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Josephine Baker...From the Dixie Steppers to Exotic...

By: Susannah Cord

  • Josephine Baker...From the Dixie Steppers to Exotic Superstar who became the Darling of Nations

Josephine Baker and Chorus Girls in Broadway Show Chocolate Dandies 1924, Second from Right

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Before there was Madonna, there was Josephine in her banana skirt. Before there was Angelina, there was Josephine and her Rainbow Tribe. And before there was Halle Berry and Beyoncé, there was Josephine Baker, the first female, African American, millionaire and exotic superstar. A free thinker, trendsetter, and woman of extraordinary, if flawed, determination, Josephine Baker danced her way from humble beginnings with the vaudeville Dixie Steppers to become the darling of nations in the 1920s. She smuggled messages for the French Resistance during World War II and fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Her Rainbow Tribe, her family of adopted children from all corners of the world, was forged to set an example of brotherhood between all races and religions, an ideal she would pursue till the very end of her life. A life that, after extreme wealth and fame, very nearly ended much the way it had begun.

  • Josephine Baker...From the Dixie Steppers to Exotic Superstar who became the Darling of Nations

Josephine Baker

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Freda Josephine McDonald was born into extreme poverty and contentious times in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906. The daughter of a washerwoman with dashed dancing ambitions, Josephine kept house and babysat from the age of seven, but by thirteen, she was married and moving on to waitressing and dancing. Ever the rebel, her marriage lasted a month, and she soon left town with a vaudeville troupe, The Dixie Steppers. Touring brought her to Philadelphia, where she married Willie Baker, keeping his name even after the marriage ended. Leaping at any and every opportunity to be on stage, her willingness to work as a dresser saw her working for the Broadway hit, Shuffle Along, where she determinedly learned every song and dance, thus ready to step in when a chorus girl called in sick. An instant hit with audiences thanks to her sparkling personality and comedic touch, Josephine was well on her way.

  • Josephine Baker...From the Dixie Steppers to Exotic Superstar who became the Darling of Nations

Josephine Baker was the First Pop Icon of the 20th Century

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Dancing at the New York Plantation Club, Josephine caught the eye of the producers of La Revue Negre, the first all-black vaudeville show in Paris. Straight from the boat, her presence was immediately felt when she posed naked for show posters that would cause an uproar. Upon her debut, dancing Danse Sauvage topless in just a feather skirt, the sky was the limit. Her fame skyrocketed overnight, going well beyond Paris. By the time of her sensational performance, La Folie du Jour, dancing in a skirt made only of sixteen bananas, she was becoming as famous for her energetic, ‘native’ performances as her offstage antics. Riding through Paris in an ostrich-drawn cart, surrounded by pets as exotic as Josephine herself, she garnered not only attention and nicknames like Black Venus and Black Pearl, but the admiration of contemporary artists from Picasso to E.E. Cummings. Dancing her way from stage to films to extraordinary wealth, the 1930s allowed Josephine to purchase the French estate she would name Les Milandes.

  • Josephine Baker...From the Dixie Steppers to Exotic Superstar who became the Darling of Nations

Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe

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By the 1950s, the exquisite estate would become home to Josephine and her husband Jo Bouillon and their Rainbow Tribe, a family of twelve children adopted from around the world, part of Josephine’s efforts to combat racism and exemplify peaceful co-existence. Having experienced racism and its cruel vagaries firsthand, in her childhood and as a performer, she returned to the States throughout the 50s and 60s to support the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform for any audience not integrated. Ever civic-minded, Josephine had joined the Red Cross in the late thirties during the Occupation, ladling soup and entertaining the troops, drawing the interest of the French Resistance who recruited and trained her as a spy. Equipped with cyanide and invisible ink, Josephine ferried messages on her music sheets and eavesdropped on her international audiences. While awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honeur for her turn as French resistance fighter, subsequent decades saw her career waning and Josephine paying a heavy price for her convictions.

  • Josephine Baker...From the Dixie Steppers to Exotic Superstar who became the Darling of Nations

Josephine Baker at the Strand Theater in New York, Western Union Telegram from Sophie Tucker, 1951

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Battling not only for racial equality but for her health, career, her vision for her family and estate, her extravagant notions outspent her earnings. Divorced and evicted from Les Milandes, Josephine was rescued by Grace Kelly, offering a villa in return for a Red Cross performance. The performance inspired a comeback, but multiple strokes marred her progress, even as her Rainbow Tribe crumbled under the financial strain. Her last marriage, to artist Robert Brady, was never officiated but nevertheless real to them, a support as she returned to the stage in the spring of 1975. Once spurned by American audiences, she received standing ovations at Carnegie Hall and subsequently, at The Bobino Theater in Paris, once more the exotic superstar, the darling of nations. Josephine Baker died of her final stroke only days later, surrounded by glowing reviews. Mourned by the city that had made her its own, 20,000 Parisians lined the streets to the Church of Madeleine, where a 21 gun salute sent her home, as much an entertainer as a patriot.

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