Meet the Burlesque dancer who unleashed her pet cheetah on an orchestra
Icon of the Jazz Age
Burlesque dancer, French Resistance agent, human-rights activist and iconic symbol of the Jazz age, Josephine Baker was often called ‘the Black Venus,’ but was much more than just a burlesque dancer.
Josephine was born into a poor family in St Louis Missouri. Aged 13 she was living on the streets, sleeping in cardboard boxes, scavenging for food, and dancing on street corners. She married Willie Wells but divorced him a year later. At age 15 she married Willie Baker in a vaudeville troop and moved to New York where she became ‘the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville” selling out in Broadway during the Harlem Renaissance.
Burlesque Dancer and French Sensation
Aged 19 she sailed to Paris and became an instant success with her erotic dancing where she performed practically nude on stage. She soon became the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” while Picasso tried to capture her fascinating beauty in his paintings.
The most sensational woman anyone ever saw.Ernest Hemingway
First African-American Movie Star
In 1927 she was the first African-American to star in a motion picture; ‘Siren of the Tropics’. However she really made waves with her burlesque dancer performance in the cabaret halls of Paris, in which she wore nothing but a skirt made of fake bananas and a black pearl necklace.
In later performances she would be accompanied by her pet Cheetah ‘Chiquita’ who wore a diamond-studded necklace. The cheetah would sometimes jump into the orchestra pit, causing chaos amongst the musicians and adding drama to the whole scene.
She also caused a stir when she took her Cheetah to the cinema to see a nature documentary about cheetahs in Africa.
Baker also had other animals too including a chimpanzee, a parakeet, a snake, a pig, a goat, and several dogs. They all wore diamond collars.
Inspirer of the Art Deco Movement
With her African-themed performances she was instrumental in the ‘Art-Deco’ scene which was interested in non-Western forms of art.
French Resistance Fighter
During the war Baker moved to her house in the Dordogne where she housed French Resistance Fighters and gave them visas.
Later she toured Europe and smuggled secret messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She even hid secret messages in her underwear.
She was later awarded the Croix de guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
American Civil Rights Hero
On returning to the States Baker worked closely with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) for which she was awarded life-membership and made ‘Woman of the year’ in 1951.
She refused to perform to segregated audiences despite death threats from the Klu Klux Clan and when she was refused a drink at Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan she complained and Grace Kelly backed her up and together with her entourage stormed out of the club vowing never to go there again. After, she became good friends with Grace Kelly who gave her a mansion when she was facing bankruptcy.
Nearly the next Martin Luther King
In 1963, Josephine Baker spoke alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Junior. After he was assassinated she was asked to take his place, but in the end declined, deeming it too risky for her family.