Josephine Baker

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Baker, Josephine,

1906–75, African-American dancer and singer, b. St. Louis, Mo., as Freda Josephine McDonald. In 1923 and 1924 she appeared in Broadway chorus lines. She became a sensation in Paris in La Revue Nègre (1925), renowned for her jazz singing, dancing, and exotically skimpy costumes. By 1927 she was one of Europe's most famous and highly paid entertainers. Naturalized as a French citizen in 1937, she worked for the Resistance in World War II and was awarded (1961) the Legion of Honor. She died in Paris after 14 triumphant performances of Josephine, celebrating her 50 years as a performer in Paris.


See P. Rose, Jazz Cleopatra (1989); J.-C. Baker and C. Chase, Josephine (1994); B. Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life (2007); J. Mackrell, Flappers (2014).

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Baker, Josephine (b. Freda Josephine McDonald)

(1906–75) dancer, entertainer; born in St. Louis, Mo. An amateur singer and dancer by age eight, she ran off at age 13 to tour with a vaudeville show. In 1921 she made her Broadway debut in Shuffle Along and also began to sing in Harlem's Plantation Club. In 1925 she went to Paris with a show called La Revue Nègre, but the show failed and she and many cast members were stranded there. She was hired to appear in an all-black act at the Folies Bergère and became an instant success with her scanty costume, lively dancing, scat singing, and uninhibited cavorting. As the epitome of "le jazz hot, " "Josephine" would remain the toast of France for five decades and also gain an international status that reached her homeland largely as a reputation; she would never accept the second-class status assigned to most blacks in America, so she long boycotted the U.S.A., becoming a French citizen in 1937. Her appearances on stage and in public were distinguished by her exotic costumes and outrageous behavior. During World War II she cooperated with the French Resistance movement by providing intelligence she was able to pick up through her privileged travels abroad. After the war she took up the cause of world brotherhood, adopting 12 children of various races and religions and raising them at her estate in France. In 1951, while touring in the States, she was refused service in the Stork Club and this led to false charges by columnist Walter Winchell that she was a communist and had consorted with Nazis during World War II. In the 1950s she took up the cause of racial equality in America, forcing the integration of several theaters and night clubs, and she was among those who addressed the crowds before the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington. Her plans for a "world village" at her estate, meanwhile, collapsed under financial debt and in order to raise money she made a comeback in 1973–75.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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