Josephine Baker rose from poverty and abuse in St. Louis to stardom on the Paris stage before she was 20. She got her start catering to exoticism in a banana skirt, but spoke out against all kinds of racism and, unable to have biological children, adopted a "rainbow tribe" of twelve. Perhaps her greatest work was with the French Resistance, where she used her private plane and unparalleled charm to gather intelligence for the maquís. Performing until her death in 1975, Baker was awarded France's highest honors and her funeral was nationally televised and attended by the elite, both artistic and official. Fascinated yet? Here are some books about the woman known as La Baker.
A good introduction to Baker is The Josephine Baker Story by Ean Wood. While Wood doesn't get into all the complexities of this very complicated woman, he does exhibit a genuine appreciation of his subject and her tenacity and resilience.
A slightly more critical eye is provided by Phyllis Rose in Jazz Cleopatra. Rose makes sure the reader knows about the forces on both sides of the Atlantic that shaped Baker's artistry and personality in this smart biography.
One of Josephine Baker's proteges, Jean-Claude Baker, wrote an intimate portrait, Josephine, full of anecdotes and stories previously unknown. If you want dish, as well as insight as to what Ms. Baker really thought, this is the place to start.
While Baker's life already reads like a novel, it gets the fictional treatment in Sherry Jones' Josephine Baker's Last Dance. This is a well-researched, insightful, biographical novel that deals with the contradictions in Baker's life and personality and illustrates how whatever she did, she did it full-throttle.
Baker's biography also gets the comic-book treatment in the lovingly illustrated Josephine Baker by Jose-Louis Bocquet ad Kiki de Monparnasse. While definitely for adults (500+ pages), this graphic telling of Baker's story leaves very little out while breathlessly sweeping the reader along.
Of course, Baker's life has much to teach and entertain the younger set. Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter uses rhyme and the rhythms of jazz and blues along with vibrant illustrations to tell Baker's story to the picture-book set, and the award-winning Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell uses blank verse and puppet-like figures to do the same for slightly older kids.
Have a favorite Josephine Baker story? Tell us in the comments.