Josephine Baker: Dancer, French spy and civil rights activist

As Josephine Baker on Tuesday becomes the first black woman to enter the Pantheon - the mausoleum dedicated to France's "great men" - here's a look back on her wild and wonderful life.

Josephine Baker, pictured in 1950
Josephine Baker, pictured in 1950. Photo: AFP

June 3, 1906: Born into extreme poverty in St Louis, Missouri, USA. Leaves school at 13, later moving to New York City to perform on Broadway.

1927: Causes a sensation – and becomes a fashion icon – after dancing the Charleston in Paris in a banana skirt and pearl necklace that would later become iconic.

1931: Releases her most successful song, “J’ai deux amours” (“Two Loves”).

1937: Becomes a French national after marrying industrialist Jean Lion. She helps him and his Jewish family escape the Nazis.

1939: Joins the French Resistance and becomes a wartime spy, obtaining information on Benito Mussolini and sending reports to London hidden in her music sheets in invisible ink.

1950s:  After the war, she starts to adopt children from all over the world, forming “The Rainbow Tribe”. She had two daughters and 10 sons who lived with her at the Chateau de Milandes in southwest France.

1951: Refuses to perform to segregated audiences in the United States.

1963: Takes part in March on Washington, speaking after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

1969: Loses her chateau due to debt and is put up by Princess Grace of Monaco.

April 12, 1975: Dies aged 68 from a brain haemorrhage, three days after a triumphant Paris comeback and a star-studded gala to honour her 50 years in showbiz.

November 30, 2021: Baker enters the Pantheon in Paris, one of only six women to join France’s “immortals”.

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French history myths: France is the birthplace of wine

You might be surprised that France - one of the world's top wine exporters - is not where wine originated.

French history myths: France is the birthplace of wine

Myth: France, known across the world for wine, is where the drink originated.

When thinking of France, wine is often one of the first things that comes to mind. A sip of a nice Bordeaux or a clink of Champagne can make even non-Francophiles dream of visiting the land of wine.

Thus, many make the understandable mistake that based on France’s deep ties to the growth and exportation of wine, this is where the alcoholic beverage must have originated.

On top of that, it is easy to presume that since the term terroir –  the environmental impacts on a wine’s character, used to determine the authenticity of certain wines – is French in origin, so is wine.

France and Italy flip back and forth each year to top lists of ‘best wine countries’ or ‘best vineyards to visit,’ yet neither France nor Italy is the homeland of wine.  

Wine may feel fundamentally French, but in actuality it has existed for ‘only’ about 2,600 years in the territory that is now France.

Winemaking is actually thought to have originated in the Caucasus region – around 6,000 BC. What is now Georgia is most likely the birthplace of wine (of a sort), with early Georgians having been the ones to discover how to turn grapes into alcohol by “burying them underground for the winter.”

Most historians agree that this is where humans first ‘conquered the common grape,’ as Georgia is where the classic Vitis vinifera wine grape variety first appeared – far from Western Europe.

For France, it was not until approximately 600 BC where wine as we know it began to appear. Historians often link this to the arrival of Greek settlers in Southern Gaul. Later, the Roman Empire institutionalised winemaking in France – with Bordeaux eventually developing an industry big enough to export to Roman troops stationed in what is now Britain. 

Roman techniques did introduce wine-making technologies as we might recognise them today, and in the Middle Ages it was the Catholic church who played a large role in viticulture and helping European vineyards to gain international acclaim.

Prior to the Romans, it is unclear how much Celtic and Gallic tribes produced what we currently think of as wine, although grape pips found around Lake Geneva could be over 10,000 years old. That being said, based on current evidence, it is the Georgians, not the French, who win the viticulture race.

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.