On this coming Tuesday in Paris there will be a ceremony honoring the memory of American-born and French-naturalized Josephine Baker. Her remains will stay in the municipal cemetery in Monaco while a monument will be placed inside the Panthéon. The current building, completed in 1790, was designated the following year as the final resting spot for those who have made significant contributions to the nation including politicians, authors, scientists, and Resistance fighters. In August, French President Emmanuel Macron announced who would be joining Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Louis Braille, Marie Curie, and Simone Veil, among only 73 others.
We already knew a little about Josephine Baker as a singer and dancer, born in St. Louis in 1906, who found success as a teenager on stage in Chicago and New York. From there she moved on to Paris to star in a dance review that eventually led to a contract with the Folies Bergère and a famous costume of feathers and bananas. Her singing talents then flourished and that brought even greater success that allowed her to open the cabaret Chez Joséphine while continuing to perform at other major clubs in the city in the years before WWII.
What we didn’t know much about is how involved she was with the French Resistance. In 1939 she acted as a cover for the counter-espionage movement in Paris, moving freely to help refugees flee the country, thanks to her international reputation. At official events she was an informant and a courier and she was even able to send coded messages during her musical acts. In Morocco she held concerts for French and Allied troops stationed in North Africa. In 1961 she was awarded the highest French order of merit, the Legion of Honor for her work during the war. It was this medal that she wore in 1963 at the March on Washington during her oration just before Dr. Martin Luther King presented his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In order to have a home large enough for the 12 children she would eventually adopt, Ms. Baker moved into a castle in the Dordogne, Château des Milandes, in 1937 and bought it ten years later. While Bill and I were touring in that area, we arrived too late in the day to go inside but we still had time to admire the impressive gardens. On display in this 15-bedroom mansion are many of the gowns and costumes she wore throughout her career including the feathers and bananas one mentioned above.
When the cost of running the château caused financial ruin, Ms. Baker was invited by her friend Princess Grace to live indefinitely in the French town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and perform in Monaco. She accepted the offer and continued her stage career until her death in 1975.
On a practical note, one of the hundreds of questions that they can ask you during the interview for citizenship is to name some famous foreign-born people who became French. You can bet that I’ll be saying, “Josephine Baker.”
Château des Milandes website: https://www.milandes.com/