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.
The French Army Choir sang the Chant des Partisans for Joséphine Baker too – another great Resistance figure pic.twitter.com/OmKPZVNf9z
— Dan Jackson (@northumbriana) December 1, 2021
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.
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.
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 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.
C’est Joséphine Baker. pic.twitter.com/XjxFYcZMAO
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) November 30, 2021