Josephine Baker was living on the streets of St. Louis at the age of 12. When she wasn’t scavenging for food she danced on street corners for pennies, danced well enough that she was discovered by the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Company and thus became a professional dancer at 15.
Before she was 16 (on this date in 1922), she had migrated to Harlem and gotten a job at the Plantation Club. Soon after, she was in the chorus of a Broadway show – Shuffle Along – where her comic turn as the last girl in the chorus line got her a raise and made her the highest paid chorine in vaudeville.
Four years later she was her way to Paris, to the Folies Bergeres, where she danced in nothing but a string of artificial bananas and got famous fast.
By then, it was 1925 and she was 19. She was one of the biggest stars in Paris, certainly the most famous American; Ernest Hemingway called her ‘the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.’
Baker found a professional manager who saw to it that she got voice lessons and soon she was making movies and appearing in revues. She returned to America in the ’30s, but her reception was so cool that she went straight back to France and became a citizen.
During the war, in addition to performing for troops and helping refugees, she was actively involved in the resistance and later she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette of the Resistance and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by Charles de Gaulle.
Baker came to the U.S. in the ’50s and wherever possible, insisted on integrated audiences – she’s credited with starting integration in Las Vegas – and began to work with the NAACP. Reportedly, Coretta Scott King asked her to lead the civil rights movement after MLK was killed, but Baker declined.
In 1973, she came back again to perform at Carnegie Hall and this time the show was sold out. She was a smash at the London Palladium in 1974 and then, in 1975, Prince Ranier and Princess Grace joined Jackie Onassis in sponsoring a show to celebrate Baker’s fifty years in show business at Bobino in Paris.
That too was sold out and some in the star-studded audience had to sit on folding chairs. Four days later, Josephine Baker died of a brain aneurysm – she was found lying peacefully in her bed, surrounded by Paris newspapers, all opened to rave reviews.