Josephine Baker’s entry into the Pantheon: how the Roaring Twenties star fought Nazism in WWII


“I have two loves … My country and Paris.” In her famous song, Joséphine Baker proclaims her attachment to France and its capital. When she sang it for the first time in 1930, she was a huge star of the Negro review, a musical show that helped popularize jazz and black American culture in France. It is not only on stage that this native of Missouri, born in 1906 in a poor environment, will shine. Her entry into the Pantheon on Tuesday, November 30, nearly a century after the debut of this piece, is a tribute to the self-sacrifice she demonstrated during the Second World War, a period during which she distinguished herself as that spy.

When France declared war on Germany, on September 3, 1939, Joséphine Baker lived between the capital, where she performed in a review at the Casino de Paris, and Le Vésinet (Yvelines), where she owned the Beau Chêne villa. She obtained French nationality two years earlier, after her marriage to the Jewish broker Jean Lion. The 2nd Bureau, the French intelligence service, then looked for “honorable correspondents”, “that is to say, trustworthy personalities of which he intended to use notoriety and associations in diplomatic circles to infiltrate them and obtain information “, explains historian Frédérique Neau-Dufour to franceinfo.

Officer Jacques Abtey, a spy in the 2nd Bureau, met the dancer in her home in Le Vésinet in September 1939. The idea was submitted to him by the impresario Daniel Marouani. Skeptical at first, the soldier is quickly won over, especially as the artist is thrilled by the project, as he relates in his book Josephine Baker’s Secret War (ed. La Lauze). “It is France which made what I am, I will keep it an eternal gratitude. France is gentle, it is good to live there for us people of color, because there are no racist prejudices, she assures Jacques Abtey. Have I not become the darling of the Parisians? ”

“I am ready, Captain, at their [les Parisiens] give my life today. You can dispose of me as you wish. “

Josephine Baker

in “The Secret War of Josephine Baker”

“She wanted to defend her new homeland, it is a completely sincere and spontaneous commitment”, assures franceinfo its former private secretary Michèle Barbier. “She was very cocky”, confirms the biographer Emmanuel Bonini, author of The Real Josephine Baker (ed. Pygmalion). Arriving in France in 1925, after having fled the segregationist United States, Josephine Baker remembers being well received. French, French, immediately nice “, she tells Marcel Sauvage, who retraced her life during long interviews in The Memoirs of Josephine Baker (ed. Dilecta).

“At the time, in France, racism existed, even if it expressed differently than‘in the USA, contextualizes Frédérique Neau-Dufour. In the French colonies, black people do not have the same rights as Europeans. In metropolitan France, the rare non-white people are generally considered inferior. “ But Joséphine Baker’s personality and artist status have allowed her to find a place for herself, explains the historian.

From October 1939, she brought “the first proofs of its effectiveness”, assures Emmanuel Bonini. Courted to be the star of a Communist propaganda film which must “highlight the oppression of blacks in the French colonies”, she receives at Vésinet the Swedish banker Olof Aschberg, at the initiative of the project. The latter is suspected of being the major provider of propaganda funds in France. Lunch at the Villa Beau Chêne serves as a test at the 2nd Office to record conversations. The film will not happen.

On June 22, 1940, the armistice between France and Germany, requested by Marshal Pétain, was signed in Rethondes, in the forest of Compiègne (Oise). Joséphine Baker then decides not to go on stage anymore. “She has always said that she refused to perform in front of the Germans, but when the Nazis arrive in Paris, blacks are banned from performing. And she does not want to join this racist regime, to as much as she married a Jew “, emphasizes to franceinfo the journalist and writer Liesel Schiffer, co-author of These immigrants who made France (ed. Aubanel).

Portrait of Joséphine Baker in uniform, taken at the Grand Palais in Paris, January 1, 1948. (STUDIO HARCOURT / MINISTERE DE LA CULTURE / AFP)

Joséphine Baker ended up joining the free zone and the Château des Milandes, near Sarlat (Dordogne), which she had rented for two years, at the beginning of 1940. “She tries to show the life of a star of the time, she has her picture taken, she meets the local peasants, but she also serves as a link with the resistance established around, in the maquis”, tells franceinfo the owner of the place, Angélique de Labarre. She hides weapons or resistance fighters there. The Germans knock on his door one day. The artist does not dismantle : I think the officer cannot be serious. It is true that I have redskin grandparents but it is a long time since they buried the hatchet, and if there is a dance that I have never danced, it is good the war dance “, reports the Vésinet Historical Society. “She was not leading off, shade Emmanuel Bonini, she even said to her neighbor: ‘Luckily they left, I was going to pee in my panties’. ”

“She never really aroused suspicion because her reputation preceded her, she seemed a little carefree. It was unimaginable that Josephine Baker could be a spy.”

