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Josephine Baker receives France's highest honour

Flapper girl, muse, star, freedom fighter, spy... hero. Rolf Liffers writes the incredible history of this black American dancer whose courageous spirit has been immortalized in Paris' Pantheon.

1) Josephine Baker in 1940, photographed by Studio Harcourt.

Legendary dancer, singer and actress, Josephine Baker was symbolically entered in the Pantheon in Paris this week, the first black woman and first stage performer to receive such an honour. In fact, there is no greater honour that can be bestowed on French citizens. According to Prince Albert II of Monaco, however, the mortal remains of the "Monégasque de coeur" will remain in the Principality, where the artist, born in Missouri (USA) in 1906, was buried on April 19, 1975.


In the Pantheon (a national hall of fame) in the center of the capital, from now on, a cenotaph (mock tomb) will commemorate the resistance fighter who, according to her adopted son, Luis Bouillon-Baker, who lives in Menton, also participated as a spy "in the liberation of France from the German occupation and would have been ready to give her life for the country that welcomed her".


For many, the name Josephine Baker immediately brings to mind a risqué dancer in a short skirt. This one-sided memory, which shows how underappreciated the Franco-American icon was for decades, is now to be corrected once and for all by this extraordinary tribute. After Simone Veil (2018) and the writer Maurice Genevoix (2020), Josephine Baker is the third artist personality chosen by President Emmanuel Macron for this purpose. So far, 80 "immortal" Frenchmen have been immortalized in the secular neocropolis, including Marie Curie and Victor Hugo, Jean Moulin and André Malraux. Josephine Baker is only the eighth woman.


The decision to honour the former showgirl was preceded by a petition from 38,000 prominent supporters, including Brian Bouillon-Baker, one of Baker's twelve sons. Monaco Mayor Georges Marsan held out the prospect that the square east of the Esplanade on Larvotto Beach would soon be named after Josephine, who was a close friend of Princess Grace.


The day before the ceremony in Paris, Monaco paid a solemn tribute to the artist. Prince Albert recalled in his speech the strong ties Josephine Baker had with the Principality. After a minute of silence, the Prince's Personal Guard Orchestra played the American, French and Monegasque national anthems. At the grave of Josephine Baker, where she had been buried on April 19, 1975, the Prince laid a wreath together with the French Ambassador and the American Consul General. In addition, Albert II symbolically removed some soil from the grave, which was brought to Paris in a wooden box. There it was to enter the Panthéon together with soil from Saint-Louis Missouri, Paris and Les Milandes.

Photos: © Gaetan Luci/Palais princier


Josephine, the Muse

In 1937, the "muse of the Cubists," who had moved to Paris in the 1920s, became a French citizen. Born in St. Louis in 1906 as the illegitimate daughter of a laundress and a Jewish drummer, the actress was known in France and Germany as a scandal-ridden music hall star for her free-spirited performances between the world wars. Little known until now was that the daredevil was also a French resistance fighter and anti-racist activist.


1926: Josephine Baker dances the Charleston during the "Revue Nègre" at the Folies Bergère in Paris.

In New York, Baker had first made the acquaintance of Karl Gustav Vollmoeller, a German poet who was extremely popular in the U.S. at the time and who was very successful as a talent scout and promoter of dancers and actresses. It was he who arranged Baker's engagements in Berlin and Paris. After appearances at the Plantation Club in New York, she signed on for "La Revue Nègre," which premiered at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on October 2, 1925.


With her dance, the actress took the audience by storm, who got to see her perform the Charleston for the first time. The journalist André Levinson wrote enthusiastically: "Josephine is no longer a grotesque black dance girl, but that black Venus who haunted the poet Baudelaire in his dreams." Via Brussels, the

revue also reached the then Reich capital, where it had its German premiere on January 14, 1926, at the Nelson Theater on Kurfürstendamm.


Occasionally during the Berlin engagement, the first international star of colour was a frequent guest at Vollmoeller's residence on Pariser Platz. The art collector Harry Graf Kessler recorded how these meetings went in various diary entries, for example on 13 February 1926: "At one o'clock, after my guests had just left, Max Reinhardt called, he was at Vollmoeller's, they both asked me if I couldn't still come? Miss Baker was there, and now fabulous things were to be done. So I went to Vollmoeller's private harem and found there, apart from Reinhardt (director, ed.) and (Oscar) Huldschinsky (patron of the arts, ed.), among half a dozen naked girls, Miss Baker, also completely naked except for a red gauze apron... The naked girls lay or pranced around among four or five gentlemen in dinner jackets..."


In 1926 and 1927, Josephine was the star of the Folies Bergère. In two revues by Louis Kenarchand she again danced in her famous banana skirt. Because of her daring "outfit" and provocative movements, she was banned from performing in Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Munich, which made her even more exciting for the public. On board the passenger steamer Giulio Cesare, she sang in the cabin for the architect Le Corbusier, who drew her naked and wanted to develop new buildings "from the spirit of her dance" and built the "Villa Savoye" after the encounter.


The city of Cannes has also erected a monument to the Franco-American icon this year: In July, the new pier at the harbour was named after Josephine Baker. Photo: Ville de Cannes

Josephine, the freedom fighter

Baker experienced the Second World War in France and North Africa. As a pilot's licence holder at the start of the war, she joined a corps of flying nurses working for the French Red Cross. After France's defeat, sealed in the Compiègne Armistice in June 1940, she worked for the Resistance and the secret service. In May 1944, Baker joined the France Libre air force and became a propaganda officer. For her services, she received the Croix de Guerre in 1957 and was inducted into the Legion of Honour. She also promoted the then Lica (International League against Anti-Semitism), now called Licra (Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l'antisémitisme).


In 1947, she married her orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, her fourth husband. She remained with him until 1957. In 1961, this marriage was also dissolved. Although she lived in France, Josephine Baker supported the US civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King from the 1950s onwards. She protested against racism in an unusual way by adopting twelve orphans of different skin colours. In this way, she founded a family that she herself called a "rainbow family", with whom she lived for many years at Les Milandes Castle in the Périgord region of southwest France, sometimes under difficult financial conditions. According to contemporary witnesses, she is said to have had a love affair with François Mitterand (1916-1995), who later became President of the Republic, ten years her junior, in Carqueiranne near Hyères-les-Palmiers in the Var department.


She announced her retirement from the stage in 1956, but then celebrated her comeback in 1961 and performed successfully at Carnegie Hall in 1973.


After successful performances on the occasion of her 50th stage anniversary, Josephine Baker suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage, the consequences of which she succumbed to in Paris on 12 April 1975. The Catholic funeral service in the Paris church La Madeleine was also attended by Princess Grace, who had her impoverished friend buried in the Monte-Carlo cemetery with a French military funeral.



-Rolf Liffers

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