glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Bookmark and Share
Baker, Josephine (1906-1975)  
page: 1  2  

Ambitious, beautiful, and talented, the toast of Europe and South America at the height of her fame, Josephine Baker was born in poverty in a slum area of St. Louis, Missouri. By the mid-1920s she was captivating audiences in Paris as a dancer, singer, and actress, and by the mid-1930s she had achieved acclaim as the twentieth century's first international black female sex symbol.

Famous for her glamorous, extravagant lifestyle, when it came to pursuing her goals Baker could be devious, manipulative, and relentless. She was also always willing to break the rules, especially those relating to sex.

Because her mother Carrie McDonald was unmarried at the time of Baker's birth in St. Louis on June 3, 1906, she was given the name Freda J. McDonald. It is not known what the "J" stood for, but she began to be called Josephine sometime in her childhood, possibly because her godmother was Josephine Cooper, the owner of a laundry where her mother worked.

As the oldest child of a poor black family, Baker was put to work by age seven to bring in money, mostly as a domestic in the homes of white families. The sexual abuse she suffered in at least one of those homes, along with her family's poverty and the racism endemic to America, meant that early on she was looking for a way to escape the circumstances of her early life.

A marriage in 1919 to a black St. Louis steelworker named Willie Wells did not last; there was no divorce, but since Baker was only thirteen years old at the time, under Missouri state law the marriage was not legal anyway. Then in November 1920 the young woman's fortunes changed when under the name Josephine Wells she was hired as a chorus girl for a black vaudeville touring company.

Baker proved so charismatic onstage that her career quickly blossomed, and by September 1924 she was starring as one of the leads in the all-black Broadway musical The Chocolate Dandies, music and lyrics by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Along the way, she married Billy Baker, son of a prominent black Philadelphia restaurateur. She shed this second marriage almost as soon as she had the first--again without obtaining a divorce--but kept the surname. For the rest of her life, she would be known as Josephine Baker.

In autumn 1925, Baker sailed for Europe, where she took Paris by storm in the musical extravaganza La Revue Nègre, the brainchild of Caroline Dudley Reagan, a white American obsessed with the idea of introducing the African-American "black soul" to Parisian audiences in the form of a black musical revue.

Quick to take advantage of her European success, Baker broke her contract with Reagan three months after her arrival in Paris to headline a show at the Folies-Bergère, and from then to the end of her life was a regular fixture on Paris stages, with side engagements in other parts of Europe, the U.S., and Latin America.

She also starred in three movies made in France: the silent Siren of the Tropics (1927), and the talkies Zou Zou (1934) and Princess Tam Tam (1935).

Baker's most famous song hit, "J'ai deux amours," was recorded in 1931. Proclaiming "I have two loves: my country and Paris," the ballad, written by Vincent Scotto, not only became her signature song, but also captured the divided loyalties of the "lost generation," particularly since Baker became a kind of muse for such American expatriate writers as Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In 1937 Baker married white French businessman Jean Lion. This marriage, like the others, also did not last long--they formally divorced in 1941--but it achieved one all-important goal: Under French law, the marriage qualified her for French citizenship, which she obtained immediately after the wedding.

During World War II Baker worked for the Resistance, first in France, then in North Africa after the Nazis occupied her new homeland. After the war, the French government rewarded her service with three distinguished honors: the Medal of Resistance, the Cross of War, and the Legion of Honor.

Her work for the Resistance led to the emergence of a more "serious" Baker after the war. In particular, she became an outspoken critic of racism and a vocal supporter of the American civil rights movement.

In 1947 Baker wed white gay French jazz bandleader Jo Bouillon, a marriage that at least on paper lasted until her death.

    page: 1  2   next page>  
zoom in
Josephine Baker.
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about The Arts
Popular Topics:

Social Sciences

Stonewall Riots
Stonewall Riots

Gay Liberation Front

The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980
The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980

Leather Culture

Anthony, Susan B.
Anthony, Susan B.

Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence



Computers, the Internet, and New Media





This Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.