Angélique de Labarre, owner of the Château des Milandes

to franceinfo

It is all the same a warning: we must be extra vigilant. Two days later, she receives a visit from a man who has come to give her documents on German aviation so that she gives them to General de Gaulle. She feigns disbelief and refuses, aware of the danger.

Joséphine Baker then flies off for missions in Spain and Portugal. “She is received in embassies, opens her ears, clowns, signs autographs when she goes through customs… Thanks to her, the spy Jacques Abtey, who accompanied her as secretary, goes incognito”, explains Emmanuel Bonini. To prevent it from being discovered, Paul Paillole, in charge of military counter-espionage, invites him to resume his artistic activities. “Ithere is no better screen for you “, he told him, according to his memories. At the end of 1940, she landed in Marseille where she was to play the operetta. Creole, from Offenbach.

But the war quickly regains its rights: we need it and Jacques Abtey in North Africa. “At this time, Americans have their sights set on this area, enlightens historian Frédérique Neau-Dufour. Joséphine Baker being of American origin, Jacques Abtey thinks she can make useful contacts with the allies and pass information on to Free France. ” She canceled her performances and landed in Casablanca in 1941.

Once posted in Morocco, Joséphine Baker multiplies the trips: Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or even Lebanon. She collects information written in sympathetic ink on her sheet music or stapled to her bra. “But who would dare to search Josephine Baker to the skin?”, she has fun in Josephine (Robert Laffont), book written with her fourth husband. She ended up falling seriously ill, staying nineteen months in bed from June 1941 to December 1942, in a Casablanca clinic. Threat of peritonitis, tachycardia, septicemia, occlusion… These health problems did not stop him: the artist made his room a hub for allied intelligence. She then worked in favor of General de Gaulle, who had bad press with the Americans. “She saw in him the incarnation of the ideal of France, of the spirit of the enlightenment. She was under the spell of his epic character”, emphasizes Frédérique Neau-Dufour.

On June 6, 1944, when the Allies landed in Normandy, Josephine Baker is on his way to Corsica aboard a small plane to do propaganda in favor of the general. The aircraft crashes at sea. She is saved by Senegalese skirmishers. In recent weeks, she has been officially integrated into the French army with the rank of second lieutenant of the auxiliary female troops of the French air force. A first recognition of his action which calls for others. In 1946, she received the Medal of the Resistance. It would take eleven more years for her to receive the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, which were finally awarded to her on August 19, 1961 in the park of her Château des Milandes.

The Château des Milandes in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle (Dordogne), the former home of Joséphine Baker, March 5, 2020 (MAXPPP)

What place does Josephine Baker occupy in the history of the Resistance? His interpersonal skills and his participation in social events in North Africa or in Europe have they really served France? “She and Lucie Aubrac are two faces of female resistance”, says Frédérique Neau-Dufour. “She took risks to take on this role, but she didn’t get any critical intelligence, tempers Emmanuel Bonini. It was her spirit and courage that impressed. ”

The decree which makes her a Knight of the Legion of Honor, published in the Official Journal in 1957 and reproduced by the Société d’histoire du Vésinet, mentions the “valuable information” collected, “remarkable courage and composure ” and the “beautiful figure of the French woman in the service of the Resistance”. In a letter to Emmanuel Bonini in September 1990, Colonel Paul Paillole assures us that he would not be “not loyal to [ses] responsibilities of head of department[il] affirmed[t] that the services rendered to our country and to the Resistance by Josephine Baker were essential and considerable “. But he also writes:

“I would be ungrateful if I did not remember the enthusiasm of this brave girl, her fierce desire to put her talent at the service of France, her shows made of charm, but also of unfailing patriotic feelings, of immense generosity. “

Colonel Paul Paillole, military counter-espionage

in a letter to Emmanuel Bonini

When the war ended, Joséphine Baker joined the Milandes with “her rainbow tribe”, the 12 children she adopted, and returned to the stage for a last stand in April 1975. On the 10th, she collapsed in his Paris apartment after a stroke and died two days later. Almost forty years later, she became the sixth woman to enter the Panthéon, joining the other resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Sophie Berthelot (as the wife of the former minister Marcellin Berthelot, himself pantheonized), the physicist Marie Curie and the former minister and deportee Simone Veil. “This has obvious political significance for Emmanuel Macron. He wants to highlight that foreign immigrants have defended the mother country, and he could not find a better example, concludes Michèle Barbier. Josephine Baker would have been happy, she liked to have her actions recognized. “



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