The fiction I write brings together Parisian history and urban legends and to ensure I know enough about it to write with confidence, I do a tonne of research and reading. That’s what led me to begin this blog in the first place.
While writing a recent post on the 1881 renaming of Place de Bitche, I began to understand just how important it is to Paris to recognise its heroes and allies in the city’s urban geography. Almost every street in the city is named after a person of note, a city or a historical battle.
This got me thinking about what a foreigner must have to achieve to be awarded such an honour so I started looking into the host of international names that feature on the famous blue and white street signs. I’m starting this strand of my blog, City of Names, with one of my favourite figures of French history, Josephine Baker.
Josephine Baker is surely a name that most people recognise. Certainly anyone familiar with the French Resistance movement, the American Civil Rights movement or the early works of cinema will know of her incredible life.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, Baker became one of the most celebrated Americans to live in Paris in the 20th Century. In fact, she famously sang the lyrics “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris” (“I have two loves, my country and Paris”).
There is much more to write about her than I can express in a short blog. Books, biopics and documentaries have been made. But I am so inspired when I hear of her bravery.
At the age of 13, Baker dropped out of school and lived in the St. Louis slums, dancing on street corners. She quickly attracted the attention of the St. Louis theatre producers and rose through the ranks to become the highest paid show girl in vaudeville.
It was early in her life that she found herself uncomfortable with the racism that was rife in the USA and she moved to Paris. She was later quoted as saying, ‘I ran away from home. I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States of America, because of that terror of discrimination, that horrible beast which paralyses one’s very soul and body.’
Within ten years of arriving in Europe, Josephine was one of the successful American entertainers in France, appearing on both stage and screen. The list of her credits and reviews is impressive but the part of her life that fascinates me the most is her contribution to the French Resistance during the Second World War.
In 1937, Josephine married Jean Lion, a Jewish Frenchman, and became a French citizen. She was recruited by the French intelligence services to become an “honourable correspondent”, collecting information on enemy movements from the parties she was invited to attend with Italian and Japanese dignitaries. In May 1939, as the Germans began their advances, many Americans in Paris abandoned their apartments and left, moving to safer regions and demanding help from the Embassy. Josephine moved to her chateau in the country, having escaped internment because of her fame and social standing. There she joined the new Resistance, reporting to Jacques Abtey, the police officer she worked with to spy on the Germans before the war.
Her work for the Resistance took unbelievable courage. She is reported to have stitched information she gathered into the lining of her underwear to smuggle it across international borders. She inserted sheets of intelligence into her sheet music, using her celebrity status to transport information across Europe and North Africa without suspicion. She allowed members of the Resistance to travel with her, disguised as band members and let them use her home, her car and her money. Later on in the war she entertained for British, French and American troops. She put herself in extreme danger to protect a freedom she had always believed in.
For her efforts, after the war she was presented with the Rosette de la Résistance, the Croix de Guerre and was made a Chévalier de la Légion d’honneur, one of France’s highest honours.
Today, almost seven decades after the war ended, Josephine Baker is still remembered by the French capital. Her name is attached to a square in the Montparnasse area of the city, Place Josephine Baker. There is also a swimming pool on the Seine named after her, the Piscine Josephine Baker.
While her legacy lives on in the massive impact she had on civil rights (which others are much more qualified to write about than I am) and the freedom she fought for on behalf of generations of Europeans, it is lovely indeed to pass through the 14th arrondissement and be reminded of this inspirational woman’s tremendous successes.
If you have an hour to spare, I would recommend watching this BBC documentary. May we all have the courage, ambition and drive of Josephine.
To find out more about Josephine Baker (for there is so much more to know!) you can visit ‘The Official Josephine Baker website’ or visit the key locations in her Parisian story by downloading a Josephine Baker Walking Tour guide (25$).
Josephine also features prominently in Charles Glass’ book, Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under the Nazi Occupation