US-born black entertainer who became a citizen of France and a French war heroine, for which she was appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.
Daughter of a washerwoman of St Louis, Missouri, Baker ran away from home at thirteen to join a vaudeville company. By eighteen she appeared on Broadway in The Chocolate Dandies and by nineteen had become an overnight sensation, singing and dancing le jazz hot with La Revue Nègre in Paris. She subsequently starred in the films The Siren of the Tropics (1927) and Moulin Rouge (1935). By this time Baker had become the highest-paid cabaret entertainer in Europe. Her French success, however, was not recognized in her native country. Frustrated in her ambition to be a star on both sides of the Atlantic, Baker took French citizenship in 1937.
During World War II she served her adopted country by working for both the Red Cross and the Resistance. For her efforts in both entertainment and espionage she was subsequently honoured with the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, as well as being appointed to the Légion d'honneur. Her postwar work for civil rights in the USA led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to acclaim her Woman of the Year in 1951. Her idealistic campaign for a global village and her adoption of a ‘rainbow tribe’ of abandoned orphans led to considerable personal impoverishment. Baker returned to the stage to give two sensational performances in Paris shortly before her death.
Subjects: Performing Arts.