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Baker given France's top honor

U.S.-born dancer, spy is first Black woman in Pantheon by The Associated Press | November 29, 2021 at 3:57 a.m.
ARCHIVO - Josephine Baker posa durante una actuación en Nueva York, el 11 de febrero de 1936. (AP Foto, Archivo)

PARIS -- France is inducting Josephine Baker -- Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy and civil-rights activist -- into its Pantheon, the first Black woman honored in the final resting place of France's most revered luminaries.

On Tuesday, a coffin carrying soils from the U.S., France and Monaco -- all places where Baker made her mark -- will be deposited in the domed monument overlooking the Left Bank of Paris. Her body will remain in Monaco at the family's request.

French President Emmanuel Macron decided on her entry into the Pantheon, responding to a petition lobbying for her "pantheonization." In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, the move is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate U.S.-French connections.

"She embodies, before anything, women's freedom," said Laurent Kupferman, who wrote the petition.

The Pantheon, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and now five women. It includes two other Black figures: Free French leader Felix Ebouw and author Alexandre Dumas.

"These are people who have committed themselves, especially to others," Pantheon administrator David Medec said. "It is not only excellence in a field of competence, it is really the question of commitment, commitment to others."

'THAT KIND OF FANTASY'

Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis. At 19, having already divorced twice, had relationships with men and women and started a performing career, she moved to France for a job opportunity.

"She arrives in France in 1925, she's an emancipated woman, taking her life in her hands, in a country of which she doesn't even speak the language," Kupferman said.

She met immediate success on the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage, where she appeared topless and wearing a famed banana belt. Her show, embodying the colonial time's racist stereotypes about African women, caused both condemnation and celebration.

"She was that kind of fantasy: not the Black body of an American woman but of an African woman," said theater spokesperson Ophelie Lachaux. "And that's why they asked Josephine to dance something 'tribal,' 'savage,' 'African'-like."

She became a French citizen after her marriage in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lion, a Jewish man who later suffered from anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

HELPING THE RESISTANCE

In September 1939, as France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Baker got in touch with the head of the French counterintelligence services. She started working as an informant -- traveling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets.

Researcher and historian Geraud Letang said Baker lived "a double life between, on the one side, the music hall artist, and on the other side, another secret life, later becoming completely illegal, of intelligence agent."

After France's defeat in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis occupying Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her spying activities.

That year, she brought into her troupe several spies working for the Allies, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal.

"No one finds shocking that she is with her impresario, make-up artists, technicians ... so she brings them with her, and information is being conveyed," Letang said. "She risks the death penalty, or at least the harsh repression of the Vichy regime or of the Nazi occupant."

The next year, seriously ill, Baker left France for North Africa, where Gen. Charles De Gaulle later arrived from London with the Free French Forces. Baker gathered intelligence for De Gaulle, including spying on the British and the Americans, who didn't fully trust him.

She also raised funds -- an estimated $11.2 million to support the French Resistance.

In 1944, Baker joined a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army as a second lieutenant. She also organized concerts for soldiers and civilians near combat zones.

After the defeat of the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for former prisoners and deportees freed from the camps.

"Baker's involvement in politics was individual and atypical," said Benetta Jules-Rosette, a leading scholar on Baker's life and a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego.

A NEW FIGHT

After the war, Baker got involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American segregation during a 1951 performance tour of the U.S., causing her to be targeted by the FBI, labeled a communist and banned from her homeland for a decade.

The ban was lifted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she returned to be the only woman to speak at the March on Washington before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a "rainbow tribe" to embody her ideal of "universal fraternity." She purchased a castle and land in the southwestern French town of the Milandes, where she tried to build a city embodying her values.

Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial trouble, was evicted and lost her properties. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who offered Baker a place for her and her children to live.

She rebuilt her career, but in 1975, four days after the triumphant opening of a comeback tour, she fell into a coma and died from a brain hemorrhage.

Information for this article was contributed by Jamey Keaten of The Associated Press.

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