Josephine Baker: American Born – French Entertainer

“I shall dance all my life. . . . would like to die, breathless,
spent, at the end of a dance.”

~ Josephine Baker, 1927

An international star of the Jazz Age, known for her daring dances, exotic costumes, and menagerie of pets, Josephine Baker was born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906. A natural comedian with dreams of performing on stage, she talked her way into her first dance role as a determined young teen and then jumped at the opportunity to travel with a vaudeville troupe. It didn’t take long for her natural talent to shine on stage, and she made her mark as “the funny one.” Josephine exploited her dancing and performance skills, doggedly pursuing her dream of becoming a respected star. By the time she was 19, Josephine was performing in Paris, and a whole new world opened up. In a few short years she had propelled herself from a St. Louis girl with a dream to a full-fledged Parisian sensation.

Outside being a famous entertainer her sense of commitment to fighting racism and injustice grew and matured as she traveled around the world, leading her to become an outspoken participant in the US Civil Rights Movement, conduct important espionage work for the French Resistance during World War II, and adopt her “rainbow tribe”— 12 children, each from a different nationality, ethnicity, or religious group—in an effort to prove racial harmony was possible.

Place Joséphine Baker in Paris.

Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the “Black Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, the “Bronze Venus”, and the “Creole Goddess”. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. She raised her children in France.

n Paris, she became an instant success for her erotic dancing, and for appearing practically nude onstage. After a successful tour of Europe, she broke her contract and returned to France in 1926 to star at the Folies Bergère, setting the standard for her future acts.

Her most infamous dancing costume. A costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas and Pearl necklaces.

Baker performed the “Danse Sauvage” wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which gave birth to the term “Art Deco”, and also with a renewal of interest in non-Western forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris, she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah “Chiquita,” who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.

She aided the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Baker sang: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.”

Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination. After thinking it over, Baker declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children.

On 30 November 2021, she entered the Pantheon in Paris, the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France. As her resting place is to remain in Monaco a cenotaph will be installed in vault 13 of the crypt in the Panthéon

Sources: Peggy Caravantes

Born Today Jean Genet and Édith Piaf

Today in famous people born in French history:

1910 – Jean Genet, French novelist, playwright, and poet (d. 1986)
Genet was a petty criminal early in life, and after ten convictions was threatened with a life sentence, but through the intercession of luminaries like Sartre and Picasso was left alone, and never committed a crime again.

1915 – Édith Piaf, French singer-songwriter and actress (d. 1963)
Here’s La Môme (her nickname, meaning “the little sparrow”). She was born Édith Giovanna Gassion, and took “Piaf”—slang for “sparrow”—as her last name.

Cluny Museum: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

Touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. These six tapestries, woven in around 1500, represent the five senses against a detailed red background.

The remaining sixth sense, explained only by the inscription “À mon seul désir” (To my only desire), has inspired countless theories. Without excluding a possible meaning in the register of courtly love, it could be a reference to free will: the woman with her decorative headdress and refined clothing, renouncing temporal pleasures.

These “millefleurs” (“thousand flowers”) tapestries are characterized by an abundance of flora, including flowers, orange trees, pines, hollies and oaks, and are inhabited by a peaceable bestiary (a monkey, dogs, rabbits and a heron).  In this idyllic natural setting conducive to contemplation, the unicorn by turns a participant and a simple spectator. Accompanied by a lion, it sports the coat of arms of the Le Viste family in every scene.

The Lady and the Unicorn wall-hanging was acquired in 1882. It is now considered one of the great masterpieces of Western art.

Arles: A Van Gogh Getaway

On the cusp of the Camargue National Park in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, Arles is a heady blast of Van Gogh nostalgia – the artist painted in excess of 200 works around this lovely Roman town. The stately amphitheatre, one of the largest in Roman times, is part of the reason for Arles’ Unesco World Heritage Site status. The twisting aluminium tower designed by Frank Gehry brings the city’s architecture bang up to date.

Lavender of Provence

Flowers bloom throughout the year in Provence, but none are more synonymous with the region than lavender, which turns acres of land purple. With more than 2,000 producers and roughly 25,000 people employed in the industry, working across 20,000 hectares, lavender is big business. You’ll want to visit between the last week of June and the beginning of August, just before the harvest begins, to see the flowers at their best.

La Voisin

In a darkened room stands a 40-year-old woman named Catherine Monvoisin. Her figure is lit only by torches held by the faceless men standing in front of her, men who are sentencing her to death by fire. It is the 17th century, where such a death sentence is an unusual ending to someone’s life. But Catherine is an unusual woman.

Catherine was the wife of a silk merchant and jeweler and lived a life of comfort in Parisian Society. She was a philanthropist, entrepreneur, fortune teller, mother, and art lover. But she was also a professional poisoner, alleged provider of sorceries, and an alleged witch who plunged the French aristocracy into turmoil, and even tried to kill a king.

She was more famously known as “La Voisin” and was a central figure in “L’affaire des Poisons” or the “Affair of the Poisons”. Catherine controlled a wide network of fortune-tellers from her position in Paris society. She provided poison, abortion, aphrodisiacs, arranged black masses, and even claimed to offer magical services.

