Civil rights activist, spy, and premiere ex-pat entertainer, the “Creole Goddess” – who was actually from Saint Louis, Missouri – was a star of the early 20th century stage. She was, among other things: “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”; the first African-American woman to star in a major film; and such a fixture in Parisian nightlife that her animated likeness is given a cameo in the children’s film Anastasia. The cheetah in the above picture, her pet Chiquita, would terrorize the musicians in the orchestra pit while she performed, adding a novel level of appeal to her act.
Baker’s eventful life took her from the States to France, which she fell in love with on account of what she saw as a less racist climate. When World War II broke out she used her status as a touring performer to schmooze with high-level Axis officials, scrawling notes on her sheet music in invisible ink; for her efforts, she was rewarded with the Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle. After the war she returned to the US for a tour. Her experiences with segregation led her to join the NAACP, and she crusaded with such gusto that they called for May 20th, 1951, to be declared Josephine Baker Day. She even spoke at the March on Washington.