Josephine Baker  

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Josephine Baker, photo by Lucien Waléry
Josephine Baker, photo by Lucien Waléry

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Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 - April 12, 1975) was an American-born dancer, actress and singer. She was given the nicknames "Black Venus", "Black Pearl", and "Creole Goddess". She became a citizen of France in 1937.

In 1926 she had become an "overnight sensation" with her La Revue nègre at the Folies Bergère with her suggestive "banana dance", in which she wore a skirt made of bananas (and little else).

She was so well known and popular that even the Nazis, who occupied France during World War II were hesitant to cause her harm. In turn, this allowed Baker to show her loyalty to her adopted country by participating in the French Resistance. After the war, Baker was awarded by the French government for her underground activity.

Rise to fame

After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France — where as in the U.S., she would have suffered the racial prejudices common to the era. Ernest Hemingway called her " ... the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tamtam (1935). Although Josephine Baker is often credited as a movie star, her starring roles ended with Princesse Tamtam in 1935.

At this time she also scored her greatest song hit, "J'ai deux amours" (1931) and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

Under the management of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino — a Sicilian stonemason who passed himself off as a Sicilian count, Baker's stage and public persona, as well as her singing voice, went through a transformation. In 1934 she took the lead in a revival of Jacques Offenbach's 1875 opera La créole at the Théâtre Marigny in the Champs-Élysées of 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.

In the words of Shirley Bassey, who cited Baker as her primary influence, " ... she went from a 'petite danseuse sauvage' with a decent voice to 'la grande diva magnifique' ... I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer."

Baker was so well known and popular with the French that even the Nazis, who occupied France during World War II, were hesitant to cause her harm. In turn, this allowed Baker to show her loyalty to her adopted country by participating in the Underground, smuggling intelligence to the resistance in Portugal coded within her sheet music. After the war, for her underground activity, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle, and also the Rosette of the Résistance.

Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. Upon a visit to the United States in 1936, she starred in a failed version of the Ziegfeld Follies (being replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run) her personal life similarly suffered, and she went through six marriages, some legal, some not. During this time, when Baker returned to the United States, she was allegedly at a dinner party and began to speak in French as well as English with a French accent. An African-American maid was reputed to tell her, "Honey, you is full of shit. Speak the way yo' mouth was born." She had the woman fired.

'Her 1935-36 US performances received poor reviews, with the New York Times going so far as to call her a "Negro wench." Baker returned to Paris in 1937, married Frenchman Jean Lion, and became a French citizen and permanent expatriate.' [1]

In January 1966 she was invited by Fidel Castro to perform at the Teatro Musical de La Habana in Havana, Cuba. Her spectacular show in April of that year led to record breaking attendance.

In 1973, Josephine Baker opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Josephine Baker" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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