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Josephine Baker ( 1906 - 1975 )  Category ( Entertainers ) [suggest a correction]

Josephine BakerJosephine Baker lived a life unlike any other -- from homelessness to international fame.

She bared her body in daring dance revues and bared her soul in operatic arias. Her acquaintances included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Christian Dior and Pablo Picasso. She was involved in both the French resistance and the American Civil Rights movement, symbolically merging the two when she wore her Free French uniform to the March on Washington in 1963. She entered the world in poverty and was buried in Monaco 69 years later with military honors.

This spectacular and tumultuous life began June 3, 1906, when Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis to Carrie McDonald. The identity of her father has been debated ever since.

Part of the genius of Baker was her ability to adapt to her circumstances, a trait she demonstrated at an early age. Living on the streets of St. Louis, a school dropout at the age of nine, she quite literally used her environment to her advantage, dancing on street corners for small change. This attracted the attention of some local vaudeville show producers, a connection that eventually led to her leaving her first of four husbands -- a Pullman porter named William Howard Baker --  and moving to New York and Broadway.

By then, Baker had grown into a striking young woman, and she quickly became part of the Broadway scene. In several revues, she was placed at the far end of the chorus line, a position that required some physical comedy as well as elegant movement.

Always adventurous, Baker exhausted New York and moved to Paris, where she opened at the Theatre des Champs-Elyssees in the fall of 1925. That proved a stepping stone to the legendary Folies Bergere, where Baker’s erotic dancing drew sellout crowds.

At this point, the former homeless girl began to branch out in other creative areas. She made three movies – one silent, two with audible speaking parts. She hired an Italian count as a voice coach and became a riveting opera singer. She somehow acquired a pet cheetah, later traded in for two leopards that she would take for walks on the Champs Elysees.

When the Nazis took over France, they took note of Baker’s popularity and left her alone.   That allowed her to operate in the French underground, while also offering trans-Atlantic support to the fledgling civil rights movement in her native country. Indeed, it’s probably safe to say that Baker was the only civil rights worker ever to reside in a French castle.

She returned to the U.S. from time to time and tried to use her cultural influence to open doors for blacks. She refused to perform for segregated audiences (forcing many promoters and communities to choose between certain profit and political position) and one night in 1951 walked out of the Stork Club in New York because she was refused table service – taking Grace Kelly with her.

On a more personal level, Baker – rendered biologically childless by an early hysterectomy – adopted 12 children of a wide variety of races, calling them her “rainbow tribe.”

Coretta Scott King supposedly offered Baker the leadership of the civil rights movement after her husband’s death, but Baker replied: “My children are too young to lose their mother.”

Baker was still performing in her late 60s, dying in her sleep after a party was given in her honor. In 1991, HBO produced a biopic on Baker’s life, with Lynn Whitfield in the title role.

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