French-American dancer Josephine Baker to enter France’s Pantheon

French-American dancer, singer, actress and rights activist Josephine Baker will become the first black woman to enter France's Pantheon mausoleum of revered historical figures on Tuesday, nearly half a century after her death.

French-American dancer Josephine Baker to enter France's Pantheon
Josephine Baker. Photo: AFP

Baker will be just the sixth woman to be honoured in the secular temple to the “great men” of the French Republic, which sits on a hill in Paris’s Left Bank.

She will also be the first entertainer to be immortalised alongside the likes of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Marie Curie.

The “pantheonisation” of the world’s first black female superstar caps years of campaigning by Baker’s family and admirers to give her the rare posthumous honour.

President Emmanuel Macron granted the request in August to recognise the fact that Baker’s “whole life was dedicated to the twin quest for liberty and justice,” his office said last week.

Baker is buried in Monaco, where her body will remain.

During Tuesday’s ceremony a coffin containing handfuls of earth from four places where she lived — the US city of St. Louis where she was born; Paris; the Chateau de Milandes where she lived in southwest France; and Monaco — will be placed in the tomb reserved for her in the Pantheon’s crypt.

The coffin will be carried into the building by members of the French air force, commemorating her role in the French Resistance during World War II.

READ ALSO Josephine Baker: Dancer, spy, civil rights activist

Macron will deliver a speech and some of Baker’s relatives will read short texts written by the trailblazing performer.

Baker’s name will also soon be added to the name of the Gaite metro station next to the Bobino theatre in southern Paris, where she last appeared on stage a few days before her death in 1975.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald into extreme poverty in Missouri in 1906, Baker left school at 13.

After two failed marriages — she took the name Baker from her second husband — she managed to land herself a place in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921.

READ ALSO France’s highest honour: 5 things to know about the Panthéon

Like many black American artists at the time, she moved to France to escape racial segregation back home.

The woman nicknamed the “Black Venus” took Paris by storm with her exuberant dance performances, which captured the energy of the Jazz Age.

One of the defining moments of her career came when she danced the Charleston at the Folies Bergere cabaret hall wearing only a string of pearls and a skirt made of rubber bananas, in a sensational send-up of colonial fantasies about black women.

The performance marked the start of a long love affair between France and the free-spirited style icon, who took French nationality in 1937.

At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the Resistance against Nazi Germany, becoming a lieutenant in the French air force’s female auxiliary corps.

She also became a spy for France’s wartime leader-in-exile General Charles de Gaulle, obtaining information on Italian leader Benito Mussolini and sending reports to London hidden in her music sheets in invisible ink.

“France made me who I am,” she said later. “Parisians gave me everything… I am prepared to give them my life.”

She also waged a fight against discrimination, adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds to form a “rainbow” family at her chateau in the Dordogne.

She died on April 12, 1975, aged 68, from a brain haemorrhage, days after a final smash-hit cabaret show in Paris celebrating her half-century on the stage.

She is the second woman to be entered by Macron into the Pantheon, after former minister Simone Veil, who survived the Holocaust to fight for abortion rights and European unity.

In a sign of the universal affection in which Baker is still held in France, there was no public criticism of the decision to honour her, including from far-right commentators that are generally scathing of anti-racism gestures.

Member comments

  1. It’s a error and poor journalism to write that Baker had “two failed marriages.” First, when an older man supposedly “marries” a child at the age of 13 and 15, the reality is these are not marriages but cases of child exploitation, and child abuse. Second, when a child participates in such a business, it’s grossly unfair to label them as having embarked on something that “failed,” and by implication hold them responsible. Consider that Baker used these “marriages” to escape an existence in East Saint Louis that was itself dangerous and exploitative, barelsy better than the slavery that the grandmother who raised her experienced. The fact demonstrate that Baker, a young, small, black child, trapped in demeaning , dehumanizing poverty, did what she had to do. She succeeded in escaping a life-threatening, spirit crushing environment.

      1. Thanks! And I’ll add something. Not only did she succeed in escaping, where many would have succumbed, she succeeded in creating a career and life that contributed enormously and so joyfully to our common wealth in France and acros the world.

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French history myths: A masked ‘phantom’ once lived below Paris Opéra

OK, we know that Phantom of the Opera is fiction, but did you know that a surprising number of details in the novel are based on real events?

French history myths: A masked 'phantom' once lived below Paris Opéra

Myth: During the 1880s a mysterious masked man – living in a secret, underground lake – wreaked havoc on Paris’ opera house.

Gaston Leroux’s famous 1910 novel, which was later adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, tells the story of a Swedish soprano at Paris’ opera house, the Palais Garnier, who becomes the obsession of masked ‘phantom’ supposedly living below the building across an underground lake.  

While there has never been any documentary evidence of any masked individual living under the Opéra, there were several spooky rumours about the building that now houses the Paris Opera Ballet, and some parts of the novel were actually inspired by fact. 

There was indeed a chandelier crash that killed one person, and this, coupled with rumours about a ghost at the venue, gave Leroux the inspiration to write his story.

Another source of inspiration for the journalist-turned-author was the very real presence of an underground water tank below the building.

Though there is no subterranean lake or island in the middle that might be hospitable to a phantom, there is a huge below ground water cavern that still exists to this day.

READ MORE: Skulls, beer and a lake – discover the secrets of underground Paris

When the Opéra was being built in 1862, there was an excess of groundwater in the process. In response, Garnier incorporated it into his design of the building, hoping for it to also be a water source that might be available to put out a fire if necessary. 

Nowadays, the underground lagoon is a place firefighters go to learn how to swim in the dark.

You can even get a glance of what the phantom might have seen by clicking HERE.

And if you’re looking for classic French literature that does have real people in it, try Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers – although large parts of the story are fiction, there really was a musketeer named D’Artagnan, while his companions Porthos, Aramis and Athos are also based on real musketeers – Isaac de Portau, Henry D’Aramitz and Armand d’Athos et d’Autevielle.

This article is part of our August series looking at popular myths and misconceptions from French history.