Josephine Baker: Dancer, French spy and civil rights activist

As Josephine Baker on Tuesday becomes the first black woman to enter the Pantheon - the mausoleum dedicated to France's "great men" - here's a look back on her wild and wonderful life.

Josephine Baker, pictured in 1950
Josephine Baker, pictured in 1950. Photo: AFP

June 3, 1906: Born into extreme poverty in St Louis, Missouri, USA. Leaves school at 13, later moving to New York City to perform on Broadway.

1927: Causes a sensation – and becomes a fashion icon – after dancing the Charleston in Paris in a banana skirt and pearl necklace that would later become iconic.

1931: Releases her most successful song, “J’ai deux amours” (“Two Loves”).

1937: Becomes a French national after marrying industrialist Jean Lion. She helps him and his Jewish family escape the Nazis.

1939: Joins the French Resistance and becomes a wartime spy, obtaining information on Benito Mussolini and sending reports to London hidden in her music sheets in invisible ink.

1950s:  After the war, she starts to adopt children from all over the world, forming “The Rainbow Tribe”. She had two daughters and 10 sons who lived with her at the Chateau de Milandes in southwest France.

1951: Refuses to perform to segregated audiences in the United States.

1963: Takes part in March on Washington, speaking after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

1969: Loses her chateau due to debt and is put up by Princess Grace of Monaco.

April 12, 1975: Dies aged 68 from a brain haemorrhage, three days after a triumphant Paris comeback and a star-studded gala to honour her 50 years in showbiz.

November 30, 2021: Baker enters the Pantheon in Paris, one of only six women to join France’s “immortals”.

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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.