Freda Josephine( baker ) Mcdonald
(June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975)
She was a beautiful, provocative, dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus” and even the “Creole Goddess”. She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934) or to become one of the world-famous entertainers. She is a member of the NAACP and her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement are historically written in time. She was once offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King in 1968, following Martin Luther King, Jr.’S assassination, She turned down the offer. She was also known for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and received the French military honor, the Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. She is also known as the mother of “THE RAINBOW TRIBE” (all her children were from different nations which she adopted).
Freda Josephine McDonald Aka Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri; her parents were Eddie Carson and Carrie McDonald. Unfortunately her father left Carrie to raise her by herself. Carrie and Eddie had a song-and-dance act, playing wherever they could get work, and when Josephine was about a year old they began to carry her onstage occasionally during their finale. Eventually as some entertainment couples do her father left and Josephine was raised by her Mother. She went to elementary school her life and emotional state was very intense which eventually as a young child led her to leave academics studies entirely. She did work as a domestic help as she honed into her entertainment gifts.
Her talent for dancing which she did in public place to receive money to live finally attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. After the show she relocated to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance which was the very lucrative as a career move for her. She had billings performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along( 1921) with Adelaide Hall which became one of her close friends and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position where, traditionally, the dancer performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. She was loved and adored by all and had a strong following. As history has this written in time Josephine became at that time as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
She eventually would leave the US after hearing about Europe and the treatment toward balck entertainers and the success there. She ventured off and traveled to Paris, France, and opened in “La Revue Nègre” on October 2, 1925, there she became an instant success and international star After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergère, 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. Her success coincided with the Art Deco time period and also with a renewal of interest in non-western forms of art, including African. Josephine represented one aspect of this fashion. At this time she was known as the most successful and influential American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw. Josephine also took on the big screen and starred in three films that found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.
At this time she released a single which became one of her most famous song called “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 count — Baker’s stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, were transformed. In 1934, she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach s opera La créole, which premiered in December of that year for a six-month run at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées of Paris. She is known to have said Shirley Bassie is her role model. After another tour she came back to visit the United States in 1935–36, American audiences rejected the idea that a black woman could be so sophisticated; her star turn in the Ziegfeld Follies generated less than impressive box office numbers, and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Time magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench”. She returned to Europe heartbroken feeling that her own rejected and the media massacre on her. She went back to and married a Frenchman who was Jewish name Jean Lion she denounced her citizenship in the United States without hesitation and became a French Citizen. In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent”. Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She specialized in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, while gathering information. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she heard. She attended parties at the Italian embassy without any suspicion falling on her and gathered information. When the Germans invaded France, Baker left Paris and went to the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France. She housed friends who were eager to help the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle and supplied them with visas. As an entertainer, Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal and some in South America, carrying information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations in the West of France. It would be written in invisible ink on Josephine’s sheet music. After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. In 1949, a reinvented Baker returned in triumph to the Folies Bergere. Bolstered by recognition of her wartime heroics, Baker the performer assumed a new gravitas, unafraid to take on serious music or subject matter. The engagement was a rousing success, and reestablished Baker as one of Paris’ preeminent entertainers.
The year 1951 saw Baker invited back to the US for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club’s audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. Rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences accompanied her everywhere, climaxed by a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem in honor of Baker’s new title: the NAACP’s Woman of the Year. Baker’s short-term future looked bright — six months of bookings lay ahead, with promises of much more to come. An incident at the Stork Club, however (see below), brought all of Baker’s plans to an abrupt halt. Baker criticized columnist Walter Winchell, an old ally of Baker’s, for not rising to her defense; Winchell responded swiftly with a series of harsh rebukes. The ensuing publicity resulted in the termination of Baker’s work visa, forcing her to cancel all her future engagements and eventually return to France. It was almost a decade before US officials allowed Baker back into the country.
In January 1966, Fidel Castro invited Baker to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba at the 7th anniversary celebrations of his revolution. Her spectacular show in April broke attendance records. In 1968, Baker visited Yugoslavia and made appearances in Belgrade and in Skopje.
