RIHANNA is rumoured to play Iconic Actress Josephine Baker in her biopic

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The toast of Paris: Dancer Josephine Baker was an  overnight sensation after arriving in France in the 1920s

Under scorching stage-lights, Josephine Baker  stepped out in front of the audience entirely naked, but  for a few strategically-placed flamingo-feathers.

Her male dance partner carried her upside  down, her long, slender legs stretched out in the splits.

Josephine in banana skirt

He set her down, and she began to dance. As  the light played on her coffee-brown skin, her body seemed to become almost  molten as she wound herself around her partner.

She was, she later recalled, lost in the  eroticism of the moment, ‘intoxicated . . . driven by dark forces I didn’t  recognise,’ as she writhed seductively before shuddering to a climactic halt.

For a few moments the Paris audience remained  silent, as if stunned. Then they rose to their feet as one and erupted in  ecstatic applause.

She was hailed as the ‘Black Venus’. Picasso  dubbed her the ‘Nefertiti of now’. Author Ernest Hemingway called her ‘the most  sensational woman anyone ever saw’.

It was the start of an extraordinary  career.  Josephine Baker, the girl from the St Louis ghetto, rose to become  one of the greatest divas ever, an icon of the Jazz Age, talented and glamorous,  but also decadent and amoral.

Today, all that many people remember of her  is that she danced naked except for her famous tutu made of (fake) bananas.

However, this summer, a new play about  Josephine, directed by Phyllida Law — mother of the actress Emma Thompson — captivated London theatre audiences with her rags-to-riches story.

 

And a film about her is to be released next  year — it is rumoured that the controversial singer Rihanna might play her.

But while Rihanna has endured her own share  of scandals, her drug-taking and self-conscious exhibitionism pale in comparison  to Josephine’s jaw- dropping exploits.

Scandalous: Known as ‘Black Venus’, Jospehine Baker left  audiences transfixed and rose to become one of the greatest divas of all  time

 

 

Party animal: The singer, pictured relaxing with a  cocktail in Venice around 1940, led a raucous private life

 

Although Josephine might have acted the diva,  spent extravagantly, behaved outrageously and numbered her lovers (male and  female) in the hundreds, she was also courageous and principled, spying for the  French Resistance and campaigning against racial segregation in America.

She was born in 1906. Her mother, Carrie, was  a former dancer, her father — it is thought — a drummer named Eddie Carson, who  left shortly after Josephine’s younger brother was born.

Carrie had two more children, but struggled  to pay the rent on her washerwoman’s wages and the family moved from one filthy  home to the next.

Carrie blamed Josephine’s birth for the  premature end of her dancing career and frequently beat her. Josephine  remembered her mother saying that ‘she hated me and wished I were dead’.

Then, in 1917, when Josephine was 11, her St  Louis hometown erupted in race riots. Mobs of white troublemakers invaded black  districts, killing 100 people.

Josephine witnessed ‘a friend of my father’s  face shot off, a pregnant woman cut open’. It left her with a fierce loathing of  racism and a determination to escape St Louis.

Desperate to leave her miserable home life  behind, in a casual ceremony at the age of 13 she married Willie Wells, a man  twice her age whom she met while waitressing. Amazingly, neither the Missouri authorities (who cared little  what kind of relationships took place within the black community) nor  Josephine’s callous mother had any problem with her marrying at such a  young  age.

Inspiration: A film about Josephine Baker’s life is set  to be made next year with rumours that singer Rihanna, pictured, will take the  starring role

 

But the union did not bring Josephine any  peace. They argued constantly and on one occasion Willie hit Josephine over the  head with a bottle. He left. The marriage had lasted just eight  months.

Soon afterwards, Josephine was spotted  dancing in the street by a talent scout and was taken on in the chorus of a  travelling troupe, the Dixie Steppers. The leading female singer took Josephine  under her wing — and into her bed — and coached her singing.

When the Dixie Steppers left St Louis,  Josephine went with them. She was paid $10 a week and the chorus girls were  expected to dispense sexual favours to the show’s financial backers.

When the show reached Philadelphia, Josephine  was courted by a kindly man named Willie Baker. Still aged just 15, she married  him — although she had not divorced her first husband.

She auditioned for an all-black musical,  Shuffle Along, winning a part in the chorus. She left Philadelphia and her  husband behind. As the end girl in the chorus, she began adding comic twists to  the dances, stealing the scenes she was in to the fury of the other girls, who  called her ‘Monkey’.

She cemented her position as star of the show  by sleeping with the producer.

The show toured America to huge acclaim.  Josephine was on the cusp of stardom.

In 1925, aged 19, she was spotted by a  producer looking for a singer to star in an all-black cabaret in Paris.  Reluctant to leave the U.S., Josephine was persuaded by a $200-a-week pay  cheque.

She was humiliated when, a few weeks before  the show opened, the producers told her that she must dance topless, to appeal  to French erotic fantasies of African women.

But when she refused, and threatened to  return home, the producers simply told her she could not have a ticket home  until she had done as they asked. Penniless, Josephine had no choice but to  comply.

