MIAMI BEACH — Many Americans, black and white, know the name Josephine Baker.
She was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-famous entertainer. She was also tapped by Coretta Scott King to lead the civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but she declined. Baker was also an icon in Paris. Her most successful song, "J'ai Deux Amours" (“My Two Loves”) describes her love for Paris and her country, the United States.
Her life and work were the subject of a lecture on Tuesday by her son, Jean-Claude Baker, at the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach. The museum is currently displaying art work that her son has collected depicting various stages of Baker’s life.
“She was mesmerizing as an entertainer,” her son said during the lecture. “Even when she was bad, she was fabulous.”
Jean-Claude is Baker’s oldest child and was born in Canada. He co-authored the book “The Hungry Heart with Chris Chase, based on his mother’s life, and runs Chez Josephine, an upscale restaurant in New York.
Born June 3, 1906, Baker had humble beginnings as the daughter of a formerly enslaved African named Carrie McDonald, and a German who was never named. As a young girl, to make some money, Freda Josephine McDonald (Baker’s birth name) cleaned stairs and worked for upper-class St. Louis, Missouri, residents.
At 13 years old (in 1919), she married Willie Wells, and began performing as a street dancer, which was quite popular in the black community at the time. By the age of 15, Josephine was married for the second time to William Baker – whose last name she kept for the rest of her life – and began performing with the St. Louis Chorus.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Baker moved to New York and went on to perform in Broadway shows like Shuffle AlongThe Chocolate Dandies, in 1921 and 1924, respectively.
Baker generated buzz as the last dancer in the chorus line in Shuffle Along. The job of the last chorus girl was to be silly throughout the performance and redeem herself at the end, by performing the dance number better than the rest of the line and with greater complexity. Josephine was such a natural talent that theater goers would inquire about the funny girl on the end, because her name never appeared on the playbill.
“She soaked herself with black performers at the time of Shuffle Along, Jean-Claude said in his thick French Canadian accent, of his mother in 1921. Becoming closely acquainted with the jazz entertainers of the time, she formed a close relationship with Clara Smith. According to Jean-Claude, she and Clara were also lovers.
In 1925, La Baker, as she was affectionately known, along with 13 other black performers, was invited to perform in Paris, at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées. After touring Europe with her troupe, Baker was asked to perform as the star of the famous Parisian show Folies Bergères. While in the Folies, Baker performed exotic dances while semi-nude. It was at this time that she performed her famous banana dance, wearing a skirt made of fake bananas and little else.
While with the Folies, Baker became a sensation among the Parisian elite. In the heat of her fame and success in Paris, she tried her hand at starring in films in the United States. Her film credits include: Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zou Zou (1934), and Princess Tam Tam (1935). None of the films became hits, so Baker went back to France to pursue what she loved doing most: singing and dancing on the stage.
“She broke down barriers,” said Naomi Wilzig, president and curator of the World Erotic Art Museum, which houses an estimated $15 million collection of 4,000 antique and historical erotic pieces.
An advocate for African Americans, Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences and adopted 12 children of different ethnic backgrounds to show solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. She also worked with the French Resistance during World War II in Nazi-occupied France, carrying enemy information for her adopted country.
After the war, Baker was given the Croix de Guerre, the Rosetta de Resistance, and made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. She was the first female and first African American to be awarded the prestigious Legion.
The Creole Goddess’ – another of Baker’s nicknames – first failed attempt at a comeback came in 1936, when she was featured in the Ziegfeld Follies in the United States. Her performance was not well-received by critics and she returned to Paris. In 1975, after having adopted her Rainbow Tribe and touring the world, Baker was facing bankruptcy. She attempted another comeback in the stage revue Bobino in Paris.
Baker’s performance was given rave reviews. The following morning, on April 8, 1975, she was found limp on her bed, surrounded by clippings of all of her great reviews. She had died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Josephine Baker’s legacy still lives on today in dance, theater and art.
“She always told me,” Jean-Claude said during the lecture, “’believe in yourself and who you are and you will make it.’’
For a documentary and clips of Josephine Baker, search her name on www.youtube.com.
Photo: Josephine Baker
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Josephine Baker Exhibit (ask for a guided tour)
WHEN: Now through March 15, 2010
WHERE: World Erotic Art Museum, 1205 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, FL
TIME: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
COST: $15 adults, $13 students, $12.50 seniors; Parking $10+; Must be 18 years or older for admission.
CONTACT: 305-532-9336 or www.weam.com and