10 Things You Didn’t Know about Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker began her reign in the entertainment industry during the 1920s in Paris. She carried herself with poise. Her exotic beauty and energetic performances allowed for the rise of her celebrity status that has carried on as her legacy —  even after her death in 1975.

Born as Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture (Zouzou) and to become a world-famous entertainer. Josephine was highly influential in the introduction of the Jazz Age to Europe; she helped represent American culture at a time when Europeans thought the New World had no culture. She was also a notable influencer during the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform in theaters that discriminated.

  • Famous for barely-there dresses and no-holds-barred dance routines, her exotic beauty generated nicknames including “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl” and “Creole Goddess.”
  • Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts upon her, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals.
  • Her favorite food was spaghetti.
  • Baker was a spy during World War II. When she would travel to Europe touring, she used her large quantities of sheet music to carry secret messages in invisible ink.
  • Her spy work eventually led to her rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force. When the war was over, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, Légion d’Honneur and Rosette of the Résistance for her heroic war efforts in France.
  • Her list of pets included dogs, cats, fish, parrots, a cheetah named Chiquita, chimpanzee, parakeet, snake, a pig named Albert and a goat named Toutoute.
  • She and Grace Kelly were close friends. Despite living and working in France, Baker frequented the U.S. often for tours. During one New York trip, she was at the Stork Club at the same time as Grace Kelly. The restaurant refused to serve Baker and Kelly stormed out of the club in support of Baker — the two became fast friends and remained close thereafter.
  • Baker didn’t have children of her own, so she started an adopted family that she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” She wanted to prove that children of different colors and nationalities could live and prosper together. In total, she adopted 12 children from all over the world.
  • A Hungarian Cavalry officer challenged an Italian count to a duel for Josephine’s love. The two men met in a cemetery in Budapest where Baker cheered from the sidelines. However, after letting the two men fight over her for ten minutes, she intervened and forced them to form a truce.
  • Baker was married four times, the first time at the age of 13. She took her name from her second husband and received her French citizenship from her third husband. She was also known to have several female lovers.

Discover more about Josephine Baker through music on Da Camera’s opening night concert, Josephine Baker: A Personal Portrait, with acclaimed soprano Julia Bullock on Friday, September 30, 8 pm, at Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center. Tickets start at $37.50 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-524-5050.