But after her sensational first-night  success, driven by those ‘dark forces’, couturiers flocked to dress her, and she  received thousands of marriage proposals from besotted admirers.

Although she loved Paris and its relative  racial equality, she was lonely and homesick, and filled her hotel suite with  animals: two rabbits, a snake, a parakeet and a pig called Albert.

It wasn’t long before she was poached by the  famous Folies Bergere music hall. It was here that she showcased her most famous  costume: the banana tutu. It had been designed for her sensuous ‘jungle dance’, by the playwright and designer Jean Cocteau and consisted of a skirt of fake  bananas which in later shows were sprayed golden or spangled with diamante  crystals.

An eventful life: She aided the French during the Second  World War, left, but was also renowned for parading everywhere with her pet  cheetah, right

Her celebrity grew. ‘Josephine’ dolls  were  sold, and fashionable women cut their hair in sleek ‘Josephine’ bobs. Everyone  wanted to bed the Black Venus and she had hundreds of  affairs with both men and  women. The French writer George Simenon, who  would boast of bedding 10,000  lovers in his lifetime, said that she was  the only woman in Paris who could  match his sexual energy.

Men were said to queue outside her hotel  room. She was rumoured (probably  falsely) to moonlight in a brothel to satisfy  her sexual appetite.

One lover was a Sicilian gigolo, Pepito de  Abatino. He became her manager,  persuading her to open her own nightclub, Chez  Josephine, where she  sang, danced and flirted with the patrons.

She made two successful films, becoming the  first black actress to star in  mainstream cinema. She toured Europe to great  acclaim, ignoring the  taunts of fascists and racists, and even ammonia bombs  thrown at her on  stage.

 

Icon: Married for the first time at the age of 13,  Josephine endured a difficult childhood in St Louis which left her with a fierce  loathing of racism

 

Despite living with Pepito, she took other  lovers: a Swedish prince, an Indian Maharajah who showered her in jewels, a  handsome dancer and an American actress.

She paraded around Paris leading a tame  cheetah wearing a diamond collar and bought a large house in the suburbs which  she filled with pet monkeys, but she never forgot her childhood poverty. She  often paid the bills of her poorer neighbours and gave generously to charity.

After Pepito’s death, in 1937, she married a  French industrialist, Jean Lion. The marriage turned sour when he tried to mould  her into a dutiful housewife.

When war broke out, Josephine was recruited  by the French intelligence service to gather information at parties.

Staunchly anti-Nazi, she even piloted a plane  taking Red Cross supplies to Belgium.

Trailblazer: Josephine was the first black female movie  star – pictured is the poster for the Swedish release of ‘Siren of the Tropics’  in 1927

 

In 1940, when the Germans invaded, she left  Paris for her chateau in the Dordogne, where she bravely hid Resistance  fighters.

When German soldiers came to search the  house, she simply charmed them into leaving — and helped spirit the fugitives  out of France at great personal risk.

She toured neutral Spain and Portugal,  smuggling messages for the Resistance written in invisible ink in her underwear. ‘Who would dare search Josephine Baker?’ she reasoned.

She also performed free concerts for Allied  troops in North Africa, braving landmine-strewn deserts and enduring harsh  conditions without complaint.

She returned to Paris in 1944 to a heroine’s  welcome, and was given the Medaille de la Resistance and Croix de Lorraine.  Divorced from Jean Lion, she married her band leader, Jo Bouillon, in  1947.

Long before the actress Angelina Jolie began  collecting orphans, Josephine had dreamed of a creating a ‘Rainbow Tribe’ of  children of all colours to live in a Utopian community at her chateau. She  adopted 11 boys and two girls, from Korea, Japan, Columbia, Israel, Africa,  Venezuela and France.

She was determined to give them the happy  childhood she had been denied, but she was inconsistent, showering them with  gifts then scolding them furiously. Their upbringing was largely left to  nannies.

In 1951 she toured America. Having fought  against Nazism, she was appalled that racism was still so prevalent in the  country. She spoke out against segregation, undeterred by threats from the Ku  Klux Klan, and refused to perform in venues that did not allow blacks, forcing  many to relax their rules. It was a major Civil Rights triumph.

In August 1963 — 50 years ago this month — she was at Martin Luther King’s side at the Washington March when he told  America: ‘I have a dream.’ She too gave a speech, wearing her Free French Army  uniform and medals.

Despite her enormous earnings, Josephine was  hopeless with money and her fortune began to run out.

In 1969, utterly broke, and her marriage to  Jo Bouillon having fallen apart, she was forced to sell her chateau and move to  a two-bedroom apartment in Paris with all her children.Brood: Josephine had longed dreamed of creating a  ‘Rainbow Tribe’ of children of all colours to live in utopia

Difficult relationship: Josephine was determined to give  her children the happy childhood she had been denied, but was inconsistent
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4 thoughts on “RIHANNA is rumoured to play Iconic Actress Josephine Baker in her biopic

  1. Pingback: Shirley Bradley LeFlore, St. Louis poet and oral performer, on new book of poems | 2Leaf Press

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