On This Gay Day: Josephine Baker died in 1975

Josephine Baker was so much more than a performer with bananas

The iconic image of Josephine Baker is of her performing in a Paris club in the 1920’s wearing only a skirt made of artificial bananas and a necklace. Her 1927 performance at the Folles Bergère in the revue Un vent de folie encapsulated the new found sexual freedom of the roaring 20’s and the jazz age.

Baker was much more than a cabaret performer, During her life Baker was a celebrated singer, a civil rights activist and a during World War II a French Resistance agent.

Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1906, her birth name was Josephine McDonald. Growing up in a poverty stricken area filled with rooming houses, brothels and apartments without interior plumbing, she often went hungry.

Dropping out of school at 12, she was married at just 13 to her first husband. Divorced a year later, she was married a second time in 1921 when she was just 15, she would keep her married name for the remainder of her life, but was divorced a second time six years later.

Finding success as a comic dancer in St Louis, she later moved to New York and found further success in Broadway revues. In 1925 she sailed to Paris and became a theatrical sensation. Alongside her acclaimed number featuring the banana skirt, she also appeared on stage with her pet cheetah who wore a diamond collar.

In Paris Baker was friends with writer Ernest Hemmingway, posed a a model for Picasso and was a contemporary of playwright Jean Cocteau. Soon she began to travel to other countries to perform, but her appearances were often opposed by churches who deemed her performances immoral.

In the 1930’s she starred in silent film and started recording music. She returned to America to perform on Broadway in the the 1936 show Ziegfeld’s Follies but was ravaged by critics. When she returned to France she married industrialist Jean Leon, renounced her American citizenship and became a French citizen.

During World War II Baker worked with the French Resistance, passing on information about German troop movements that she overheard at parties. After the war she was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by French President Chales de Gaulle.

In the 1950’s she returned to the USA for a successful nightclub tour, where she refused to perform to segregated audiences. In turn she was accused of having communist sympathies and her working visa was rebuked. She would not perform in the USA for another decade.

In the 1960’s she added her voice to the civil rights movement and joined Dr Martin Luther King at his historic March on Washington in 1963, where she was the only women to deliver a speech.  Notably saying;

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world ..”

Baker continued performing through out the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1975 she starred in a new revue which looked back on her 50 years as a performer. The show was a massive success and saw an opening night audience that included Shirley Bassey, Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren, Diana Ross and Liza Minelli.

Four days after the opening Baker was found unconscious in her room surrounded by glowing newspaper reviews. She had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she died aged 68.

Married four times, her third marriage to Jean Leon last three years, and in 1947 she married fourth husband French composer Jo Boullion. They divorced in 1961. Baker was bisexual and had many relationships with women throughout her life. Blues singer Clara Smith, novelist Georges Simenon, jazz singer Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith and novelist Collette were among her lovers. It’s also suggested that she may have had a relationship with painter Frida Kahlo.

Baker had ten adopted children ,she wanted to show that people from different backgrounds could love together, and adopted children of different backgrounds, describing them as her rainbow tribe.

In August 2019 Josephine Baker was one of the honourees of the Rainbow Walk of Fame in San Francisco’s Castro district. Over the years Baker has been an inspiration to many black female performers. Shirley Bassey has cited her as a major influence, Diana Ross has paid tribute to her in shows, Beyonce has portrayed her on stage many times, and many miniseries, films and plays have been created about Baker’s life.

OIP Staff


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