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Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker
[1927]
James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection

 

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After several years touring the US and working as a chorus girl in New York, Josephine Baker was engaged as one of the feature performers in La Revue Nègre, an all–African American cabaret show traveling to Paris. The revue opened at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in October 1925, and Baker’s erotic dancing and scanty costumes created an immediate sensation. She soon began performing at the Folies Bergère, where she continued to attract attention, especially from French men. As one critic stated, “Of the many thousands of fan letters Josephine received during her two years at the Folies-Bergère, over half were proposals of marriage.”1

Baker went on to perform throughout Europe and the rest of the world, shocking and delighting audiences everywhere she went. After one appearance in Vienna, the Vienna Roman Catholic Church Gazette announced that services would be held for three days “‘in atonement for outrages on morality’ allegedly committed by Josephine Baker and other performers in recent reviews ….”2

However, Baker was much more than just a dancer with a risqué reputation, as she worked tirelessly to combat prejudice, racism, and intolerance. In 1937, she became a French citizen, and after the outbreak of World War II, she was recruited as a spy for the French Resistance and was eventually awarded the Legion of Honor, the Rosette of the Resistance, and the Croix de Guerre by the French government. She was also a vocal critic of racism, and her denunciations of segregation in the United States led her to be celebrated by some and vilified by others. When she returned to the United States on a performance tour in 1951, she was both labeled as a Communist sympathizer and greeted with rapturous ovations.

1 William Wiser, The Great Good Place: American Expatriate Women in Paris, NY: Norton, 1979, p. 287.
2 “To ‘Atone’ for Nude Dancer,” New York Times, 12 Mar. 1928.

 

 

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