Heartening news from Paris, where the great Josephine Baker is to be granted a rare honour. The dancer, actress, film star, civil rights activist and hero of the French Resistance is to be memorialised in the Panthéon, Paris’s secular temple, after nearly a decade of campaigning.
An inscription at the Panthéon reads: “To its great men, a grateful fatherland” and around 80 notable French people are honoured there, most of them men. Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman to be commemorated there.
Her predecessors are Marie Curie, Resistance heroes Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, feminist icon Simone Veil and Sophie Berthelot, the first woman to enter these hallowed crypts, and who was interred alongside her chemist husband Marcellin Berthelot “in homage to her conjugal virtue”.
La Baker, who was born in St Louis, Missouri, but became a French citizen in 1937, is also the first Black woman to be interred in the Panthéon. Hopefully she will not be alone for long.
Baker joins a handful of her comrades in the French Resistance in the crypts, but she is doubtless the first resident to have been a silent movie star. Let alone the first to have been born to former slaves, the first to have danced at the Folies Bergére naked except for a skirt made of artificial bananas, to have starred opposite Jean Gabin in a movie and very possibly the first to have carried information of vital importance to the war effort written on sheet music hidden in her underwear across national borders.
There are many, many reasons to love and admire the impeccable Josephine Baker, and we can only hope she would have been gratified by this long-overdue honour. Her family has been lobbying the French government since 2013 to include Baker in the Panthéon, and collected 38,000 signatures on a petition. President Emmanuel Macron finally approved her induction this week.
The ceremony to induct Baker in the Panthéon will take place in November. Her remains will stay in Monaco, where she was buried with French military honours when she died in 1975, but there will be a plaque in the Panthéon to commemorate her national importance.
• If you have access to the Criterion Channel, you can watch a retrospective of Baker’s screen work, including La revue des revues (1927), Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zou Zou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935) and an introduction by scholar Terri Simone Francis online this month.
• I wrote about Baker and Siren of the Tropics (1927) here.
• More on Black silent cinema.
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