She sang and danced—provocatively. She wore a banana skirt. But she was also a French Resistance fighter, a spy, a civil rights activist, a mother of 12 adopted children, and an American. This was Josephine Baker and I honestly didn’t know much about her before I visited her home at Château des Milandes in the Dordogne valley. I quickly learned that she was much more than the caricature portrayed in the press. Hers is a story that is worth knowing especially since she was honored at the Paris Panthéon on November 30, 2021. She is the only American-born individual and the first Black woman to receive this recognition.
Table of contents
- 1. Who Was Josephine Baker?
- 2. Josephine’s Family And Finances
- 3. Josephine’s Château des Milandes Today
- 4. Josephine Baker Inducted At The Panthéon
- 5. Josephine Baker’s Legacy
1. Who Was Josephine Baker?
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis Missouri. She had a rough childhood, living in poverty, quitting school at an early age so she could work, and marrying at a very young age. She took her second husband’s name, Baker, professionally, and was a chorus girl in a vaudeville troupe in New York.
(a) Success In France
Eventually, Josephine broke out on her own as a burlesque dancer and singer. Her success took her to France, where she joined an all-black revue in Paris. In the early 1920s she danced at the Folies Bergère in the revue, La Folie du Jour. She was very charismatic and expressed herself through dancing and singing.
The Folies Bergère was known to have a lot of nudity and Baker’s costume was skimpy and she almost looked nude. Her dance, “Danse Sauvage” (aka the “Banana Dance”) became as famous as the banana skirt that she wore—basically, a skirt made with (fake) bananas hanging down from her waist.
Baker had an array of pets—chimpanzees, pigs, goats, snakes—and a most famous cheetah, named Chiquita, that she included in her shows. In addition to performing dances and singing, she also made movies, recorded music, and opened her own nightclub, called, “Chez Josephine”.
She achieved great success in France and Europe. The French embraced her and she embraced France, a country that did not segregate blacks and whites. Sadly, she continued to encounter racism when she returned to the United States to do performances. In the early years, she wasn’t as successful in the United States as in Europe.
(b) A Spy In France And For France
While Joséphine Baker was a popular entertainer in France it was also her activities during World War II that endeared her to the French. To the public, she was an entertainer but behind the scenes, she was a spy, working with the French military to obtain and share secret information that she had gathered about the Germans. One story is that she would hide messages in the sheet music and pass them on to the Allies.
In supporting the French Résistance and France, she was seen as their hero and was awarded the Resistance Medal, the French military decoration called the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour by General Charles de Gaulle.
(c) An Advocate For Civil Rights
In later years, Baker was also active against racism and segregation. She gave a speech at the 1963 “March on Washington” along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who gave his famous speech, “I Have A Dream”.
Josephine Baker was married 4 times, first at the age of 13 to Willie Wells for less than a year and then at the age of 15 to William Baker, but they divorced after 4 years. In 1937 she married Frenchman, Jean Lion, renounced her US citizenship, and became a French citizen but they divorced 3 years later.
Her fourth husband in 1947 was French composer Jo Bouillon and they were together for 14 years. Soon after they married she purchased Château des Milandes, known as Les Milandes, in the Dordogne region of France.
2. Josephine’s Family And Finances
(a) The Rainbow Tribe
Josephine loved children and adopted 12 orphans who were from different religions and parts of the world. They became known as the “Rainbow Tribe”. She wanted their home at the château to be a tourist attraction and while it was successful, the expense of raising such a large family and not managing her money well created growing debt and problems in her marriage.
(b) Roquebrune Cap-Martin
If you visit Roquebrune Cap-Martin, you will see a statue of Josephine along the Promenade du Cap-Martin at Espace Josephine Baker. Baker vacationed in Roquebrune Cap-Martin and Princess Grace of Monaco gave her the Villa Maryanne to live with her children.
The sculpture, shown above, was created by artist Paul Pacotto, who was known for his shadow art. The plaque reads,
“Josephine Baker (1906-1975). Turn around the sculpture and discover the life of this artist, her four first adopted children (the rainbow tribe), the Charleston, and the famous bananas.”
(c) Final Years
Even though well-known figures such as Princess Grace Kelly offered to help her financially, she was not able to keep the chateau. She and her children eventually moved to Monaco.
Josephine continued to perform with sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and shows in France in 1975. She died of a stroke while on tour in Paris at the age of 68 on April 12, 1975. France gave her a state funeral with military honors.
