Josephine Baker was a famous African American dancer, singer, and actress born in 1906 St. Louis, Missouri. Sadly she was not appreciated in the US, so she went to Paris in the 1920s, where her amazing talent, charm, and charisma were such a smashing success that she became a movie star there. Oh, and she had a pet cheetah named Chiquita, who often escaped the stage to terrorize the musicians.

Even more badass - during WWII, she served as a spy to the French military intelligence, collecting info about German troop locations at all the fancy parties she went to. She pinned those notes, written in invisible ink on her sheet music, inside her underwear. How cool is that.

She also contributed to the Civil Rights movement, and refused to perform for segregated audiences during her tours in the US.

Favorite Classic Black Female Stars Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

 “Baker was a woman torn between multiple identities and multiple loves. She lived for her loves and in a certain sense, died as a result of them. It seems to me that as a key to understanding her destiny, nothing is more important than the song ‘I Have Two Loves,’ which became her theme song and was associated with her throughout her life. In my opinion, everything is contained in the song’s assertion, ‘I have two loves, my country and Paris,’ which goes far beyond its apparent simplicity. In these few words, Baker transcends herself and reaches out to the destiny of an entire generation. It is in this far-reaching influence that we can see the startling modernity of this woman, who resembled and even surpassed Colette and George Sand. She wished to be free all her life, and she was always guided by that passion and commitment.”  

 Simon Njami in Bennetta Jules-Rosette’s Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image

Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937 opens next Friday at MoMA Film. See stunning films from this ambitious, risk-taking period of the famous studio’s history. 

[King of Jazz. 1930. USA.  Directed by John Murray Anderson. Pictured: The Russell Markert Dancers. Courtesy NBCUniversal]

Happy Birthday Josephine Baker! (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975)

View of singer Josephine Baker and Harold Jackman at the Beaux Arts Ball, Hotel Roosevelt in New York, New York. Stamped on back: “Photo by Cecil Layne.” Handwritten on back: “Josephine Baker and Harold Jackman at the Beaux Arts Ball, Hotel Roosevelt, New York City, Feb. 12, 1960." 

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library