Who is Josephine Baker, the first black woman to enter France's Pantheon?

The American-born performer and actress found stardom in Paris

Josephine Baker poses in her dressing room at the Strand Theatre in New York City in 1961. AP
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Josephine Baker will be the first black woman inducted to France’s Pantheon mausoleum.

The American-born French performer, who died in 1975, will be honoured in a November ceremony and join the ranks of influential French figures and national heroes.

Among those buried at the site are philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as novelists Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.

Baker's grandson Claude Bouillon-Baker said her remains will stay buried in Monaco and the star will be honoured on Tuesday, November 30, with a memorial plaque at the mausoleum, AFP reports.

Baker will be one of six women — including French resistance fighters Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillon — to be either interred or honoured at the site.

The induction was approved by French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, and marks the culmination of a campaign launched by Baker's family in 2013, with a petition that reportedly received almost 38,000 signatures.

The honour is likely to inspire new interest in Baker's daring life, that wowed and inspired over the course of 68 years.

Here are five things to know about Baker.

1. A tough upbringing

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in the southern American city of St Louis.

Former vaudeville dancer Eddie Carson was thought to be her natural father, but Baker's foster son discredited the theory in his 1993 biography, Josephine Hungry Heart, and claimed her father's identity remains unknown.

Raised in a poor neighbourhood, Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and worked odd jobs, including as a domestic worker and waitress, before joining street performance troupe the Jones Family Band and finding success in New York.

2. Her start in France

After making her name on the vaudeville circuit in The Big Apple, with roles as a chorus girl in Broadway shows Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924), Baker sailed to Paris in 1925 to perform at the La Revue Negre.

Her vivaciousness and gift for comic timing made her a sensation and before long she found herself rubbing shoulders with the city’s famous residents, including the artist Picasso, who drew pictures of her, and poet Jean Cocteau.

It was in France that Baker expanded her talent to include music and film.

She scored a hit with J'ai Deux Amours (1931), in addition to starring in silent films including Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935).

Baker obtained her French citizenship in 1937 after marrying French industrialist Jean Lion.

3. A resistance fighter

When France entered the Second World War in 1939, Baker used her celebrity status to assist in the war effort.

With her stardom gaining her access to elite and influential circles, Baker was enlisted by the French military to work as a spy to collect information on German troops from military and bureaucratic officials she engaged with at parties.

As Phyllis Rose wrote in the 1991 biography Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time: “She specialised in gatherings at embassies and ministries, charming people as she had always done, but at the same time trying to remember interesting items to transmit.”

4. A civil rights activist

Even while residing in France, Baker was a keen supporter of the US Civil Rights Movement.

During the 1950s, she contributed articles for French publications on the treatment of African Americans.

When touring the US she refused to perform for segregated audiences and spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington, alongside civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

In her stirring speech, she compared the rights afforded to her in the US and France: “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

5. Her story received the Hollywood treatment

Such was her exciting and trailblazing life that her story has been told in films, musicals and animated features.

In 1991, US broadcaster HBO produced the biopic The Josephine Baker Story, with Lynn Whitfield's titular role earning her that year's Emmy Award for best actress in a mini-series.

In 2006, Baker's life was turned into the musical Josephine, with Canadian actress Deborah Cox in the starring role during its run at Florida’s Asolo Theatre.

The 1997 animated hit Anastasia has a reimagined Baker performing her hit Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart) alongside a cheetah, while Baker was portrayed by French actress Karine Plantadit in a small role in the 2002 film Frida, a biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Baker died in Paris aged 68 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

She remains the only American to receive full French military honours at her funeral.

Updated: August 25, 2021, 4:51 AM