Josephine Baker at the Panthéon

Just over a year ago, I wrote about President Macron taking part in a ceremony to mark the admission of the writer and First World War veteran Maurice Genevoix into the Panthéon. Genevoix had fought at the battle of the Marne and had been seriously injured, losing the use of his left hand. He went on to write a series of five books, now collected as Ceux de 14 (Those of 14), based on notes recorded in the trenches. These are now regarded as one the greatest testimonies of the First World War.

On Tuesday this week, the president was again at the Panthéon to celebrate the admission of a war veteran, one whose contribution to French culture and history, like that of Maurice Genevoix, went far beyond their efforts during the war itself. However, the lives and careers of the two could hardly be more different.

Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald) was an American-born French entertainer, Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. Her mother, Carrie, was the daughter and grand-daughter of slaves; her father’s identity has never been confirmed. Carrie married Josephine off to an older man when she was 13. She divorced him and married again two years later, this time to a man called Baker. He too was quickly divorced, but she kept the name for the rest of her life.

Starting her career in a chorus line in a St. Louis vaudeville, she later worked in Broadway revues in New York before sailing to Paris in 1925. An instant success at the age of 19, she was famed for her erotic dancing, including the ‘Danse Sauvage’, unthinkable today, in which she wore only a beaded necklace and a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.

She was an iconic image and a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, and quickly became the highest-paid performer in Europe. Happy to play up to her image, she would walk her pet cheetah on a lead, and she drove through Paris in a convertible car upholstered in lizard skin. Her lovers were said to include Fidel Castro, Ernest Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Colette, and Frida Kahlo. Referring to reports of her bisexuality, President Macron said, ‘Next to a man one night, in the arms of a woman another … In just a few years, Josephine Baker creates her legend.’

Josephine Baker in 1940

Her popularity in Europe was not replicated in the USA. When she was touring there in 1936,   Time magazine referred to her as a ‘Negro wench … whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris’; other critics said her voice was ‘too thin’ and ‘dwarf-like’. Desperately disappointed, she returned to France. In 1937, she married French industrialist Jean Lion and became a French citizen

When war broke out, Baker joined the Resistance, saying, ‘France gave me everything. I am ready to give my life for her.’ In September 1939, she was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, the French military intelligence agency. Her fame allowed her to gather information while socialising with Germans and Italians at embassies, ministries, and nightclubs. As an entertainer, she had an excuse for moving around Europe and South America carrying information for transmission to England. Later, in 1941, she visited the French colonies in North Africa. The stated reason was Baker’s health (she was recovering from pneumonia), but in reality the travelling enabled her to continue helping the Resistance. For her war efforts she was awarded the Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General de Gaulle.

In 1947, she married her fourth husband, the French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon. They lived at the Château des Milandes in the Dordogne with what she referred to as her ‘rainbow tribe’, twelve adopted children from all over the world. On Tuesday the president listed their names: ‘Akio and Teruya from Japan; Luis from Colombia; Jari from Finland; Jean-Claude, Moise, and Noel from France; Brian and Marianne from Algeria; Koffi from the Ivory Coast; Tara from Venezuela; and Stellina from Morocco.’

While her career continued to flourish after the war, Baker also became increasingly active in promoting the Civil Rights movement in the USA. When Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington in 1963, Baker stood next to him wearing her French air force uniform and medals. It was, she said, the happiest day of her life.

Forty-six years after her death in 1975, Josephine Baker is only the sixth woman to enter the Panthéon, and the first black woman to do so. A coffin holding earth from four places dear to her – St. Louis, Missouri, her birthplace; Paris; the Château des Milandes; and Monaco, where she is buried near her close friend Princess Grace – was carried up the red-carpeted Rue Soufflot by six pall-bearers from the French air force. (Baker held the rank of second lieutenant during the Second World War.) Her military decorations were carried behind the coffin.

In his eulogy, President Macron said that with Josephine Baker ‘for the first time, a certain idea of liberty, of the fête’ entered the Panthéon: ‘You enter our Panthéon because, born American, there is no one more French than you.’ He summarised her life: ‘War heroine. Fighter. Dancer. Singer. Black defending blacks, but above all a woman defending human beings.’

There are various clips of the Panthéon ceremony on YouTube, but I would recommend these two, the first for the singing, and the second for the impressive lightshow on the facade of the Panthéon:


There was a grim irony in the fact that the day of Josephine Baker’s entry into the Panthéon was also the day when Éric Zemmour, the far-right journalist and broadcaster, once convicted for incitement to racial discrimination, finally declared his candidature for the presidency. Bad cess to him, as my dad used to say.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

Pope John XII was killed in the act of committing adultery by a jealous husband.

There’s a carpet shop in Dublin called ‘Lino Ritchie’. Cardiff has a tiling supplies outlet called ‘Bonny Tiler’. Bristol has a mobile kebab truck called ‘Jason Donervan’. Portsmouth has a locksmith called ‘Surelock Homes’.

Richard Wagner only ever wore pink silk underwear.

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