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Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism.
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Josephine Baker fought for racial equality as a performer in the 1920s and '30s. Learn the steps that this dancer took in the fight against discrimination.
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Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker spent her youth in poverty before learning to dance and finding success on Broadway. In the 1920s she moved to France and soon became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and '60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. After beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973,
"I wasn't really naked, I simply didn't have any clothes on."
"Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one's soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood."
Josephine Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors.
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman who had given up her dreams of becoming a music-hall dancer. Her father, Eddie Carson, was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after her birth. Carrie remarried soon thereafter and would have several more children in the coming years.
To help support her growing family, at age 8 Josephine cleaned houses and babysat for wealthy white families, often being poorly treated. She briefly returned to school two years later before running away from home at age 13 and finding work as a waitress at a club. While working there, she married a man named Willie Wells, from whom she divorced only weeks later.
It was also around this time that Josephine first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances, and by 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, Josephine married a man named Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Along as a member of the chorus, and the comic touch that she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to parlay these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favorite.
In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker traveled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt.
However, it was the following year, at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era, that Baker’s career would reach a major turning point. In a performance called La Folie du Jour, Baker danced wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe, having the admiration of cultural figures like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings and earning herself nicknames like “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” She also received more than 1,000 marriage proposals.
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Many African-Americans left their country to escape the confines of racism, segregation and McCarthyism in the United States. As a result, an entirely new African-American subculture sprouted up in Europe, Africa and other countries abroad. A street in Paris is named after Josephine Baker, who found acceptance and fame in France that she couldn't achieve in the still-segregated United States. Marcus Garvey was a leader of the Back-to-Africa movement. And singer Nina Simone lived in several different countries, including Liberia, Switzerland, England and Barbados before eventually settling down in the South of France. Find out more about these African-American expats, and the new lives they made for themselves abroad, on Biography.com.
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With its roots in the blues, jazz has been referred to as America's classical music, yet has also become a major global phenomenon, branching off into a variety of forms. Earlier pioneers like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton paved the way for the swinging big-band sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In contrast, contemporaries Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk developed bebop, with its speedy, dissonant harmonies and improvisations. And Miles Davis heralded the birth of cool jazz, modal jazz and fusion at different points in his career. Famous jazz instrumentalists have tended to be male, yet women have been at the forefront of the genre when it comes to vocalization, from the brassy blues of Bessie Smith to the haunting eclecticism of Nina Simone.
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