of the French, and her fame grew.

Baker performed in a handful of silent and early sound films, including La Sirene des Tropiques/Siren of the Tropics (Henri Étiévant, Mario Nalpas, 1927) at the side of Pierre Batcheff, Zouzou (Marc Allégret, 1934) opposite Jean Gabin, and La princesse Tam Tam/Princess Tam-Tam (Edmond T. Gréville, 1935) with Albert Préjean.

At this time she also scored her greatest song hit, J'ai deux amours (1931).

In 1937 she renounced her American citizenship and became a citizen of France.

During World War II she served in the French Resistance for which she would receive the highest French military honour, the Croix de Guerre.

Josephine Baker
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin, no. 5293, 1970.

Communist Sympathizer?

Josephine Baker had many ups and downs during her career.

Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. In 1951 the Stork Club in New York City had refused to serve her because she was black. This led to a confrontation with columnist Walter Winchell.

Later, she was falsely accused of being a communist sympathizer, and the FBI started a file on her. During the McCarthy era, she was told that she was no longer welcome in the United States.

In France, she was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, France's highest honour, in 1961.

In the late 1960's, she began having financial difficulties, and stopped performing in 1968. Princess Grace offered her a home in Monaco when she learned of Josephine's financial problems.

At the request of Princess Grace, she performed at Monaco's summer ball in 1974, and was a great success. That same year, she staged a week of performances in New York and called the show An Evening with Josephine Baker.

Baker had just begun a Paris revue celebrating her half-century on the stage, when on 10 April 1975 she was stricken and went into a coma. She died without regaining consciousness.

Her funeral was held in Paris, and she was buried in Monaco.

Josephine Baker was married six times: to foundry worker Willie Wells (1919), William Howard Baker (1920-1923), 'Count' Pepito di Abatino (1926), French sugar magnate Jean Lion (1937-1938), orchestra leader Joe Bouillon (1947-1957) and finally to American artist Robert Brady (1973 till her death in 1975).

She adopted 12 children, partly because she couldn't have any of her own and partly because she believed in equality for all, no matter what nationality, religion or race.

Josephine Baker performs the Danse sauvage at the Folies Bergères. Source: dsmrtgrl (YouTube).

Josephine Baker in Pathécolor, shot for the French silent film La Revue Des Revues (1927). Source:  stjn00 (YouTube).

The first episode of 'Imported from the USA' was dedicated to Jayne Mansfield.

Sources: Wikipedia and IMDb.


Marie Reed said...

Josephine! I was hanging on every word of this post Bob! I just adore her fire, warmth, and talent! 12 children! Wowzers! I read somewhere that she was also an animal lover and always had cats, dogs, goats, and pigs running around the cabarets she was performing in! Happy PFF to you!

Pearl said...

Hi Bob... As always, another
very interesting post from you!
Great images and wonderful
history, too...
Love those white "Bobby" socks she wore! Hope all's going well with you, and...
Happy May Day!


Chandy said...

Wow, she is talented and beautiful indeed! A great post to start off May. Thank you!

Beth Niquette said...

What a wonderful blog! I wish I could have met this fascinating woman. Thank you for keeping her memory alive.

I have a hard time with prejudice. God made people like flowers in all shapes, sizes and colors.

Happy PFF!

Robin said...

Fabulous....your blog....

Love the postcard....but very delighted with all the background of J. Baker.
I shall have to come back and read more of your past postings.

Happy May Day.....I hope your day is beautiful.

Terry said...

Happy PFF,
Also Happy May Day to you.
I wish someday that all your wonderful postcards and information about them could be put into a book .
Maybe even several volumes.
Thank you for sharing the great images and information together.
Have a great weekend.

Wonder Turquette said...

I'd heard of Josephine Baker but didn't know her life story. Thank you for this very interesting and precious post! Have a nice weekend!

MuseSwings said...

This very talented and beautiful woman had such an interesting life! Thanks for sharing. I was here yesterday, but I also read your previous days post and then just kind of wandered off to Netflix to find one of Charles Boyer's early movies. I only recall seeing him in the 60' and 70's and didn't quite get why he was a "ladies man".