They called her the 'Black Venus'. Paris - and the world - had never seen anyone like her. Yet the woman who would shock and delight with her exotic dances and her improvised dresses that left little to the imagination, came from the humblest of beginnings.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St Louis, Missouri on 3rd June 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman and her father a vaudeville drummer who abandoned them soon after Josephine was born. An inauspicious start in life continued for some years, as she grew up cleaning houses and babysitting. By the age of thirteen, she was a waitress and she married for the second time in 1921. It was from this husband - Willie Baker - that she acquired the surname she would be known by professionally for the rest of her life. Josephine Baker was born. Two more husbands would come and go, the last one being French orchestra leader, Jo Bouillon, whom she married in 1947.
With a natural flair for comedy, Josephine toured with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers, but was rejected as a chorus girl in the Sissle and Blake production of 'Shuffle Along' because she was 'too dark'. Undeterred, she continued with them as a dresser, while ensuring she learned all the dance routines. As a result, when one of the dancers left, she was the obvious replacement. The audiences loved her and her fame began to spread, turning her into a box office draw for the rest of the show's run.
Then came a stint at the Plantation Club in New York, but the launch pad for her stellar career came when she partnered dancer Joe Alex in La Revue Negre in Paris. Dressed only in a feather skirt, Josephine danced the daring Danse Sauvage. It was wild and uninhibited and captured the spirit of Paris in the 1920s. Audiences couldn't get enough of her. It had taken time, determination and true Josephine grit, but suddenly she was an overnight sensation!
With popularity came financial rewards and, for the first time in her life, Josephine could indulge her passions for clothes, jewellery and animals. Her exotic tastes reigned here too. Into her life came a leopard, a goat, a parrot, a chimpanzee, a pig, a snake, three cats, seven dogs, parakeets and fish.
Josephine danced at the Folies Bergere in the famous banana skirt and by 1927 earned more than any other female performer in Europe but, sadly, while her colour proved no barrier in Paris, the USA at that time was less toleant and a return there in 1936, to star in the Ziegfield Follies, proved disastrous.With scathing, cruel reviews and audience rejection, Josephine returned to Paris, heartbroken.
By now she had starred in two movies (Princess Tam-Tam and Zou-Zou) and settled in Les Milandes, an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac in France.
During World War II, she publicly performed for the troops but secretly, she passed messages for the French Resistance - incredibly dangerous work for someone so much in the public eye. After the war she was decorated by France with the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
She returned to the USA to work on behalf of the NAACP, to fight racism, and her brave and tireless efforts led to them naming May 20th Josephine Baker Day.
At around this time, she began a project that was close to her heart. She began adopting children of every colour and ethnic origin. She called them her Rainbow Tribe and this family would grow until there were twelve of them. She also developed a close relationship with the American artist, Robert Brady. Although the two were never legally married, they shared a bond and a closeness that would endure for the rest of her life.
In 1973, she had the warmest of receptions when she performed at Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation before she had even begun and then, on April 8th 1975, she premiered at the Bobino Theatre in Paris where, at the age of 68, she performed a medley of her dance routines spanning her 50 year career. The reviews were some of the best of her life.
Sadly, this triumph was to be her last, as on April 12th, she died from a cerebral haemorrhage.
More than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession and she was awarded a 21 gun salute - the first American woman to be buried in France with full military honours. She is buried in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.
Groundbreaking, daring and gutsy, Josephine Baker continues to be an inspiration to women everywhere.
To find out more, please visit her official website