Why Parisians adore Josephine Baker.
Why is Josephine Baker still so revered in Paris?
American-born Freda Josephine McDonald (1906-1975) married her second husband, entertainer William Howard Baker, in 1921 when she was fifteen years old, keeping his name for life, despite her subsequent marriages. She first arrived in Paris in 1925 at the age of nineteen, dancing at the Champs-Élysées Theatre, where she soon became the darling of the Roaring Twenties during the Parisian Crazy Years.
Dancing primarily at the Folles Bergère professionally, she also danced at La Coupole American Bar and Restaurant in the Montparnasse area of Paris where James Joyce’s daughter Lucia also danced. Josephine was thirteen months older than Lucia Joyce (1907-1982), and both became dancers. Lucia longed for a professional career as a dancer, and to be like Josephine. It happened exceptionally briefly for Lucia, but never to Josephine’s status.
The 1969 Nobel Prize winning Irish author Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), best known for his 1953 novel Waiting for Godot, watched Lucia Joyce dance in 1929 in a fish costume in Paris. He was so entranced by her that he kept a photograph of her wearing the sensual fish costume in his possession until his death. But this is not so well-known, unlike American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who also lived in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, commenting on Josephine Baker, saying she was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Josephine’s infamous costume was the skirt made out of a string of artificial yellow bananas and not much else, except also a string of pearls.
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was also living in Paris at the time, drew her, and French poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) promoted her career, while she gained attention endorsing products such as Bakerfix hair gel. She was a real star and Europe’s highest-paid entertainer.
Josephine Baker readily credited Paris for her fame.
When she married her third husband French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937, she became a French citizen.
She used her fame to assist France during the Second World War (1939-1945), when Jacques Abtey, the head of the French counter-intelligence in Paris, recruited her in 1939 as a military intelligence service spy. She told Abtey,
“The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”
When the German forces arrived in Paris in June 1940, she moved to a castle, the Chateau des Milandes, near Sarlat in Dordogne, 480 kilometres (300 miles) to the southwest of the capital, where she hid refugees and French Resistance members. In November 1940, she smuggled documents to General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French government in exile in London under the guise of travelling for performances. She said that the more she was conspicuous as she travelled – maintaining her 28 pieces of luggage and a menagerie of pet monkeys and a Great Dane dog, the fewer suspicions she generated. She toured Allied military camps in North Africa, organized concerts in conflict zones, rode jeeps across the desert, and slept on the ground at night.
In tribute, when she returned to Paris in October 1944, people tossed flowers in front of the vehicle as she rode in the back along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. To the French, she was a patriotic heroine.
She was decorated with the medal of the French Resistance on 5 October 1946. On 9 December 1957, the Minister of Defense Jacques Chaban-Delmas awarded her the civilian Legion of Honour and the War Cross (Croix de Guerre) with palms.
She continued to rent the Chateau des Milandes from 1940 until she purchased it in 1947, where she lived with her twelve children. Built in 1489, her castle home was listed as a historic monument in 1986, and is open to the public.
Josephine Baker died of a brain haemorrhage on 12 April 1975, becoming the only American-born woman to receive full French military honours at her funeral service. Last year, on 30 November 2021, Josephine Baker became only the sixth woman, and the first black woman, to be ceremoniously honoured at the Panthéon mausoleum in Paris (in a symbolic casket). Her body remains interred at the Cemetery of Monaco in the Principality of Monaco.