Joséphine Baker, star and heroine "from time to time"

Joséphine Baker receives the Legion of Honor from General Vallin, former Commander-in-Chief of the Free French Air Forces, on August 19, 1961 in her Château des Milandes in Dordogne.

© Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Text by: Olivier Favier Follow

4 min

By entering the Pantheon on November 30, Joséphine Baker becomes the sixth woman to join the monument dedicated to "great men" in Paris, but also the first black woman.

Behind the immense artist, we rediscover on this occasion a deeply courageous and committed personality.

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In one of playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce's most famous plays,

Music-hall

, the protagonist, a nameless and ageless cabaret singer performs a single song meant to represent her life:

From time to time 

by Joséphine Baker

.

 And it is this tune again that we hear in the Franco-Belgian-British adaptation of Irène Némirovsky's novel 

Suite française

.

Everywhere in Europe, in fact, none other than Joséphine Baker will have better embodied the dream of the Parisian night, she who, in love with France, will obtain its nationality in 1937. What a challenge for the one who was born Freda Josephine McDonald in Missouri in 1906!

Baker's name, acquired in 1921, was that of her second husband and would become her stage name for the rest of her life.

The first black icon

He has been described as the first black icon - because she is seen as such in the segregated United States, despite her multiple origins, African-American of course, but also Hispanic and Native American. On August 28, 1963, during the march for civil rights - she crossed the Atlantic for the occasion - she began her speech thus: “ 

I would like you to know that this is the happiest day of my life.

 "

Child of the ball, sent very young as a servant of wealthy people whose racism and mistreatment she suffered, she found in France in 1925 a more tolerable situation.

Her trip is paid for by an impresario who wants her for his 

Revue nègre which

 he intends to put on in Paris.

She will perform there, almost naked, a "wild dance", which she will describe later as a parody of the colonial imagination.

She appeals to both men and women - the writer Colette will be one of her lovers - but in France too, the whites who take her for mistress are not ready, far from it, to marry a "woman of color ".

His third marriage will take place in 1936, with a young sugar broker, Jean Lion, born Lévy, soon a victim of anti-Semitic persecution.

Resistant and dreamer of a "universal brotherhood"

As the war breaks out, Josephine Baker is at the height of her glory - her most famous song,

J'ai deux amours

, dates from 1935. In the fight against Nazism, she is at the forefront, in the service of the counter. French espionage from the declaration of war in September 1939, then to that of Free France from November 1940. She took advantage of her social movements to bring back strategic information, or to cover that of Jacques Abtey, an intelligence agent that she passed through for one of his musicians.

In 1941, she joined North Africa. It finances to the point of putting itself in difficulty Free France and the Resistance, giving free concerts and reselling for the benefit of the latter the small Cross of Lorraine which is offered to it by General De Gaulle in Algiers. It was as a propaganda officer that she landed in Marseille in October 1944. She received the Medal of the Resistance in 1946, but proposals for her to be named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur were twice rejected, in 1947 and 1949.

She finally obtained it in 1957. Her impressive service records are published in the executive order. She will be the first woman of American origin to receive military honors upon her death in 1975. After the war, she wanted to embody the dream of a "universal brotherhood" by adopting 12 children from around the world that she brought up in her family. Château de Milandes in the Dordogne and actively supports the cause of African Americans.

At the end of her life, her material difficulties were such that she had to sell her property and rely on her friends and admirers to survive.

Princess Grace offers him new accommodation in Roquebrune, and his body is now resting in Monaco.

He will remain there after November 30, 2021, in accordance with his family's wishes.

As one of his adopted sons, Brian Bouillon Baker, said on RFI that day, "it is Joséphine Baker, the resistant and the humanist who will enter the Pantheon".

Our selection on the subject:

  • To read :

→ Fipadoc: the banana of the first black icon

  • To listen :

→ Memorable voice of Joséphine Baker in Paris


→ Joséphine Baker, review and cartoon


→ Joséphine Baker, a committed artist


→ Joséphine Baker's dream

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