She was so famous that she even drew clients from the aristocracy, who could afford to pay her high prices which funded her lavish lifestyle. Her organization, in performing commissioned black magic and murder by poison, took thousands of lives.

The claimed alchemist Adam Lesage, one of the lovers of Catherine, told of her murdering her own husband, an accusation she denied. It is believed that throughout her life, she might have been responsible for the deaths of around 2,500 infants due to her poisoning. However, throughout this time she remained a high-profile socialite, and her sheer charm made no one suspect her.

Sources: Bipin Dimri

Château De Montségur (“Satan’s Synagogue”)

Château De Montségur (“Satan’s Synagogue”)

Before turning their thoughts to the intriguing legends associated with these ruins, any person who strays off the marked footpaths and loses his or her footing on the edge of the precipices that drop away on every side of this aptly nicknamed “citadel in the sky.” And let us not forget that early in 1244 it was a feat of rock climbing that sealed the fate of the Cathars when they were besieged here by the army of King Louis IX. After seven months, during which traditional military strategies had brought nothing but failure, Hugues des Arcis, the commander of the forces encamped at the foot of this eagle’s nest, finally decided to send a small group of particularly agile soldiers up the cliff face. Under cover of darkness, this detachment reached the summit, captured a watchtower, and installed a trebuchet, with which it proceeded to bombard the interior of the castle without respite, making life impossible for the besieged, who were forced to surrender after a few weeks.

The fate of this community, the last bastion of the Cathar faith in France, is well known. One Sunday in March 1244, the day of the equinox, the believers—more than two hundred men and women—were led down to a pyre that had been set up at the foot of the hill, steadfastly refusing to renounce their faith. What else could they do, these pacifists who had taken a vow to show courage in the face of suffering and death? The name Cathar—from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”—was given them by their contemporaries on account of their asceticism and refusal to compromise in any way. For the same reason, those who had undergone the rite of ordination called the consolamentum were known as perfecti, although among one another they preferred the terms “good man” and “good woman.” The band of sympathizers protecting the pacifist Cathars were allowed to go free provided they pledged to stop supporting heresy and swore allegiance to the king of France.

The Château de Montségur that stands today is not the same fortress that existed at the time of these dreadful events. Historians, archeologists, and local storytellers cannot agree on all the details. For example, was the Cathars’ place of martyrdom the prats dels cremats (“field of the burned”), as indicated today by a stele, or was it a neighboring hill? At this magnificent site, so many questions remain unanswered. There’s the legendary Cathar treasure, said to have been held in safekeeping at Montségur before being smuggled out to an unknown destination. And then there are the four men deputed by the community to slip away under the utmost secrecy prior to the ultimate surrender, carrying with them who knows what. Items of treasure? Precious documents? Mysterious keys enabling the Cathar tradition to be revived elsewhere? At Montségur nothing seems impossible. In the last century a team of German researchers came, with the blessing of the Nazi regime, to investigate, convinced that the castle housed the Holy Grail, the famous cup believed to have been used to catch Christ’s blood.

What should we make of the site’s architecture, of the spectacular alignment of the sun’s rays at solstice time, as if its architects had wanted the castle to function as a kind of astronomical calendar? And doesn’t its floor plan reflect the constellation of Boötes, with the donjon representing the star Arcturus? Is it also mere chance that “Cant del Boièr” (Song of the Herdsman) remains one of the most popular folk songs in the Occitanian canon, with some people reading into its words a coded message addressed to future generations?

“After seven hundred years the bay tree will flower again”—and with it, no doubt, the Cathar faith. Thus were the words of the troubadour in the Occitania of old. Or was it the last of the perfecti to be burned at the stake? Or even a poet born generations later? Basically, nobody knows. It is even possible that the bay tree could be an olive tree, and that the date is regularly adjusted so that it never loses its relevance. No matter. The legend remains perplexing enough for visitors to be drawn in by its verses while contemplating the ruins of what the inquisitors called “Satan’s synagogue” – but never quite managed to utterly destroy.

Sources: Atlas of Cursed Places

Charles Fourier

Today in history —> French philosopher Charles Fourier was born on this day in 1772. Although he was considered a radical in his time for his philosophy of utopian socialism, many of his ideas have now become mainstream. For instance, Fourier was a fervent believer in gender equality and is credited with coining the term “feminism” in 1837.

#FrenchPhilosophers #CharlesFourier #Feminism

French School Lunches

In Absolutely Predictable in France Department:

The mayor of Lyon, France, a city where I’ve spent some time feeding on the city’s meaty and copious cuisine, announced that school lunches for 29,000 elementary-school students would no longer include meat. Well, the reaction was guaranteed:

Not so, thundered Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister. He tweeted that dropping meat was an “unacceptable insult to French farmers and butchers” that betrays “an elitist and moralist” attitude. Julien Denormandie, the agriculture minister, called the mayor’s embrace of the meatless lunch “shameful from a social point of view” and “aberrational from a nutritional point of view.”

I’m not that upset, as the kids will get plenty of meat elsewhere. But the fracas is funny.

#FrenchFood #SchoolLunch