Photo: Andrew Millard
Damien Lewis Searched Second World War Archives to Uncover Josephine Baker’s Secret Past as an Allied Spy
In "Agent Josephine," he details how the American burlesque star, who found fame in Paris, snuck French intelligence reports written in invisible ink past Nazi checkpoints / BY Rosemary Counter / July 21st, 2022
Imagine if a scandalous global superstar like, say, Madonna or Britney Spears was revealed to be an international spy who held the country’s fate atop her gyrating, scantily clad shoulders. Impossible, you might say, spies by their very nature are discreet. (They’re also usually white men, in expensive suits, sipping shaken-but-not-stirred martinis.)
A century ago, this actually happened: Sensational burlesque dancer Josephine Baker, the most famous woman in France for her nearly nude performances, became a spy for the British in occupied Paris. Under the distracting guise of her outlandish African-themed art deco stage show, which incorporated parrots, snakes, a chimpanzee and her beloved pet cheetah, Chiquita, Baker tucked top-secret documents, plans and photographs into her suitcases and sailed through German checkpoints without detection. And like all good spies, she took her secret to the grave; Baker died in 1975 and remains largely unknown in North America, aside from her campy banana skirt and what we might call twerking today.
Now imagine British historian Damien Lewis learning that Josephine Baker was not as she seemed. Fascinated, the bestselling author spent a decade digging into archives for deliberately hidden secrets. Via Zoom from the English countryside, the author spoke about how and why, like so many men before him, Josephine Baker has stolen his heart.
Rosemary Counter: I read a glowing review of Agent Josephine in the New York Times that called you “the Indiana Jones of archival research.”
Damien Lewis: Ha! Somehow that passed me by. That’s good though, isn’t it?
RC: I’d get it printed on business cards if I were you. Tell me about your Indiana Jones-esque research of something that’s secret by design.
DL: This was almost a detective story. Secret service agents aren’t supposed to talk about their work, ever. There’s actually a rule in France that you can’t say anything for three decades. Josephine Baker died before this period was up. She did say that what she did in the war was the proudest thing she’d done in her life, but she never spoke [about it] specifically. As for the people who have talked about it – the accounts that do exist – each has a different perspective and agenda. And the information was, and is to this day, very, very sensitive information. The British Archives has some of her smuggled files, which I pieced together with her letters, journals and biography to deduce what happened.
RC: Can you tell the story about the invisible ink?
DL: France fell in the summer of 1940 so disastrously quick that nobody was prepared. The French intelligence went underground [and] carried on gathering intelligence while hiding from the [Nazi] government. The problem was they had nowhere to send it, because all the links to Britain had been lost. There wasn’t a single wireless station operating to the U.K. from France. Churchill knew the invasion would come through France, which it did at the Battle of Britain, and he couldn’t communicate. Baker, however, could genuinely cross borders to perform, because people still wanted to be entertained. She could travel around with her celebrity as her cover. They actually gave her all the gathered intelligence transcribed in invisible ink on her musical score sheets. With no training and little experience, and with her agent partner travelling as her tour manager, she breezed through these Gestapo checkpoints in fantastic furs and diamonds with this big diva attitude. No one for a moment thought that Josephine Baker was anything other than Josephine Baker.
RC: It’s almost unbelievable. Everything about her seems antithetical to what you think of when you think of a spy.
DL: She’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s instantly recognizable and she’s a spectacle everywhere she goes. It makes no sense, logically, and the beautiful simplicity of it was that all she had to do was be herself. At first, she’s recruited as a correspondent and paired with long-seasoned agent Jacques Abtey as her handler. But he can’t travel like she can, and so when he gets stuck in Morocco, she goes out on her own. Not curating intelligence – gathering intelligence. The pupil became the master. And they fell in love, though both were married to other people. In times of war, when you might die tomorrow, intense relationships develop. They become passionate lovers and partners in espionage.
RC: That is so cool. What most impressed you most by Baker?
DL: Well, Josephine was a citizen of America, a neutral country. So when the Nazis occupied France, she could have fled to America. Most who could did just that. But she decided to stay, to fight, to not give up. She had been born into segregation in St. Louis, where she grew up in poverty. She’d come so far, she had found herself and fame in Paris, and she wouldn’t leave. The war was a pivotal moment for her. She becomes political, and advocates for civil rights. She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, insisting that she see black and white faces together.
RC: What do you think made her such a good spy?
DL: I think it was the same thing that made her a good performer: An ability to reach to every single person in the audience and make them feel that she was performing specifically for them. It’s a very special gift, a kind of magnetic quality that drew everyone in. When Abtey went to recruit her, actually, he didn’t want to. He said women make awful spies and at the first hint of danger she’d shatter like glass. He expected her to be a figure in a ball gown, dripping in jewels, with a cheetah on a leash. Instead, she emerged from the garden in trousers with a tin can full of snails, which she’d been gathering to feed the ducks. She was nothing like he expected, and they sat by the fire, and by the end of the meeting he was completed seduced, mentally and physically.
RC: I’m so glad you brought up the animals. What’s up with that?
DL: Many times in her life, she said animals were simpler than humans and you can rely on them. Even from early childhood, where she was raised in poverty with a mother who didn’t want her, and said so, Josephine would rescue animals and adopt strays. Then she runs away and travels to France, where she realizes her love of animals is a fantastic gimmick to sell herself and find fame. Her menagerie has Chiquita the cheetah, some snakes, monkeys, white mice and a Great Dane named Bonzo — all while travelling with her on her espionage missions. What kind of spy would travel like this? It’s just inconceivable.
RC: Why don’t we know more about Josephine Baker in North America?
DL: While Baker’s incredibly famous in France, still, over there, sadly, she’s known mostly for the risqué shows and the banana skirt. She was so much more than that. She fought segregation and spoke right before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech [at the 1963 March on Washington]. The Nazis may have won the war were it not for Josephine. We need to give credit where credit is due.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.