On November 30, 2021, legendary jazz singer Josephine Baker enters the Pantheon for eternity. This American-born French trailblazer is one of only six women to be recognized in the French hall of greatness for her outstanding achievements. Josephine Baker is the first American to be given these honors by the French because not only did she adopt France as her country, she performed dauntless heroic actions to express her love and commitment for her adopted home.
“My mother left the United States as an ordinary teenager. She became someone great in France. Why go back?” -Akio Bouillon, eldest son of Josephine Baker
As France celebrates her well-deserved recognition, it’s time to remember and reflect on how this ordinary woman became such an extraordinary entertainer and activist starting from the 1920s, during World War II, through the civil rights movement and beyond.
An Overnight Sensation
Josephine Baker was born in the United States and grew up in Saint Louis where she witnessed the riots of 1917 in her neighborhood. Born into poverty, raised by a single mother, Baker learned early how to survive. With a natural talent for street dance, vaudeville and concert halls, she charmed her crowds. In 1925, at the young age of 19, she left America to join a musical troupe for a tour in France. One night, one of the lead performers did not show up. Josephine Baker stepped onto the stage and with her unabashed dancing, a star was born.
First to Break Barriers
Josephine Baker became one of the most celebrated and flamboyant performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère cabaret in Paris. She caused a sensation with her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927. Her costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, captured the new sense of freedom that belonged uniquely to the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. She was the first black woman to star in a silent movie, Siren of the Tropics, that same year.
She enraptured audiences of the time by deliberately playing on her exoticism, mocking colonialism with her rambunctious skits, costumes and brazen, half-naked performances. After the shows, she dazzled tout-Paris with her sophistication, wit, and glamour. France allowed her to step into the spotlight, and by doing so, Baker revealed herself to be a woman ahead of her time.
Her Two Loves: My Country and Paris
Baker did not return to the United States to live. She left America at a time when discrimination was rife, and Black artists, writers and performers were relegated to backdoor entrances even if they had star billing. In France, Josephine Baker thrived in concert halls and in French society. She was invited to perform throughout Europe and the world. She would sing and dance for Kings and Princes, Fidel Castro, Titan, Evita, and the many intellectuals and artists of the time who admired her.
In 1930, her fierce love for newly adopted country was expressed in the iconic song, “I Have Two Loves: My Country and Paris,” written by Géo Koger and Henri Varna with music by Vincent Scotto. She sang it at the Casino de Paris and it’s still debated today as to whether she was referring to the US and Paris, or France and the city of light.
Chàteau des Milandes: A Vision for Peace
In 1940, the successful artist fell in love with the Château des Milandes tucked away in the Dordogne region. First, she rented the 15th-century castle and then purchased the estate with its gardens after the war. Here, she would marry the love of her life, Jo Bouillon, in 1947 in the chapel on the grounds. Together, they would raise a large family of 12 adopted children and carry out their shared dream to create a “Global Village, the Capital of Universal Fraternity” to show the whole world that children of different nationalities and different religions could live together in peace.
Not everyone has the same colour, the same language, or the same customs, but they have the same heart, the same blood, and the same need for love. – Josephine Baker
Baker and her husband created a special school for children in need, opened her park grounds to families for activities, built a jazz concert hall and hotel that resembled the first “Club Med” concept. Chateau des Milandes even hosted a Global Peace forum.
Her Rainbow Tribe
Another role she cherished deeply was that of motherhood. In 1955, Josephine Baker began to adopt children from around the world. Her family would grow to include 12 children: Akio (Japanese), Janot (Koerean), Jari (Finnish), Luis (Colombian), Marianne and Brahim (North African), Moïse (Jewish French), Jean-Claude and Noël (French), Koffi (Ivory Coast), Mara (Venezuelan), and Stellina (Moroccan).
She called her family the “rainbow tribe”.
The Bouillon/Baker clan was raised in the idyllic French setting of Chateau des Milandes. The children would go to a local school and play with neighboring farm children, benefit from tutors who taught about world cultures, mingle with great jazz and blues artists who were house guests, and accompany their mother on her musical tours.