(d) Books About Josephine
Many books have been written about Josephine Baker; however, two (shown in the first photo) are worth noting. The one on the left, “Josephine Baker” is available in English and French and is by Jose-Luis Bouquet (author) and Catel Muller (illustrator). It is unique in that it is a graphic novel that tells the story of the American dancer from her beginnings in Missouri until her state funeral in 1975.
The one on the right is a children’s book, “Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker”. Highlights of Josephine’s story is told with poetic verse by Patricia Hruby Powell and beautiful illustrations by Christian Robinson. It has been honoured with many awards including the Coretta Scott King Book Award.
3. Josephine’s Château des Milandes Today
Château des Milandes is a Renaissance castle that was built around 1489 by Francois de Caumont, lord of Castelnaud. Baker initially rented it and then bought it in 1947. It is now privately owned by the de Labarre family but is open to the public. I’m so glad I took the time to visit during my 33rd trip to France (link: Trip #33 Itinerary). A visit to the château includes a tour of her home, as well as access to the beautiful grounds and birds of prey, a show that children will especially enjoy.
Inside the château, you’ll be walking through history, seeing what Baker’s life was like, through the decades—-her dancing, music, work with the French Resistance, and civil rights activities. You’ll be surrounded by a lot of Art Deco design and architecture and many of her costumes, gowns, medals, and posters are on display. Unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures because photography is not allowed.
A very informative video presentation, like this one, is shown in one of the rooms. This is an excellent BBC documentary, “Joséphine Baker: The 1st Black Superstar” on YouTube. (Click on the image to watch the video).
Gardens And Birds Of Prey Show
Do walk through the gardens, have lunch at the brasserie (I had excellent cassoulet), and be sure to attend the birds of prey demonstration with falcons, owls, and hawks. During the show, one of the falcons “visits” various audience members, flying over and perching on their arms.
The château also has feedings of exotic birds, falconry workshops for children and adults as well as fencing (“Musketeer”) workshops for 5-13-year-olds.
4. Josephine Baker Inducted At The Panthéon
About The Paris Panthéon
The Paris Panthéon is a place of honor. This is a mausoleum where French national heroes are recognized and honored. Constructed in the late 1700s, the monument in the 5th arrondissement of Paris was originally constructed by order of King Louis XV to honor Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.
However, due to the French Revolution, it was changed to a mausoleum to honor prominent French citizens and the first inductee was Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau, who was one of the French revolution leaders.
Josephine Baker Honoured At The Panthéon
Being honored at the Panthéon has only been bestowed to 91 other individuals such as Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. They have either been interred or commemorated at the Panthéon, meaning some bodies are not buried there.
Josephine Baker’s family unanimously decided to keep her remains at Monaco’s Cimetière de Monaco. Therefore, it will only be a commemoration at the Panthéon. President Macron and the Elysée Palace stated,
“World-renowned music hall artist, committed to the Resistance, tireless anti-racist activity, she was involved in all the fights that bring together citizens of goodwill, in France and around the world. For all these reasons, because she is the embodiment of the French spirit, Joséphine Baker, who died in 1975, today deserves the recognition of the motherland.”
On November 30, 2021, Josephine Baker was inducted at the Panthéon in a very moving ceremony. It began with 6 members of the French airforce carrying a coffin down a long red carpet from Luxembourg Gardens to the Panthéon. Within the coffin was soil from the places she had lived: Château des Milandes, St. Louis Missouri, Paris, and Monaco. The coffin will be placed in the Panthéon crypt.
Music from Josephine’s career played and was sung by various choirs, including the French army. Songs included “Me revoila Paris” (Paris, I’m Back) and “J’ai Deux Amours” (Two Loves), one of her most famous songs. Images of her were projected onto the facade of the building.
President Macron delivered a beautiful tribute to her before a large audience that included her family and Prince Albert of Monaco. Before them sat the coffin with the French flag draped over it and her medals laying on top.
She is now in the company of 5 other women who have been recognized at the Panthéon: scientist and 2 time Nobel Prize winner, Marie Curie; ethnologist, and French Resistance member, Germaine Tillion; French Resistance fighter, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz; Holocaust survivor and former Minister of Health, Simone Veil; and Sophie Berthelot, who is buried with her husband, French chemist Marcellin Berthelot.
5. Josephine Baker’s Legacy
Will she be remembered as the entertainer who wore a banana skirt (and not much else)? A resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation? A black woman who encountered racism in the United States but became an activist for civil rights? A mother of 12 adopted children? I think all of the above! She was an impressive and admired woman who found her home in France.
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