About the Book by Damien Lewis titled “Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Moira Hodgson of the book by Damien Lewis titled “Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy”:

After she escaped the slums of St. Louis for Paris in 1925, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) became the most famous entertainer in the world. Pictured in a string of beads and a skirt of fake bananas, she symbolized the spirit of the Jazz Age. As the British author Damien Lewis writes in “Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy,” Baker “set Paris alight with her sexually charged, ‘exotic’, semi-naked dance routines, which both scandalized, provoked and captivated her audience.” But the “greatest performance of her life,” Mr. Lewis tells us, was her role as a spy in World War II.

Baker had made enough contacts in café society and foreign embassies to be exceedingly useful to France and Britain. She was also friends with leading artists and intellectuals, among them Picasso, Cocteau, Colette and Hemingway (the latter called her “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw”).

She was also remarkably tough. As a black woman who’d grown up with racism, segregation and poverty, she had fought hard to get ahead. Her adversaries “proved merciless, murderous, cut-throat and immensely cunning, turning deception, manipulation and the power of raw fear and prejudice to their ends,” Mr. Lewis writes. “Mostly, when facing them, her only defence was her extraordinary self-possession, her courage and her nerve. On many levels she had been an actor all of her life: from her earliest years, her career and her life had played out on the public stage.”

Her skill as an actor was her greatest asset as a spy, while her global fame worked as a shield. Who would ever imagine that the woman strutting down the Champs Élysées parading a pet cheetah on a diamond-studded leash was a secret agent? She traveled, moreover, with a menagerie of animals: a Great Dane, a young monkey, a golden lion tamarin, a marmoset and two white mice—the perfect cover.

Baker became a French citizen in 1937 and was recruited by the French counterespionage agency Deuxième Bureau. Her handler, Capt. Jacques Abtey, described in his memoir their first meeting, held at her villa outside Paris. She emerged from the bushes in a battered felt hat and old gardening trousers, clutching a dented tin can filled with snails. Not exactly the vision of superstar glamour he’d anticipated. (When he left he noticed that the can of snails, which she’d left outside the front door, was empty. Intended for her ducks, they’d all escaped.) The attraction was immediate; later they had a “tumultuous” affair.

Baker’s espionage work was impressive from the start. Her first assignment was to befriend the attaché to the Italian embassy, who would tell her about Mussolini’s secret plans to form an Italian alliance with Hitler. The wife of the Japanese ambassador revealed that her country had no intention of maintaining a coalition with the Allies. Baker partied with diplomats and military leaders, gleaning intelligence from them, then would hide in the bathroom, where she would scribble notes of their conversations on her arms.

For much of the Occupation she lived at Château des Milandes, a grand estate on the Dordogne River. Here she helped hide refugees and members of the Resistance, and even faced off against German soldiers (an entire wing of the estate is now a museum of her war work). She organized a tour through Lisbon and Morocco, and hid among her costumes and furs descriptions of German troop movements, written on musical scores in invisible ink and delivered to British intelligence. In Morocco, she contracted peritonitis and became so ill she nearly died, but during her convalescence at a clinic in Casablanca, she used her room as a clandestine meeting place. When the singer Maurice Chevalier showed up to pay a friendly visit, she refused to let him in. He was a suspected collaborator who broadcast his songs on Vichy radio. Baker described him as “a great artist but a very small man.”

Mr. Lewis is a prolific author of wartime histories and novels. “Agent Josephine” is not a biography (there have been many) but a lengthy account of the war and her espionage work, interspersed with background material on her life. Even though he obtained access to recently unsealed documents and letters, Mr. Lewis writes that he faced many challenges, mostly due to the secrecy that still surrounds the operations of the security services. She “went to her grave in 1975,” the author tells us, “taking many of those secrets with her.”

Among them: Did she spy for the British? The best Mr. Lewis can say, despite the conviction in his subtitle, is “very possibly.” Nevertheless, “Agent Josephine” is a fascinating story, thoroughly researched and richly detailed. It’s written in the breathless style of a thriller, with a firm eye on a miniseries and an overdose of clichés (Baker is frequently “rubbing shoulders” with the elite, or taking a city “by storm”). Mr. Lewis writes evocatively about the supporting cast, all of whom could have come out of novels by Graham Greene or Ian Fleming. The former Hitler Youth Hans Müssig was a striking, flamboyant secret agent, a gourmet cook with steel-gray eyes, now working for the Allied cause. Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale, a member of the SIS and the role model for James Bond, was charming, suave and impeccably dressed; he wore gold Cartier cufflinks and kept a long ebony cigarette holder clamped between his teeth, a bottle of vintage champagne always in hand. He worked with Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, in the espionage capitals of the world. Jacques Abtey, Baker’s handler and lover, commuted to work by kayak along the Seine, and in Morocco made a miraculous escape from a cell in a cliffside fortress held by the Nazis.

Baker’s heroism didn’t count for much when she visited New York in 1951. Astonishingly, although welcomed in high society, she was threatened by the KKK, refused service at the Stork Club, accused of communist sympathies and refused admission to hotels.

In 1963 she spoke at the March on Washington. “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” she declared. “But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

For her service to the Resistance and civil rights, last year Baker was given the greatest accolade of all: a symbolic burial in the Panthéon, France’s memorial for national heroes.

Moira Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”

Speak Your Mind

*