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FRENCH HISTORY

IN PICTURES: France honours Josephine Baker at the Pantheon

The Franco-American resistance hero, performing artist and civil rights activist, Josephine Baker, has received the highest posthumous honour possible in France, being inducted into the Panthéon.

Images of Josephine Baker are projected onto the Pantheon during a ceremony dedicated to the American-born French dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance and later battled racism as a civil rights activist.
Images of Josephine Baker are projected onto the Pantheon during a ceremony dedicated to the American-born French dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance and later battled racism as a civil rights activist. (Photo by Thibault Camus / POOL / AFP)

Josephine Baker has become 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’ Left Bank.

She is the first ‘entertainer’ to be immortalised in the monument where the bodies of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Marie Curie also lie. 

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 where she is buried – was placed in the tomb reserved for her in the Pantheon’s crypt.

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

As the coffin was borne along a street covered in red carpet to the strains of Baker‘s hit song “J’ai deux amours” (“I have two loves” – referring to “My country and Paris”) images of her life were projected onto the Pantheon’s neo-classical facade.

French soldiers carry a coffin filed with soil from important places from Baker’s life, during a ceremony dedicated to the American-born French dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance. (Photo by Thomas COEX / POOL / AFP)
 
Paying tribute to her in a speech Macron said Baker “did not defend one skin colour” but “fought for the liberty of all”. Addressing his remarks to “dear Josephine”, he said: “You are entering this Pantheon because although you were born American there is no-one more French than you.”
 
The honour bestowed by Macron on the world’s first black female superstar caps years of campaigning by her family and admirers for her place in French history to be recognised.
 
France’s President Emmanuel Macron delivered in tribute to Baker. (Photo by SARAH MEYSSONNIER / POOL / AFP)

Baker’s name will also 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 and managed to get herself a place in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921.

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

Brian Bouillon-Baker, one of the Josephine Baker’s adopted sons, attended the ceremony. (Photo by SARAH MEYSSONNIER / POOL / AFP)

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.

Members of the public also gathered to pay tribute. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

“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 12th, 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.

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FRENCH HISTORY

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.

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