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46 years ago, Paris bid farewell to Joséphine Baker

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Paris (AFP) – Tuesday April 15, 1975: Paris pays a last tribute to Joséphine Baker, who died three days earlier in the hospital where a “severe heart disease” complicated by a “serious neurological attack” tragically precipitated its “final”. She was 68 years old.

“She passed away at dawn (April 12, editor’s note), three days after having celebrated her golden wedding anniversary with the stage in the new show put on in her honor at the Bobino music hall”, writes then ‘AFP. Here is the story of the artist’s last farewell to Paris, told from archive dispatches.

For the “Josephine Baker story”, a magazine devoted to her life, “we did not skimp” on the means: 15 sets, 40 costumes, 2,000 pairs of shoes, 40 dancers for a total of 3 million francs. “It’s the big comeback of Josephine who rejuvenates Paris by 50 years”, headlines the press. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing told him of “the gratitude of France whose heart has so often beaten with yours”.

She hadn’t performed in Paris since 1959. “You can’t end your career elsewhere!” She said.

But at the gala given on April 9 for her 50 years on the stage, “her body could not resist these emotions and she was struck 24 hours later with stroke.”

Joséphine Baker’s funeral procession arrives at the Madeleine church on April 15, 1975 in Paris – AFP/Archives

“She died after having obtained the greatest reward of her career: her triumph for her back-to-school gala”, confided Line Renaud, remained by her side until her death. “She was overjoyed”.

– “Bobino illuminated with all his fires” –

On this morning of April 15, the “Bobino theater is lit up with all its lights. Several hundred unknown friends – mostly elderly people – moved, with red eyes, gathered there, in the small rue de la Gaîté . It is perhaps this morning in front of the music hall on the pediment of which still shines in immense letters the name of Josephine, the most moving farewell in Paris “.

Previously, in the fiery chapel erected for two days at the Salpêtrière hospital, the staff but also friends such as Tino Rossi or Michel Simon had paid him a last tribute. A huge cross of white roses and lilacs rested on the mahogany coffin. It bore this single inscription: “Dad and the children”.

Joséphine Baker on the stage of the Bobino theater, two weeks before her death, March 26, 1975
Joséphine Baker on the stage of the Bobino theater, two weeks before her death, March 26, 1975 PIERRE GUILLAUD AFP / Archives

Two huge floats of flowers precede the mortuary van in which Joséphine’s two children, her ex-husband Jo Bouillon and her sister Margarette, took place.

A “real national funeral”

After a symbolic stop in front of Bobino, the procession arrives at noon in front of the Church of the Madeleine whose steps are black with people. Several thousand Parisians are waiting.

Some personalities enter the church behind the coffin including Princess Grace of Monaco, Sophia Loren and actor Jean-Claude Brialy.

“More than 1,500 people are seated in the church. Not only the great nave but the aisles, the ambulatory are full and yet thousands of admirers of the great artist had to remain during the whole service on the steps of the church and the surrounding sidewalks “.

The crowd gathered on the steps of the church of La Madeleine for the funeral of Joséphine Baker, on April 15, 1975 in Paris
The crowd gathered on the steps of the church of La Madeleine for the funeral of Joséphine Baker, on April 15, 1975 in Paris AFP/Archives

“The catafalque, framed by a double hedge of tricolor flags to which an American flag has been added, disappears under the flowers: immense crosses of white roses, wreaths of lilacs, pink roses, lilies, delphiniums, orchids, among which was placed a cushion bearing the three decorations of the war cross and the resistance of the deceased “.

Under the projectors of the television and the flashes of the photographers who have invaded the pulpit, the mass is said by the canon Thorel, parish priest.

“Paris fell in love with Joséphine”, he declares, referring to “her extraordinary adventure since her birth in poverty, in St Louis in Missouri, until her triumph, a few days ago” and paying homage to “the courage which made her join the free French forces”.

“On leaving, the priest confided to one of his co-celebrants: + It was a real national funeral. Manners and the Church have changed since Molière’s emergency burial +”.

Joséphine Baker during a show at the Palace of Versailles, November 27, 1973
Joséphine Baker during a show at the Palace of Versailles, November 27, 1973 – AFP/Archives

It is in the privacy that she is buried four days later in the cemetery of sailor of Monaco.

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