A Son Sends Josephine Baker to the Panthéon
Three hours before Josephine Baker was inducted into the Panthéon last week, Brian Bouillon-Baker, one of her ten sons, was on the terrace of a café in Montparnasse. “We found out in May that they were likely going to nominate Maman,” Bouillon-Baker said. He had been summoned to the Élysée, along with the initiators of a petition urging President Emmanuel Macron to honor Baker’s contributions to the performing arts, to the French Resistance, and to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism by elevating her to the Panthéon, France’s hall of “great men.” “We had been received by Macron’s counsellors, and, at the end of our appointment, Mrs. Macron came into the room,” Bouillon-Baker went on. The President was in Brussels. Bouillon-Baker recalled, “She said, ‘The Élysée is calmer when he’s away; let me show you around myself. And, I can tell you—I know my husband, and his opinion is favorable.’ ”
The panthéonisation was a go, making Baker the sixth woman, and the first woman of color, to be so recognized. Born in St. Louis in 1906, she is also the first American-born person (she became a French citizen in 1937) to be honored alongside the likes of Voltaire and Hugo.
Baker and her husband, the bandleader Jo Bouillon, adopted twelve children from multiple countries. Having survived poverty and segregation in America, Baker wanted to assemble a “rainbow tribe” to serve as a living demonstration of unity. The children’s upbringing, at Château des Milandes, a rambling castle in the Périgord, was unusual both in its eccentricity and in its strictness. In “Joséphine Baker, l’Universelle,” a new memoir, Bouillon-Baker compares Milandes to “a perpetual summer camp”: peacocks, baboons, and tourists roaming the property; a regimen of cod-liver oil, Sunday flannels, evening prayers (“Gablaiss mummy”); an injunction against musical training. “Maman was a Democrat in American politics, but she was conservative as a mother,” Bouillon-Baker said. (He was born Brahim, in Algeria, but Baker called him Brian.) An actor, he is the only member of the tribe to have gone into showbiz. “Never big roles,” he said. “I work regularly, dubbing voices.”
Bouillon-Baker’s fiancée, Sabine Desforges, stopped by the café on her way back from getting her hair blown out.
“It’s a little too beehive,” Desforges said. “But it’ll come down.”
“A mix of Lauren Bacall and Catherine Deneuve,” Bouillon-Baker said.
At three-thirty, they got into a car heading for the Panthéon. Both wore masks imprinted with a 1945 photograph of Baker as an officer in the women’s auxiliary of the Free French Air Force. (“NEGRO DANCER REPORTED DEAD IS LIVING IN MOROCCO,” a 1942 article that appeared in the Times proclaimed, reporting, “She lives in the splendor of an Arab house and is driven to market behind a team of spanking bays, but her life is quiet and simple, friends say.” In fact, she had been setting up a liaison center for the French Resistance.)
As the car neared the Panthéon, Bouillon-Baker gazed down Rue Soufflot, where a coffin—filled with soil from St. Louis, Paris, Milandes, and Monaco, where Baker is buried—would be borne along a red carpet. Bouillon-Baker said that he was “excited, joyous, proud.” He only wished that the public, gathering in freezing mist, could get closer. “The most beautiful homage she could have had was that of the street,” Akio Bouillon, another of Baker’s sons, said later.
Inside the Panthéon, rustles of excitement. Practically the entire government was in attendance, as were eight of Baker’s children: a generation of stolid French people dressed in warm scarves and puffer jackets, the fruit of an American in a banana skirt. “Stereotypes, Joséphine Baker takes them on,” Macron said, in the eulogy that he delivered from the monument’s nave. “But she shakes them up, digs at them, turns them into sublime burlesque. A spirit of the Enlightenment ridiculing colonialist prejudices to music by Sidney Bechet.”
The occasion was political, of course, coming in an election season and at a moment when French people of color are questioning the disjuncture between the national creed of universalism and their experiences of racial discrimination. “Yesterday as today, France cherishes Black Americans while subjecting its own nationals to twenty times more police checks when they are perceived as Arab or Black,” the journalist Rokhaya Diallo wrote, in a Baker-themed edition of L’Obs, pointing out that, while France was swooning over Baker, it was exhibiting her own colonized ancestors in human zoos. At the podium, Macron held Baker up as a fighter for “the equality of all before the identity of each.” It was possible to interpret his emphasis on her embrace of universalism as a rebuke of the “wokisme” that some members of the government believe is eroding national cohesion. “Ma France, c’est Joséphine,” he concluded, playing on the lyrics of Baker’s hit “J’Ai Deux Amours.”
When the sun set in New York, the Empire State Building glowed bleu, blanc, rouge in Baker’s honor. Bouillon-Baker went to sleep happy: “Her native country was remembering her at last.” ♦