Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin. Their family eventually grew to include a son and two more daughters.
Josephine dropped out of school at the age of twelve and began cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families. She got a job waitressing when at thirteen, and while waiting tables she was briefly married to Willie Wells. While it was unusual for a woman at this time, Josephine never depended on a man for financial support. Therefore, she never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured. She was married and divorced three more times, to American Willie Baker in 1921 (whose last name she chose to keep), Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937 (from whom she attained French citizenship) and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 (who helped to raise her 12 adopted children).
Her street-corner dancing attracted attention, and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at fifteen. Josephine toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919, performing various comical skits. When the troupes split, she headed to New York City, performing in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position in which the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she was unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would not only perform it correctly, but with additional complexity. Baker was then billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville." When these shows ended she performed at the Plantation Club.
Josephine then signed on for a new venture, La Revue Nègre, and traveled to Paris. It proved to be a turning point in her career. On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées, amongst a compilation of acts. Josephine and dance partner Joe Alex captivated the audience with the Danse Sauvage. Everything about the routine was new and exotic, and Josephine, boldly dressed in nothing but a feather skirt, worked the audience into frenzy with her uninhibited movements. She was an overnight sensation.
Her immense popularity now provided her with comfortable salary and the luxury of spoiling herself. She spent most of her money on clothes, jewelry and pets. She loved animals, and at one time she owned a leopard (Chiquita), a chimpanzee (Ethel), a pig (Albert), a snake (Kiki), a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs.
Her career thrived in the integrated Paris society, and when La Revue Nègre closed, Josephine signed a long-term contract to star in the Follies-Bergère. Her first review there was in La Folie du Jour. Her performance was most notable for featuring her most famous costume, a skirt of bananas strung around her waist. This performance cemented her celebrity status. Josephine now rivaled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the world, and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. She starred in three movies in the early 1930s, La Siren du Tropics, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. At this time she also bought her chateau Les Milandes, in the south of France and moved her family there from St. Louis.
At this time she also scored her most successful song, "J'ai deux amours" (1931) and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including designer Christian Dior.
Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino--a Sicilian stonemason who passed himself off as a count--Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, went through a significant transformation. In 1934 she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La Créole at the Théâtre Marigny on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, which premiered in December of that year for a six-month run. In preparation for her performances she went through months of training with a vocal coach.
Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. A 1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies proved disastrous. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. Her performances received poor reviews and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run and she returned to Europe heartbroken. In 1937 she married Jean Lion and became a French citizen.
Her affection for her adopted county was so great that when World War II broke out, she served France during in several ways. She performed for the troops, and was an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance (undercover work included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets) and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She was later awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication.
While traveling in North Africa entertaining the troops she met and married her fourth husband, French bandleader Jo Bouillon in 1947. Josephine toured the United States during the 50s and 60s with a renewed resolve to fight racism. When New York's popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with columnist Walter Winchell. The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.
It was during this period that she began adopting her 12 children, forming a family she referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe." Josephine wanted her to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Les Milandes tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe" were.
On April 8, 1975 Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975 at age 68.
More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Her gravesite is in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.