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Burlesque Past and Present: Josephine Baker

The art of the tease is on everyone's lips; with a rising interest in burlesque, cabaret clubs are in full swing and new acts are cropping up every week. At Playful Promises we just adore a bit of cheek, and would love to introduce you to our favourite burly girls, past and present! Keep your eyes firmly peeled, as each week we feature inspiring performers guaranteed to set pulses racing!

 

 

 

 

In our rip-roaring burlesque series we just couldn’t miss out one of the true icons of the 20s and 30s. With nicknames such as the “Bronze Venus” and “Black Pearl”, Josephine Baker was the first African American female to star in a major motion picture and become a world-famous entertainer. And if that wasn’t awesome enough, she used her status to kick political ass both during the Civil Rights Movement in the US and World War 2, becoming the first American-born woman to receive the French military honour, the Croix de Guerre.

 

Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, she soon became fluent in both English and French. When she was 8 she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her, burning her hands because she put too much soap in the laundry.

 

Times were evidently tough, as Josephine dropped out of school at 12, turning to life on the streets. She made her living dancing on street corners, and at 15 was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville show. Her budding career sent her to New York, where she began to perform in the chorus of popular Broadway revues.

 

 

Josephine took last place in the chorus line, a traditionally comic role, which required the dancer to act as if they had forgotten the routine. Then, in the encore, they would not only perform correctly but with added complexity, outshining the other members. She became so well known for this that she was described as the “highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”.

 

She gained popularity, opening a show at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on the 2nd October 1925 in Paris. Her skimpy costume and erotic style of dancing was an instant success, catapulting her into fame. Josephine went on to star at the Folies Bergères, performing the Danse Sauvage in her iconic banana costume.

 

Her success was perhaps complimented by the explosion of Art Deco and a renewed interest in ethnic art; her African descent of particular interest. Of course, she played up to this, often allowing her pet cheetah, Chiquita, on stage with her. The animal would often escape into the orchestra pit, terrorizing the musicians and adding an element of excitement to the show.

 

Ernest Hemingway even called her “...the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”.

 

 

Josephine married four times, her first to Willie Wells in 1918 when she was just 13. Needless to say, the marriage was very unhappy, and they divorced a short time later. Three years down the line, she suffered another short marriage to Willie Baker. The surname stuck, and she became known as Josephine Baker by audiences worldwide.

 

It was possible that her marriages didn’t last long because of the numerous lesbian affairs she had. She was known to be bisexual, and it has even been reported that she was involved with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

 

 

Despite Josephine’s popularity in France she didn’t receive the same response in the country of her birth; upon a visit to the United States in 1935, her performances received poor opening reviews.

 

In 1937 she married once again, to a Frenchman, Jean Lion, renouncing her American citizenship without difficulty.

 

In fact, she loved her adopted country of France so much that when WW2 broke out she volunteered as a spy. She began to work for the French government as an “honourable correspondent”, using her celebrity status to report any gossip she heard at the numerous parties she attended, including those at the Italian embassy.

 

If that wasn’t impressive enough, she used her cover of a jet-setting entertainer to smuggle secrets around Europe. How? Using invisible ink on her sheet music and pinning notes on the inside of her underwear!

 

In 1941 she went to the French colonies in North Africa, claiming it was for her health, but she in fact set up based to help with the resistance. She also took the time to entertain troops with her performances.

 

 

The War finished, yet the struggle for equality continued with the American Civil Rights Movement. Josephine was no stranger to being treated differently due to the colour of her skin, both positively and negatively.

 

In 1951 she was refused service by Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan. Although one of Baker’s sons contests the incident was exaggerated, it is said that the actress Grace Kelly was also in attendance. Seeing the situation, she rushed over to Josephine, taking her by the arm and storming them both out, vowing never to return.

 

Josephine protested in her own way, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, calling them the “Rainbow Tribe” and refusing to perform for segregated audiences.

 

So impressive was her spirit, that she was offered leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968, following Marin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. After much thought she turned the position down, saying her children were “too young to lose their mother”.

 

 

Josephine’s actions were honoured worldwide, with different countries inviting her to perform. She took to the stage in Cuba, Yugoslavia and a 1973 stint at the Carnegie Hall, where she received a standing ovation. 

 

On 8 April, 1975, Josephine starred in a retrospective revue celebrating her 50 years in show business. The audience was jam-packed full of stars desperate to see the glorious icon, and the critics were raving.

 

It was four days later when Josephine was found lying peacefully in her bed, surrounded by the glowing newspaper reviews of her performance. She had slipped into a coma after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, and died at the age of 68.

 

At her funeral she received full French military honours, and will always be remembered for her beautiful smile and good heart.