La Vénus noire, Josephine Baker

Paris of the 1920s was a magnet for Americans of all stripes—some who came for a visit and others who chose the city as home. In fact, the first several years of the decade saw the number of American inhabitants rise from about 6,000 to over 30,000. Jazz Age musicians such as Sidney Bechet were charmed by the city and found appreciation for their art as well as relief from the rampant racism of their home country. Arriving with Bechet and La Revue Nègre in 1925 was a nineteen-year-old headliner born Freda Josephine McDonald. Who could have imagined that the skinny child who grew up in poverty in St. Louis would go on to become the toast of the French capital?

Given the French fascination with African-Americans and jazz, performances of the review were sold out from Day One. Blending sensuality and clowning around on stage, the young woman (who performed using her husband’s name) was an immediate hit. Dressed in a feathered skirt, she and her partner drove the audience wild with their Danse Sauvage. After similar success with the Revue in Berlin, Baker returned to the French capital as the artificial banana-skirted star at the Folies Bergère, the music hall now adorned with her image. Her beauty attracted hundreds of suitors, including Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon. From the fortune she made, Baker was able to open her own club, Chez Josephine Baker, off the Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre.

But Baker was more than just another pretty face. For her help during the French Resistance during the Second World War, she received the Croix de guerre and France’s highest honor, the Légion d’honneur. A Civil Rights activist, she refused to perform for segregated audiences in this country. Financially ruined at the end of her life, Baker survived through the efforts of her friend Princess Grace of Monaco. At Baker's death in 1975, she was accorded a state funeral at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. To this day postcards and posters featuring the image of La Bakair, as the French pronounce her name, can be seen throughout the city.

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