December 3, 2021
Lightness, Joy and Now, Legacy
Madame Josephine Baker
Left: Josephine Baker during World War II, c. 1945
Right: Josephine Baker in her dressing room at the Strand Theater, New York City, March 6, 1961
This past Tuesday, November 30th, entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist Josephine Baker received the prestigious honor of a tomb in the Pantheon in Paris, France, the country's monument to its heroes. Only eighty individuals have been so honored since the 1790s, and Baker is the sixth woman, first woman of color, and first performing artist. In an elaborate ceremony including Baker's family members, politicians, and Prince Albert II—the son of Baker’s late friend Princess Grace Kelly—French President Emmanuel Macron presided over the events, reflecting: “She broke down barriers. She became part of the hearts and minds of French people ... Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because while you were born American, but deep down there was no one more French than you.”
Left: Josephine Baker, 1923
Right: Dancers in ‘‘Shuffle Along’’ performing ‘‘Bandanna Days,’’ Josephine Baker is sixth from the right, 1921
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker dropped out of school at age twelve and worked as a domestic live-in, as well as a waitress and dancer. At age thirteen, she travelled to New York City where she performed in the successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). Her second husband, William Howard Baker, she divorced in 1925, when she was the tender age of nineteen years old. It would be Paris, France that she would travel to where she found her true home: “Josephine Baker… went to Paris [France] and she became famous for her banana dance, and… she realized… she couldn't really hone her craft here [in the U.S.], and she wasn't well received.”[1] Choreographer and visual artist Geoffrey Holder (1930 – 2014) further explained: “The French went wild because it is a new dance of the period, Charleston, Black Bottom. The new music jazz… only comes from Harlem [New York, New York], where the French are concerned, during the period… France was the place to go. [Ernest] Hemingway was there. Gertrude Stein [Pablo] Picasso… There was new art… new books. There were new writers, the new intellects, and the new sound of music was called jazz. And… the French put it on a pedestal and put Josephine Baker on that same pedestal… Harlem does not exist in any other part of the world… and she, to them, was Harlem.”[2]
Left: Josephine Baker dancing on stage, 1926
Right: Josephine Baker singing to Charlie Chaplin, Moulin Rouge, Paris, France, 1953
Within several years of her arrival, Baker “spoke fluent French and began to sing… She was a symbol of the Jazz Age, dominating France's cabarets with her sense of humor, her frantic dancing, and her iconic songs like ‘J'ai Deux Amours’ or ‘I Have Two Loves,’ referring to ‘mon pays [my country] et Paris.[3] Film actress and tap dancer Jeni LeGon (1916 – 2012) recalled: “They had this show put together with Count Basie's band and…other dancers I had met had told me about Josephine Baker… She used to dance on the left side on the second line--on your right if you're sitting…in the audience. And she would clown a bit. She was dancing the dances that the girls did, but then she did what we called mugging and doing eyes and carrying on.[4]
Left: Josephine Baker (right) and Eartha Kitt (left), c.1958
Right: Choreographer George Balanchine, the “Father of American Ballet,” c.1920s
A natural talent and beauty, many were captivated by Baker. Actress and singer Eartha Kitt (1927 – 2008) spoke of travelling to Paris in the 1950s: “That was the first thing we did when we got to Paris with the Katherine Dunham Company. We went right to see Josephine Baker. And she was absolutely wonderful. And through the years, we remained friends.”[5] Dancer, choreographer, and artistic director Arthur Mitchell (1934 - 2018) shared: “Mr. [George] Balanchine [ballet choreographer, known as the “Father of American Ballet”] … had met Josephine Baker in the '20s [1920s]. Now I didn't realize that jazz was so popular in Russia. When Mr. Balanchine came to the west [from the country of Georgia] … he wanted to see Josephine Baker and she was ‘the thing’ in the Follies [Ziegfeld Follies, series of ballet venues in New York City] … If you see 'Apollo' [George Balanchine] he did in 1929 [sic. 1928], a lot of that was done on Josephine Baker… all the splits, she was famous for doing her splits… But he was fascinated with Josephine Baker.”[6]
Left to right: c. 1920s, c. 1930s, 1951, and c. 1970s
A singer, dancer, and entertainer, Baker was also a fashion icon. Business consultant and retail buyer Barbara Samuels (1937 - 2020) shared: “I've interviewed Karl Lagerfeld… and I asked him… ‘What woman, living or dead, would you have given your right arm to design clothes for?’ He said, ‘Oh, Josephine Baker, of course,’[7]
Left: Josephine Baker, 1961
Right: Carmen DeLavallade (left) and Josephine Baker (right), undated
Alvin Ailey’s Sylvia Waters spoke of the difference between Baker on and off-stage: “I went to see her perform at the Olympia and it was amazing… and I went back stage because I knew someone who was in the show, and there was this person at the call board, these big, huge, thick glasses on… and… a dress-type thing, and I said, ‘Excuse me, I'm looking for my friend…’ and she said, ‘Oh, she's right down there, just down the hall.’ …And that was Josephine Baker… I mean she was so different off stage… she's just a larger than life personage on stage… that big voice… but offstage, she was this lady with these big, thick, Coke-bottle glasses on and… I think she had a turban on or a scarf on her head.”[8]
