Born in St. Louis, Josephine Baker was a star in Paris for most of her adult life. She left her home in Missouri and began performing in her early teens. She appeared in the chorus lines of all-black revues on New York vaudeville stages, then travelled to Paris in 1925 as part of La Revue Negre. Her lithe body and frank sensuality, combined with her jovial clowning on stage, caused a sensation. She was so successful in Paris that she stayed and opened her own nightclub there, Chez Josephine. Baker was famous for her exotic outfits, her trademarks being a leopard on a leash, a skirt made of feathers, and a dance in which she wore a string of bananas and not much else. She became a citizen of France in 1937, and during World War II she worked with the Resistance against the Nazis. After the war she fought for civil rights in the United States, returned to France and retired in 1956 to look after her 12 adopted children. Baker fell on hard times in the 1960s but was rescued from destitution by Princess Grace of Monaco, who helped Baker put on another stage show, Josephine, in 1975. Baker died the same year and was given a state funeral in Paris.
Transmission of culture
Josephine was instrumental in the introduction of the Jazz Age to Europe; she helped represent American culture at a time when Europeans thought America had no culture.
She did frequent charity work in Paris, appearing at benefits as well as being generally helpful. According to Phyllis Rose in Jazz Cleopatra, Josephine "kissed babies in foundling homes, gave dolls to the young and soup to the aged."
During World War II, Josephine worked as a Red Cross nurse and an underground courier for the French Resistance. She also entertained troops as a sub-lieutenant in the women's auxiliary of the Free French forces.
Civil rights activist
Despite her attachment to Paris, Josephine felt it was her duty to help advance the civil rights movement in America. She wouldn't perform in theaters that discriminated, refusing to go on stage until blacks were allowed to sit in the same areas as whites. Josephine also spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, telling the crowd they looked like "Salt and pepper. Just what it should be."
She was accorded a full scale military funeral with a 21-gun salute by France, the first American woman honoured in this way.
"I like Frenchmen very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely"
Josephine Baker et Chateau des Milandes
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