ACTOR, DANCER (1906-1975)
From the start, Josephine Baker was a
survivor. Far from the glitter and gaiety that characterized her beloved
Paris. Baker's beginnings were harsh and difficult. Born in the slums of St. Louis, Baker grew up
sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. At age 13,
Baker left her parents' house and got a job as a waitress. Soon afterwards, she
married Willie Wells. However, the marriage ended in divorce, and she returned to
waitressing. She then joined a group of performers, the Jones Family Band, and had
her stage debut at the Booker T. Washington Theater, a Black vaudeville house in St.
Louis. by age 18, she was out of Missouri, had been discovered in New York and was
performing with numerous trouped in various stage productions.
Some of these productions included the Folies-Bergeres, Ziegfeld Folies, and the famed le
negre revue in Paris. In Le Negre Revue, Baker danced with a male partner, her
costumes consisting of a skirt of feathers. It was in Paris that Baker's
transformation began. For a city that was bursting with the spirit and rhythm of
jazz, Baker was a perfect match. She was an entertainer and dancer, known for her
contortionist position, striking ebony features, and goofy, cross-eyed face. As she
swung from a trapeze at the Folies-Bergeres or tossed flowers to her audience, baker
embodied the pain and emotion of the times.
Revised: July 18, 2013.