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French Icons: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

“I like Frenchmen very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely.”

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in S Louis, Missouri June 3 1906 to a washer woman and an absent father Josephine Baker had a poor and difficult childhood. Put to work at a very early age she left school at 12 and lived on the streets of St Louis, begging and sleeping rough.

Despite this, at the age of 15 she was spotted dancing in the street and recruited to dance in a vaudeville production – she would never look back.

Just four years later she arrived in Paris, opened the show in La Revue Nègre on October 2, 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and became an overnight sensation.

So, not strictly a French icon but certainly she had an enormous influence on French style and entertainment and was taken to the hearts of French people and indeed became a French citizen later in life.

A highly intelligent woman, she knew exactly how to make the most of her beauty and talent and would whip her fans into a frenzy with her exotic dancing and not quite full on nudity. Famed for wearing a skirt made of artificial bananas (and not much else) she would often take her pet cheetah, Chiquita on stage with her, allowing it to escape into the orchestra pit to terrorize the musicians and titilate the audience.

She was phenomenally successful in Europe, became the muse of writers, sculptors and painters – many men fell in love with her. She took the name Baker from husband no. 2 and became a French citizen through marriage to husband no. 3.

She adopted 12 children of different nationalities and raised them at her beloved Château des Milandes, a castle near Sarlat in the Dordogne. Now open to the public there are displays of her stage outfits including her banana skirt (of which there are apparently several), family photographs and documents as well as her Legion of Honour medal.

Josephine Baker died, aged 68, on April 12, 1975 just days after a sell out performance to celebrate 50 years in show business. She was the first American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.

To this day Josephine Baker continues to intrigue and inspire not just through her singing and dancing but also through her civil rights activism. In Paris, in the Montparnasse Quartier, Place Josephine Baker is named in her honour as is Piscine Josephine Baker, a floating swimming pool on a barge on the edge of the Seine at Quai François Mauriac, Paris.

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