In her later career, She faced money troubles and made comments like, “Nobody wants me, they’ve forgotten me.” However, family members encouraged her to continue performing. As a result in 1973, she opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation, and in 1974, she appeared in a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. That same year, Baker performed at the Monacan Red Cross Gala, celebrating the forthcoming anniversary for her 50 years in French show business. With Josephine’s advancing years, and with exhaustion, her memory was becoming unreliable. Sometimes she had trouble remembering the words of her songs, and her speeches between them tended to ramble, nonetheless she continued to captivate audiences regardless of their age.
In 1951, Josephine Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan, where she alleged that she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (although she did in fact appear there on January 3, 1956 with Prince Rainier of Monaco). The two women became close friends after the incident. Testament to this was made evident when Baker was near bankruptcy and was offered a villa and financial assistance by Kelly (who by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco. (However, during his work on the Stork Club book, author and New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was contacted by Jean-Claude Baker, one of Josephine Baker’s sons. Having read a Blumenthal-written story about Leonard Bernstein’s FBI file, he indicated that he had read his mother’s FBI file and, using comparison of the file to the tapes, said he thought the Stork Club incident was overblown.
Josephine Baker did work with the NAACP. Her reputation as a crusader grew to such an extent that the NAACP had Sunday 20 May 1951 declared Josephine Baker Day. She was presented with life membership of the NAACP by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Ralph Bunche. The honor she was paid spurred her to further her crusading efforts with the “Save Willie McGee” rally and the 1948 beating of the furniture shop owner in Trenton, New Jersey. As Josephine became increasingly regarded as controversial, even many blacks began to shun her, fearing that her reputation would hurt their cause.
In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Josephine Baker was the only official female speaker and 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 were among those she acknowledged and both gave brief speeches. After King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in the Netherlands to ask if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were “too young to lose their mother”.
Baker was married four times. Her first marriage was to pullman porter Willie Wells in 1918 when she was just 13 years old. The marriage was reportedly a very unhappy one and the couple divorced a short time later. She married Willie Baker in 1921 but that marriage also was short-lived. She retained that last name simply because her career began taking off during that time, and it was the name by which she became best known. In 1937, she married Frenchman Jean Lion, during which time she received French citizenship and became a permanent expatriate. She and Lion separated before he passed away. In 1947, she married French composer Jo Bouillon whom she also divorced. She was later involved for a time with artist Robert Brady, but they never married. Josephine Baker had adopted many children and she named them “The Rainbow Tribe”. Josephine wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Château des Milandes tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in “The Rainbow Tribe” were. Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.For some time, she lived with her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château des Milandes, in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband French conductor Jo Bouillon. In 1964, Josephine Baker sold her castle after Princess Grace offered her an apartment in Roquebrune, near Monaco.
Baker was back on stage at the Olympia in Paris in 1968, in Belgrade in 1973, at Carnegie Hall in 1973, at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1974 and at the Gala du Cirque in Paris in 1974. On April 8, 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. 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, on April 12, 1975. She received a full Roman Catholic funeral which was held at L’Église de la Madeleine. The only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Baker locked up the streets of Paris one last time. After a family service at Saint-Charles Church in Monte Carlo Baker was interred at Monaco’s Cimetière de Monaco.
JOSEPHINE BAKER was A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH AS A INNOVATOR of her craft, WIFE, MOTHER, ENTERTAINER, SOCIAL ACTIVIST, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST AND HUMANITARIAN. HER LEGACY WILL FOREVER LIVE ON THROUGH HER FAMILY AND HER WORKS.
Never Compromise Who and What You Are Live Your Dream with The Best Integrity.
Never Except Defeat.
Place Joséphine Baker in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris was named in her honor. She has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and on March 29, 1995, into the Hall of Famous Missourians. The Piscine Joséphine Baker is a swimming pool along the banks of the Seine in Paris named after her.
Josephine Baker’s two sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry (Jari), grew up to go into business together, running the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theatre Row, 42nd Street, New York, which celebrates Baker’s life and works.