Of mixed African-American and Native American descent, Freda Josephine McDonald was born on 3 June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. When Josephine was only one year old, her father left her mother who remarried Arthur Martin. They had three more children. Having to help support the family, Josephine alternated between school and housework. At the same time, she took up dancing and in 1920 joined a trio of street performers.
Joséphine married several times. From her marriage to Willie Baker, she kept the name despite the brevity of this union.
In 1925, Joséphine Baker met the wife of a commercial attaché of the American embassy, who offered her to take part in a show in France. Josephine accepted and left for Paris. By the end of the year, she was performing at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Dressed in a banana loincloth in a show that was condescending to blacks, she was an immediate success and sparked a new interest in jazz in France.
In 1927, after a tour of Europe, Joséphine led the revue at the Folies Bergères. The same year, she started singing and making films. In 1937, she married Jean Lion and became a French citizen.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Joséphine Baker was recruited by the French army's intelligence service. Her job allowed her to travel frequently and pass on information without attracting attention. Through her socialising, she collected information from Parisian high society, worked for the Red Cross and passed messages in invisible ink on her sheet music. After the war, her activities earned her the Croix de Guerre, the Médaille de la Résistance and the Légion d'honneur from General de Gaulle.
In 1947, Josephine Baker married again. After a miscarriage, she became infertile and in 1949 decided to adopt children of all origins (her "rainbow tribe") to prove that children of different religions and ethnicities could be brothers and sisters. She raised two daughters and ten sons from all over the world.
In the 1950s, she supported the African-American Civil Rights Movement, writing articles and speaking out against racism and segregation in the US. In 1963, she participated in Martin Luther King's March on Washington for Work and Freedom. She spoke alongside him and paid tribute to activists Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates.
Joséphine Baker continued to perform on major European stages. On 10 April 1975, Josephine Baker suffered a stroke. She was taken to hospital where she died two days later at the age of 69.