Monday, April 12, 2010

Remembering... Josephine Baker

Ernest Hemingway called her '... the most sensational woman anyone ever saw...' and he must have meant it because it wasn't like Papa to gush; yet her daring wasn't just confined to the stage, it seasoned her whole outlook on life. Whether shaking her banana-adorned booty at the Folies Bergères or secreting papers out of France for the Resistance, all her life Josephine Baker lived it and loved it right on the edge.

PhotobucketBorn in St. Louis in June 1906, she dropped out of school at 12 to become a street performer; at 15 she traveled the US in vaudeville, which landed her in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Awarded the coveted spot of last girl in the chorus line* at the Plantation Club, she parlayed her cabaret success into roles on Broadway, in such revues as Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924).

Predictably, the offensive titles of these shows were the least offensive things about them; tired of American bigotry she set her sights on brighter lights - an entire City of Lights, in fact. Opening in Paris in October 1925 she soon became the toast of Europe. Initially a dancer, once out from under the thumb of Jim Crow she found her voice as well; eventually she added movies to her resume, starring in three perfect gems: the silent Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and her final film Princess Tam Tam (1935).

Following this success she attempted a return to the United States, appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936; it was a flop, and before the run had ended she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee. She returned to France, disgusted, and stayed away for years - she simply refused to play to a segregated audience, and later it would be her appearances in Las Vegas that helped integrate audiences there.

After her personal triumph over the Nazis in German-occupied Paris she continued to funnel money back to the US to support civil rights organizations; in fact, she was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington in August 1963. Putting her heart where her money is with regards to integration, years before anyone had ever heard of Mia Farrow or Angelina Jolie, Baker proceeded to adopt 12 orphans of various ethnicities, housing them at her home, the Château de Milandes.

Her final performance came on the occasion of her fiftieth anniversary on the Parisian etage; booked into Bobino nightclub in 1975 - with the high-profile patronage of Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - she gave a performance which had those in attendance (jaded jet-setters all) tripping over each other to find a superlative that was superlative enough to describe it.

Two days later she was discovered, unconscious, in her dressing room, surrounded by glowing reviews; two days after that, on this day in 1975, Josephine Baker died at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.

*The last girl in the chorus line typically performed the complicated choreography required of the entire line in a comically haphazard fashion, following which she would perform it in an even more elaborate form for the encore; it was a signal honour to be awarded this spot in the line up, and earned Baker the epithet of 'highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville'.
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