Left: Joséphine à Bobino 1975
Right: Josephine Baker’s funeral, with French Resistance veterans serving as pallbearers. Princess Grace of Monaco is to the left of the casket. Madeleine Church, Paris, France, April 15, 1975
Baker continued performing into the last years of her life. Choreographer and dancer George W. Faison reflected on her performance two years before her death: “I did [choreography for] Josephine Baker at Carnegie Hall when she made her comeback in 1973… Josephine, you know, progressed with the times. She did not play with you. She'd come back more fabulous than she was before.”[9] Her last performance was the Parisian event Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her fifty years in show business, financed by Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Princess Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy, which received rave reviews. She passed away four days later. Given a funeral with full French military honors—the only American-born woman to do so—Baker was laid to rest in Monaco, France, in April of 1975. While she received her honorary tomb at the Pantheon this week, her body will remain in Monaco at the request of her family.
Left: Josephine Baker (right) as a member of the Fighting French Women's Corps, North Africa, c.1940s
Right: Josephine Baker after being awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre, 1961
Lawyer Mercer Cook pointed out: “They [France] loved her and… she stayed there during the war [World War Two, WWII]. She… was quite active in that movement [French Resistance].”[10] Among many things, “Baker stashed weapons in the chateau [Chateau des Milandes, where she lived] — and also hid Resistance fighters and Jewish refugees… She performed with French actor Maurice Chevalier for French troops stationed along the Maginot Line. She used her fame to glean information at Axis embassies. She undertook spy missions… passing easily between free France in the south and the occupied Vichy zone.[11] By 1944, Baker became second-lieutenant in a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army of General Charles De Gaulle; and, in 1961, she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.
Josephine Baker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963
Baker also made efforts to combat racism in her birth country and was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, donned in her French Resistance uniform. She shared her French experience with the American crowd: “When I was a child and they burned me out of my home… I was frightened and I ran away. Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France… It was like a fairyland place... when I was young in Paris, strange things happened to me... I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to.”[12]

As French President Macron described: "A war hero, fighter, dancer, singer; a Black woman defending Black people but first of all, a woman defending humankind. American and French. Josephine Baker fought so many battles with lightness, freedom, joy.”

Longue vie… Ms. Josephine Baker.
Images of Josephine Baker projected on the Patheon walls, Paris, France, November 30, 2021
[1] Lois Conley (The HistoryMakers A2007.299), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 19, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 9, Lois Conley narrates the Josephine Baker exhibit at The Black World History Wax Museum.
[2] Geoffrey Holder (The HistoryMakers A2003.081), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Geoffrey Holder remembers inspirational performers.
[3] Eleanor Beardsley. “Josephine Baker is the first Black woman to be inducted into France's Pantheon,” NPR, November 30, 2021, accessed November 30, 2021.
[4] Jeni LeGon (The HistoryMakers A2004.113), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 28, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Jeni LeGon discusses her beginnings as a professional dancer.
[5] Eartha Kitt (The HistoryMakers A2008.145), interviewed by Gwen Ifill, September 20, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Eartha Kitt reflects upon her experiences traveling in Europe in the 1950s.
[6] Arthur Mitchell (The HistoryMakers A2016.034), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, October 5, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 8, Arthur Mitchell describes George Balanchine's interest in Josephine Baker.
[7] Barbara Samuels (The HistoryMakers A2003.301), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 17, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Barbara Samuels talks about her time as a fashion writer for N'DIGO.
[8] Sylvia Waters (The HistoryMakers A2010.108), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 27, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 11, Sylvia Waters talks about meeting Josephine Baker.
[9] George W. Faison (The HistoryMakers A2007.073), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 14, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 5, George W. Faison remembers 'The Josephine Baker Story'.
[10] Mercer Cook (The HistoryMakers A2003.300), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Mercer Cook talks about Josephine Baker.
[11] Beardsley, “Josephine Baker is the first Black woman to be inducted into France's Pantheon.”
[12] Ibid.