No American public figures—not Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, not Louise Brooks, not even the inimitable Louis Armstrong—embodied the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s more perfectly than Josephine Baker, the Missouri native who became a legendary performer in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties.
In fact, for millions of people (Europeans, for the most part, but also others all over the globe) who read about, heard about or saw the “Bronze Venus” on stage or in movies at the height of her career, Baker was the Jazz Age—a gorgeous, pyrotechnic talent who, in the words of none other than Ernest Hemingway, “was the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Years after her greatest popularity, but when she was still a beloved singer and dancer in her adopted France and elsewhere in Europe, Baker returned to America — specifically, to Broadway—in 1951, and was a smash hit decades after she left home for less Puritanical and (largely) less race-conscious realms overseas.
In its April 2, 1951, issue the editors of LIFE reported on Baker’s homecoming thus:
One of the most famous American expatriates of this century came back home a few weeks ago. Josephine Baker, daughter of a Negro washerwoman in St. Louis, had begun a sensational career in Paris nightclubs in 1925 by singing an Ave Maria while clad only in a girdle of bananas. She went on a little less scandalously to become “La Baker,” darling of Paris, a citizen of France and a legend to Americans. Now, at 45, she was back on Broadway, singing love songs in five languages and making the Strand movie theater seem intimate as a boudoir. Swishing her pantalooned gown, she crossed her eyes exuberantly, brought cheers from the packed theater as she shouted, “You make me so hop-py!” She made her managers so happy that they quickly booked her for a U.S. tour at $7,500 a week.
Here, LIFE.com brings back a series of photographs from 1951 by Alfred Eisenstaedt that capture something of the woman’s energy, charisma and near-palpable joie de vivre. There will never be another. . . .
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.