Feeling less-than-welcome in her home country, Josephine Baker fled the U.S. for France, where she thrived as a dancer, singer, and actress. She was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture and to become a world-famous entertainer. She is also noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor the Croix de Guerre.
Baker came from a hardscrabble background; she was descended from former slaves, and she was sent out to work at age 8. She dropped out of school at 12 and danced on street corners for handouts. She was recruited for the vaudeville circuit, and her easy combination of humor, grace, and raw sexual energy skyrocketed her to international fame. She became a symbol of the modern age, embodying the lines and grace of an ebony art deco statue.
Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all women she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career, and were all rumored to be her lovers. Other diamonds in her crown were lovers Colette, the French author of Gigi, and iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
At a time of segregation and discrimination, author James Baldwin was able to eloquently express the everyday life of African-Americans in the U.S. However, in order to do so, Baldwin, like Baker, fled the country for France to write more freely. Baldwin's semi-autobigraphical Go Tell It On The Mountain was a large success and remains a critical favorite, while his later work Giovanni's Room was controversial, as it was one of the first mainstream novels to tackle homosexuality. He died in 1987 in France and was buried in his birthplace, Harlem, N.Y.