Born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson and Carrie McDonald, she entered vaudeville as a teen, gradually heading toward New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club.
On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théâtre Champs-Elysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and appearing practically naked on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she returned to France, where she starred at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts. Already a star, she performed in a skirt made only of bananas, often accompanied by her pet leopard, Chiquita, adorned with a diamond collar. The leopard frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding yet another element of excitement to the show. In a short while, she was the most successful American entertainer appearing in France, whereas in the U.S., she would have suffered from the racial prejudices common to the era. Writer Ernest Hemingway called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." In addition to being a musical star, Baker also starred in several successful films, among them Zouzou (1934) and Princèsse Tamtam (1935).
Upon marrying her manager, Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian stonemason who passed himself off successfully as a Sicilian count, Baker transformed her stage and public persona into a sophisticated cultural figure (the marriage was reportedly a publicity stunt and not legally binding). At this time she also scored her greatest song hit J'ai deux amours (1931) and she became a source of inspirartion for contemporary painters and scultors alike.
She was so well-known and popular, that even the Nazis, who occupied France during World War II were hesitant to touch her. In turn, this allowed Baker to show her loyalty to her adopted country by participating in the underground. According to an apocryphal story, Hermann Göring himself invited her to dinner one evening, already suspecting her of involvement in the Underground. Realizing that the wine he forced her to drink was poisoned, she managed to excuse herself and escaped from the chalet through a laundry chute. After the war, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her underground activity.
Yet despite her popularity in France, she was never really able to obtain the same reputation at home. Upon a visit to the United States in 1936, she starred in a failed show with the Ziegfeld Follies; her personal life similarly suffered, and she went through six marriages, some legal, some not.
Though based in France, she supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s, and protested racism in her own unique way, adopting twelve multi-ethnic orphans, which she called her "Rainbow Tribe." For some time she lived with all of her children and an enormous staff in a castle in France. (Baker had only one child of her own, stillborn in 1941, an incident that precipitated an emergency hysterectomy). On tours of the United States, she refused to perform in segregated nightclubs, and her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate shows in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, her career was on a downturn and she was near bankruptcy until she was bailed out and given an apartment by her close friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, another expatriate American entertainer living in Europe.
On April 8, 1974, her fortunes seemed to be turning to the better when she was the star of a retrospective show, Joséphine, celebrating her fifty years in the theater. The show opened to rave reviews, but Baker never benefited from it. She died of a heart attack less than a week later, and the show was cancelled.
Josephine Baker went through six wedding ceremonies: foundry worker Willie Wells (1919, divorced), Pullman porter William Howard Baker (1921, divorced), Giuseppe Pepito Abatino (1926, publicity stunt, not legally binding), French sugar magnate Jean Lion (1937-1940, divorced), French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon (1947, separated 1957, eventually divorced), and American artist Robert Brady (1928-1986, married 1973, also not legally binding, separated 1974).
Baker wrote several autobiographies, each containing a different story about her family and career.
She became the first American woman to receive French military honors at her funeral, which was held at L'Église de la Madeleine. She was interred at the Cimetière de Monaco.