The Vault

28.08.14 | Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress. She became an international music, style and political icon. Her glamour, irreverence, talent and courage make her a personal hero of mine and the driving inspiration for ZouZouBeauty. Below find 12 fascinating facts about the life of Josephine Baker.

1) Josephine Baker was fluent in English and French.

2) Baker was given nicknames the “Bronze Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, and the “Créole Goddess”.

3) Baker was the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture ‘Zouzou’(1934).

4) She is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (she was offered the unofficial leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968 following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, but turned it down).

5) She assisted the French Resistance during World War II and received the French military honor the Croix de Guerre.

6) She dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall andThe Chocolate Dandies (1924). Baker was then billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl invaudeville”.

7) In later shows in Paris, she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.

8) After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

9) She was a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers and sculptors, including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

10) Her affection for France was so great that when World War II broke out, she volunteered to spy for her adopted country. Her agent’s brother approached her about working for the French government as an “honorable correspondent”; if she happened to hear any gossip at parties that might be of use to her adopted country, she could report it. 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.

11) She protested in her own way against racism, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, whom she called the “Rainbow Tribe”.

12) 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. Her name has also been incorporated at Paris Plage, a man-made beach along the river Seine “Piscine Joséphine Baker”.