Out Front Behind Enemy Lines
According to her children, her greatest accomplishment was not what she did in public but rather her intrepid work behind the scenes during the Second World War. Josephine Baker was recruited early as a Resistance fighter and she took this new role most seriously. Using her notoriety as a famous entertainer, she spied on Nazi officials, collected intelligence and passed the information written in invisible ink on her music sheets. Her ability to perform in other countries enabled her to send vital messages through the resistance network to General Charles de Gaulle in London. She routinely hid resistance fighters in the basement of her beloved Chateau des Milandes whenever the Nazi regime swept through the region searching for them.
“It’s France that has made me. I’m prepared to give it my life. You can use me as you will.” – Josephine Baker
For her heroic efforts, she was awarded the Resistance Medal, the Croix de Guerre by the French Military and the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Her eldest son, Akio Bouillon, says receiving the honor was her proudest moment. She would sell one of the precious awards to raise money for the Resistance movement.
Standing up for Civil Rights
Despite her undisputed fame and success, in 1951, Josephine Baker was humiliated at the infamous Stork club in New York City when she was refused dinner service by the staff. Even after the war, Black artists and patrons were still discriminated against in certain clubs. On this night, the young, rising actress Grace Kelly was there with friends and was outraged by this offensive scene. Grace Kelly walked out in solidarity with Josephine Baker, and never returned to the club. The two would go on to develop a strong, lasting friendship.
Baker chose to not sign contracts if Black clients were not allowed into the club where she would perform. She refused to entertain segregated audiences in the United States. Baker returned to America regularly to support Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. In 1963, she was at Dr. King’s side before a crowd for the March on Washington. Dressed in her French military uniform, she gave an inspiring speech just before Dr. King delivered his famous address, “I have a dream”.
From Riches to Rags
Josephine Baker lost everything by the 1960s. Separated from her husband, unable to manage the estate, or oversee the oversized projects and tourist ambitions for the Chateau des Milandes, people took full advantage of her, leaving her penniless. Hit by bankruptcy, she was literally ejected from her home with her 12 children, all under the age of 17.
It was a brutal period for the fallen star but Josephine Baker was a survivor.
Princess Grace to the Rescue
Princess Grace immediately reached out to her friend Josephine Baker and invited her to Monte Carlo. The famous American actress had given up her acting career to marry Prince Ranier of Monaco in 1956. The two American expat artists had first met in New York, shared similar experiences integrating into their new adopted countries and understood one another.
Princess Grace immediately had her staff fundraise to purchase a villa for Baker and her 12 children. Thirteen beds were found, furniture and kitchen utensils rustled up.
And Princess Grace encouraged her friend to return to the stage.
Rise of the Phoenix
Josephine Baker brought the house down at the prestigious Hotel de Paris in Monaco. Dressed in a heavily beaded black gown with a matching headdress, she had the dancers strip her of each jewel to tell her story. Her show ended with a triumphant Baker in all her glory.
Once again, Baker dominated the stage and returned to touring with her show. Sadly, she died a few days after her last concert, from a brain hemorrhage. She passed away on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. After the ceremony in Paris, she was buried in the cemetery in Monaco. Princess Grace attended the funeral in person to bid her friend adieu.
The Bouillon/Baker family have expressed their wish that their mother’s body remain interred in Monaco. Josephine Baker’s name and legacy will be symbolically recognized by the Pantheon on November 30, 2021.
A must-visit: Château des Milandes, the former home of Josephine Baker in the Périgord, lovingly refurbished by Angelique de Saint-Exupery and turned into a museum in memory of the iconic artist.
Explore the park grounds where she created her Global Village, and rent one of the fabulous luxury guesthouses at Les Milandes, 10-minutes from the château, run by Rosemary and Samuel.
Join a Black history tour in Paris with Walk the Spirit and visit the famous concert halls that launched Josephine Baker’s career.