Josephine Baker was born the illegitimate daughter of a black mother and probably a white father in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, and was reared mainly by a beloved maternal grandmother. Becoming enamored with the black vaudevillians who frequented St. Louis, Josephine soon mounted the stage as a dancer, singer, and physical comic, and quickly advanced to the stages of Philadelphia and New York. She became internationally famous in 1925, when she went to Paris to appear in LA REVUE NEGRE, and soon after to her first of many engagements at the Folies-Bergere. There followed a world tour to more than twenty-five cities in Europe and South America in the late 1920’s, her glorious return to Paris in 1929, and a series of international tours in the 1930’s. Always returning to her base in her beloved France, Josephine Baker purchased a castle and estate, Les Milandes. She worked with the Free French in North Africa and France during World War II for which she was later decorated. After the war, she devoted herself to entertaining and to the creation at Les Milandes of her Rainbow Tribe, a family of a dozen adopted children of different races, nationalities, and religions to demonstrate the possibilities of universal brotherhood and to satisfy her own maternal instincts. Baker spent the last two decades of her life erratically involved in the Civil Rights movement, unsuccessfully attempting to develop and retain Les Milandes, and always entertaining. Plagued in her later years by heart problems, she died from a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris in 1975.
Josephine Baker’s life was unsurpassed in excitement and controversy. The first international black entertainer of the century, she was a complex woman who could be unusually generous and magnanimous or unbelievably selfish and petty. Although the author often annoyingly interjects himself into the text by personally addressing the subject, and although the book would benefit from additional editing, JOSEPHINE is an enlightening and usually entertaining portrait of one of the great entertainers of this century.