"The most sensational woman anyone ever saw"
Josephine Baker was an American born French dancer and singer who symbolised the beauty and vitality of Black American culture in the 1920s. She became one of the most popular music hall entertainers in France as well as a civil rights activist and a French resistance agent in the second world war.
Josephine had a difficult childhood growing up in St Louis, Missouri. She began working as a live-in domestic at the age of 8, left school at 12 and was married for the first time at 13. She married again at 15 to Willie Baker but they divorced when the vaudeville troupe she was a part of was booked in New York. She performed in the chorus lines of many Broadway shows before travelling to Paris where she gained success and fame for her erotic dancing and near-nude stage appearances.
Her performance in the revue 'Un vent de folie' in 1927 caused a sensation and her costume of a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace became iconic and a symbol of the jazz age and roaring twenties. At the same time, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture with the 1927 silent film 'Siren of the Tropics'.
Morgan Jenkins wrote of this performance that it "brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination" and "radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today, from Prada to Beyoncé." (Morgan Jerkins "90 Years Later, the Radical Power of Josephine Baker's Banana Skirt".)
" I have two loves, my country and Paris"
- Josephine Baker
Baker became a French Nationalist after her marriage to Jean Leon in 1937 and was recruited by the French Military Intelligence when the second world war broke out. She collected information from officials she met at parties. She even carried information between countries as notes written in invisible ink on her sheet music or pinned to the inside of her underwear! She was awarded the Resistance Medal by the Frech Committee of National Liberation after the war.
In 1968 Baker was unofficially offered leadership within the American Civil Rights movement following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination but declined over concerns of the welfare of her children. She still continued to refuse to perform to segregated audiences.
She adopted many children from various backgrounds which she often referred to as 'The Rainbow Tribe' as a social experiment in sorts to prove that people of different nationalities and ethnicities could consider each other family. Angelina Jolie has been quoted as saying that Baker was the "model" for her own family.
Baker was found in a coma only a few days after the opening night of 'Joséphine à Bobino 1975', a revue that celebrated her 50 years in show business. She died in hospital aged 68 on 12th April 1975.
Josephine Baker was an extraordinary woman and we are honoured to be able to include her as the inspiration of one of our candles in the Signature Collection.