Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BAKER, Josephine

(b Freda Josephine McDonald, 3 June 1906, St Louis MO; d 12 April 1975, Paris) Dancer, singer. She ran away from home at age 13, later took the surname of her second husband. She drew attention to herself clowning in the chorus line of Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along; to Paris '25 in show La Revue Nègre and became a European superstar. She had rubber legs and fine comic timing, but her exotic looks helped during the 'Jazz Age' in Europe. Adopted by producer Jacques Charles, artist Paul Colin, composer Vincent Scotto (who wrote her theme song 'J'ai Deux Amours'); posters and countless magazine covers helped make her famous.

She starred at the Folies-Bergère '26 (famous for a jungle dance while wearing only bananas); she worked in Berlin, where Nazi hecklers made life difficult; she had her own club Chez Josephine and a pet leopard on a leash; and starred in revival of Offenbach's La Créole '34. During WWII she sang all over North Africa for Allied troops; allegedly worked in the Resistance: nobody knows what she did, but as an exotic celebrity she may have made an ideal courier; she escaped the stigma of collaboration suffered by other French stars, receiving the Légion d'Honneur from De Gaulle, then the even rarer Médaille de la Résistance.

Trips to the USA not successful; she was refused service at the Stork Club in NYC in 1951, andf the columnist Walter Winchell absurdly denounced her to the FBI, accusing her of communist and fascist sympathies. Actress Grace Kelly noted her courage and did not forget it. She retired to her chateau in the Dordogne '56 to look after her 'Rainbow Tribe', twelve adopted children of all different nationalities, but had to go back to work; evicted in '69 she was rescued by Princess Grace: the Rainiers gave her a villa in Monaco, helped put on show Josephine '75: she celebrated 50 years in Paris, still dancing the Charleston, with a dozen costume changes, and died in her sleep after 14 triumphant performances.

She made her first records '26 for Odéon ('Dinah', 'Sleepy Time Gal' etc) revealing a tremulous voice, but her high notes soon took on a silver purity; she had enough power at her peak to sing without a microphone.