The first four or five times one hears a snippet of the story of how 1920s and ’30s singing, dancing and acting sensation Josephine Baker was a French spy of great repute during World War II, the only rational reaction is “Say what now?”
An African-American starlet, perhaps the most famous performer in Europe between the wars next to Marlene Dietrich, infamous for her daring states of undress on the stage, the Madonna of her Age, a spy? For the her adopted France against the racist, ruthless, torture-first/murder later Nazis? How could it be? It’s not like she blended in…anywhere.
It’s always been hinted at in various Baker biographies, and became a hook for such books as more and more facts and secret files of the Brits, Americans and French became open. But the details were still as scanty as Baker’s notorious “banana dance” costume and the like. She was honored and lauded by the French, but they only gave so much information about what she did and Baker herself, a St. Louis girl, frustrated New York chorine who remade herself as a sensation in Paris.
She loved France and tried to give something back to the country that liberated her from Jim Crow and made her a global sensation. Baker modestly accepted the accolades and let us wonder what earned her the Legion d’Honneur recognition.
Reading the latest book, “Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy,” by Damien Lewis, with fresh details of what she accomplished, crossing paths with Brits, traveling in the same world as British spy Ian Fleming, taking the same and even greater risks, it’s hard not to see a movie begging to be filmed and every young Black actress on every continent salivating at the chance to play the superstar, sex symbol and spy.
I mean, damn. She was a pilot who flew food aid to the Low Countries, an actress who sold out operas, stage revues and one-woman shows, who made films in France and was one of the world’s most famous faces — and bodies — from the Jazz Age on into the age of TV. Her various returns to America were often fraught, as the same racism that she’d fled was slow to change and as a big star, she deserved better than she ever got at home.
So she made France one of her “Two Loves” (“J’ai Deux Amours”) as her signature song put it. And she worked for both the intelligence agencies of both loves — France and her native United States, as well as Britain during the war.
As Lewis, who has published many books on WWII espionage, makes clear, Baker was a quick study who, thanks to her access to the well-heeled and politically-connected all over Europe, hit the ground running as an “Honourable Correspondent” for the Deuxieme Bureau, the French secret service of the interwar-to-WWII years.
She accepted no pay, and for her first assignment, gave the French and the Brits a heads-up that Mussolini was certain to join in if Hitler invaded France. The exotic Baker could score gossip and real intel from Italians, Spaniards and Moroccan officials thrilled to be in her presence.
When the worst happened and Germany overran France in 1940, she elected to stay behind. Need French intel about German agents and German plans for North Africa, Spain’s possible joining the Axis, etc? Baker was the one who suggested this or that “concert tour” where she’d be expected to perform, and travel with so much luggage that mountains of secrets — some written in invisible ink over her musical arrangement sheets — would slip by any “inspector” who had the audacity to check.
“I’m the last person they’d suspect,” she said, more than once. Even though she swore not to sing in France until the Nazis were ousted, even though she remained outspokenly antifa, even if she and her French control-agent and later lover were watched, Baker risked her neck, time and again for la belle France.
The book is heavy on context and facts, with a little speculation filling in around the edges. Being a veteran of this corner of non-fiction, Lewis treats as routine moments, bits of drama and intelligence coups that could play as electric scenes in the hands of a good screenwriter, an accomplished director and the right starlet.
I’ve read other Baker books. This one has more the most thorough accounting of her war exploits, but lacks much in the way of feeling for its heroine/subject. We don’t feel we know the woman behind the icon. Lewis lets Baker sit on the periphery of this story for long stretches as he pieces together where she was and what she did.
A long hospitalization that turned her room into a safe meeting spot for spies, a plane crash as she was being flown back into France, gathering Intel, entertaining the troops and singing for concentration camp survivors, Baker cut a wide swath through the war.
France loved Baker, and her work to free the country was always going to be lauded. I figured they’d overstated the case just to honor their favorite adopted daughter. Not so. Baker got into it, sweet-talked the fascist Franco’s diplomat brother, this connected Italian or that Portuguese, Frenchman, Moroccan or whoever and made great contributions to the fight to liberate France.
She did it, sometimes over the prissy turf-war tantrum-tosser DeGaulle, who wanted control of everything and everyone fighting to evict the Germans in his or her own way. Baker came up with work-arounds when higher-ups made light of her aid, turned tours into intel-gathering exercises, and kept a menagerie of exotic pets with her the whole time, from Paris to her Chateau Milande (home of a museum to Baker’s life and exploits) to Casablanca and Marrakesh and beyond, on through VE Day.
That’s a life unlike any other, and a movie waiting to happen. There was a decent TV movie about her entire life made in the ’90s, and friends in France tell me there’s quite the Josephine Baker revival going on right now.
SOMEbody is going to make this film about the diva-spy, in Hollywood, France or elsewhere. I dare say there are actresses who already own the rights to this book or earlier ones. C’mon, Hollywood. Don’t let the French beat us to it.
The title is right there in the research. “The Honourable Correspondent.”
“Agent Josephine:;American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy,” by Damien Lewis. BBS Public Affairs publishers, 466 pages. $32.