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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Josephine  Baker

Josephine Baker 1906to –1975

American-born dancer, singer, actress, and the toast of France, who became the first black international superstar, an activist, and a spy. Her parents were both vaudeville performers, and Baker grew up on the stage, but had little by way of food or money. She survived by dancing on street corners, which led to her first vaudeville job when she was 15. She saw a bit of success in New York City, but her career didn’t take off until she traveled to Paris at the age of 19. There, she was an instant hit, thanks to her signature “Danse sauvage” performed in a skirt of bananas and little else. Sometimes, her pet cheetah joined her on stage. This erotic and “exotic” number fit perfectly with the Parisian culture of the time, and she was soon one of the most popular entertainers in the city. She had a hit song with “J’ai deux amours,” and appeared in a number of films, most notably Zouzou, the first film to star a black woman. Though she tried on occasion to return home, the United States never adored her like France did. In 1937, Baker became a French citizen, and when WWII broke out shortly after, she proved her loyalty. Baker became a spy for the French government, collecting information from unsuspecting German officials at parties. And when Germany invaded France, she used her celebrity to sneak messages across the border, written in invisible ink on her sheet music, or pinned to her underwear. After the war, she was awarded the Criox de guerre, and turned her attention to the Civil Rights movement in America. She toured the United States in the 1950s, refusing to perform for segregated audiences, while writing articles and giving lectures about the racism she encountered. She spoke at the March on Washington, and was unofficially offered leadership of the movement after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. She turned it down because of her children, all 12 of them, adopted from all over world, and referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” She also had four husbands during her life (the first when she was only 13), and a number of affairs with women, including Frida Kahlo and Colette—though she kept these relationships a secret. Baker remained a popular and influential performer, and starred in a sold out revue in Paris to celebrate her 50 years in show business, just days before her death.

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