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Josephine Baker to become first Black woman inducted into France's Pantheon

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the end of this month, France gives a special honor to Josephine Baker. The remains of the singer will be moved to the Paris Pantheon. That's the French mausoleum of heroes. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on why the American singer has found a place alongside Victor Hugo and Marie Curie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "J’AI DEUX AMOURS")

JOSEPHINE BAKER: (Singing in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In "J’ai Deux Amours," Josephine Baker's most iconic song, she sings of having two loves - my country and Paris. Born into a poor family in St. Lewis, Mo., Baker arrived in the French capital in 1925 to be part of an all-Black dance show. She was just 19 years old. Writer Laurent Kupferman’s documentary "Josephine Baker: A French Destiny" airs next week. He says Baker's love affair with France began when she got off the train in Paris.

LAURENT KUPFERMAN: And someone gave their hand to help her. And that person was a white person. And she felt so good that she was seen not as a color, but as a human person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Baker performed in an all-Black show called "La Revue Negre," often dancing half nude in her iconic banana belt. It was heavily stereotypical and in line with European conceptions at the time of non-whites as erotic and funny. But Baker managed to have her own agency, says historian Pap Ndiaye.

PAP NDIAYE: She, in fact, mocked those stereotypes. She was not taking things at face value. And she made sure that everyone understood she was not exactly what people expected her to be. And this was quite an accomplishment for a very young woman who didn't have much knowledge of the society she landed in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLEUR DE PARIS")

BAKER: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Baker's French was soon fluent, and she began to sing. The little girl who had cleaned houses at the age of 9 in St. Louis became a star in Paris and part of the city's intellectual and artistic elite of the 1930s. In 1936, Baker took her show to the U.S., but her success didn't translate. And after living in France, she could no longer bear Jim Crow laws and the systemic racism of her own country. In 1937, Baker became a French citizen. She bought a chateau in the bucolic Dordogne region of France.

ANGELIQUE DE SAINT-EXUPERY: We are in the house of Josephine (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Today that chateau is owned by 45-year-old Angelique de Saint-Exupery, who grew up hearing stories of Baker and could see her chateau from her own bedroom window as a young girl. Saint-Exupery has spent the last 20 years refurbishing the Chateau des Milandes to pay homage to Josephine Baker. Today it's a national historical monument visited by more than 100,000 people a year.

DE SAINT-EXUPERY: It's - yes (laughter), it's my present for Josephine. Josephine adopted 12 children. She fight against racism during all her life. She fight during the Second War. She is an extraordinary woman.

BEARDSLEY: Scouring auctions, Saint-Exupery has collected photos, furniture, playbills and dresses from Baker's life.

DE SAINT-EXUPERY: Here, it's - she wore in the Carnegie Hall in New York.

BEARDSLEY: In 1940, after the German invasion, Baker permanently left Paris for Les Milandes, refusing to perform for the Nazis.

DE SAINT-EXUPERY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Saint-Exupery explains how Baker hid resistance fighters, Jewish refugees and guns in her chateau. She sang for French troops and undertook espionage missions, risking her life for her adopted country. Baker was awarded medals for her valor. And in 1961, she was decorated with the Legion of Honor medal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAKER: In my homeland, where I was born and love and respect, I'm glad to see this day come to pass.

BEARDSLEY: In 1963, she addressed Martin Luther King's March on Washington dressed in her French Resistance uniform, with medals across her breast.

Bonjour.

GEORGES PASQUET: Bonjour, madame.

BEARDSLEY: Georges Pasquet was just 20 years old when he became Josephine Baker's head butler at the chateau in the 1960s. Today, at 81, he thinks back fondly on those times. He even has a picture of Baker on his flip phone.

PASQUET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It was such a luxurious and fabulous place. And coming from my little village, I was stunned by it all," he says. "She had such energy and never slept. She'd call me down from my room at 4 a.m. and say, George, let's go over the plans for the day. I'd come in my robe. I didn't have time to dress." Pasquet also helped care for the 12 children Baker adopted from all over the world - her Rainbow Tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BEARDSLEY: I meet Baker's seventh child, Brian Bouillon Baker, inside the Pantheon, where his mother will soon be laid to rest. He says she adopted him from Algeria, during the country's war of independence with France, and changed his life.

BRIAN BOUILLON BAKER: She wanted to show that coming from different parts of the world, with different religions and different countries and culture, that it was possible to be brothers, to have a kind of universal brotherhood. It was like a demonstration to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME REVOLIA PARIS")

BAKER: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Baker collapsed after her last concert in Paris, at the age of 68, and died several days later. Thousands of Parisians lined the streets for her funeral in 1975. Because of her mounting debts, she had been unable to keep her chateau. Historian Pap Ndiaye says Baker may have made mistakes in her personal life, but when it came to important issues, she always made the right choices.

NDIAYE: Human rights, the Second World War, the fight against segregation, racism, fascism - she was right on target.

BEARDSLEY: And for that, Josephine Baker will become the first artist, first woman of color and first American to be honored in France's Pantheon.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME REVOLIA PARIS")

BAKER: (Singing in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.