Born in 1907, Freda Josephine McDonald, Josephine, as she was later called, was destined to be an entertainer. Born to dancer Carrie McDonald and possibly Eddie Carson, (her father’s true identity has never been confirmed) who was also in show business, Josephine made her first appearance on stage at the age of one when the couple brought her onstage during the finale of their act.
After Carson abandoned McDonald and her young daughter, Carson took in laundry to help make ends meet. She soon married Arthur Martin, a kind but perpetually unemployed man. Josephine, at age 8 took work as a live in domestic for wealthy white families to help her mother put food on the table. After being abused by one of the women she worked for, Josephine left and made money on the streets of St. Louis as a street corner dancer. She married at age 13. The marriage lasted less than a year, and Josephine joined a street performance group called the Jones Family Band. Josephine, a naturally skilled dancer, added comedy to the troop’s act by acting silly and clumsy, but then crushing her dance routines at the finale.
At 15, Josephine married Willie Baker. Again, unhappy in marriage she divorced him four years later when her vaudeville troop decided to leave St. Louis for the bright lights of New York City. Josephine and the troop performed at the Plantation Club, and in successful Broadway reviews like Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, often in blackface.
Josephine’s distaste for conventional married life, and her ardent desire to become an entertainer, pained her mother, and the relationship between the two women became permanently strained.
As she became more popular in New York City, Josephine was soon offered an opportunity to tour in Paris, France. She opened in La Revue Nègre at age 19 at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees, where she enjoyed instant success. The French loved her provocative dancing and singing in her barely-there costumes, and word spread about the beautiful and funny ingenue. After a tour of Europe, Josephine returned to France to star in the Folies Bergère. Wearing only a thong strung with a skirt of fake bananas, Josephine performed the “Danse Sauvage,” the dance number that would catapult her to fame. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
She starred in two French movies in the early 1930’s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. With her growing wealth she moved her family from St. Louis Missouri to France, and purchased an estate in Catelnaud-Fayrac called Les Milandes. There, she acquired an assortment of animals including monkeys, cows and horses, dogs, and a pet cheetah she named Chiquita. Chiquita, wearing a collar of diamonds, often performed with her, but when she once jumped into the orchestra pit threatening the musicians, Chiquita had to go.
Baker became romantically involved with Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian born opportunist who passed himself off as a Count. Although pretentious about his own reputation, under his influence, Baker’s star began to rise. Abatino became Baker’s manager, and under his careful guidance Josephine started training with a vocal coach and her talent went into overdrive. She took the lead in a six-month long run of a revival of the opera, La Creole, cementing her reputation as a first-class performer. She and Abatino decided to take her act back to Josephine’s home, the United States, to perform for the 1936 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway.
While the French and the rest of Europe drank in Josephine’s intoxicating performances and personality, the audiences of the United States did not. Her Ziegfeld Follies run proved nothing short of disastrous with low box office sales and rejection from the press. The New York Times called her a “Negro Wench.”
Heart-broken, Josephine returned to France and renounced her American citizenship. In 1937 she became a French citizen and married French industrialist Jean Lion, but the marriage only lasted two years.
In 1939, France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland. Baker was recruited by French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent.” She gathered information for the French while at high society parties in Europe. She also carried secret messages to England written in invisible ink on her sheet music, as well as transporting notes with classified information pinned to her underwear. During this time, Baker also entertained British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. For her efforts, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaul.
Because of peritonitis and then septicema caused by a miscarriage, Josephine had to undergo a hysterectomy. When she recovered, she returned to her French chateau with yet another husband, French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, whom she’d met during her tour of Africa. Unable to have children of her own, Josephine adopted children from all over the world, twelve in total. She called them her “rainbow tribe,” and sought to prove that people of different races could live in harmony. Her Les Milandes estate now included hotels, a farm, and rides. The children sang and danced for paying visitors to the estate. However, the expenses of the farm, chateau, and her growing family put pressure on Josephine’s marriage and Bouillon left shortly after Josephine adopted her eleventh child.
Although a citizen of France, Josephine supported the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s in America. Again touring the U.S., she and her husband, Jo, were refused reservations at several hotels, and were denied service in restaraunts because of racial discrimination. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences. A club in Miami finally met her demands, and this time touring America, Josephine enjoyed some success.
In 1968, Josephine lost her beautiful estate because of unpaid debts. She had to be physically removed from the property. Her friend Grace Kelly, whom she’d met while at The Stork nightclub in New York City, where they’d refused to serve Baker because the color of her skin, again came to her rescue and offered her a villa and financial assistance. Kelly had by then become princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco.
In 1975 Josephine starred in a retrospective revue, celebrating her 50 years in show business at the Bobin in Paris. Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis financed the endeavor. The show opened to rave reviews and was attended by notable personalities and celebrities including Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days later, Josephine was found unconscious in her room surrounded by newspapers depicting glowing reviews of her performance. She later died peacfully in her sleep. The autopsy report stated cerebral hemmorage as the cause of death.
From the poverty stricken streets of St. Louis with little education, Baker became the first person of color to become a worldwide entertainer. She socialized with the most influential artists, writers, painters, entertainers, and intellectuals of her time. She served the resistence of her adopted country France, and she impacted the civil rights movement of her native country, America. She was an empowered woman who used her talent and celebrity to better the lives of others as well as her own.