Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy by Damien Lewis

Josephine Baker’s life—her rise from the slums of St. Louis to stardom on the cabaret stages of Paris and worldwide renown as a singer, dancer, impresario, and civil-rights activist—would be extraordinary enough without the part she played as a secret agent during World War II.

Recruited by the French intelligence services in the lead-up to the Nazi invasion, she played a vital role smuggling documents, gleaning information from high-society friends, and supporting the Resistance. When she was honored in 2021 with a symbolic burial in France’s Panthéon, President Emmanuel Macron hailed her “courage and audacity” and paid homage to the fierce mutual embrace of the American star and her adoptive home.

Baker performs for troops at the British Leave Club at the Hotel Moderne, in Paris, 1940.

During the ascendancy of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s, Baker’s race, gender, and outspoken commitment to freedom made her a natural enemy of the Nazis. They reviled her but apparently did not respect her enough to treat her as a threat.

Her fame and visibility might have ruled her out of any clandestine activity, but in fact her profession allowed her crucial freedom of movement. After the German invasion of Paris, she traveled south with an extensive entourage to her château in the Dordogne, which became a stronghold of the nascent Resistance, and where she faced off dramatically against a group of Nazi officers who came to search the property.

Later, Baker and her handler turned lover, Jacques Abtey, traveled to neutral Lisbon under the pretext of launching a tour to Brazil. Among the star’s trunkloads of costumes and furs—plus her menagerie of pets, which included a Great Dane, a monkey, a marmoset, and a pair of white mice—were stashed reams of information about German military movements, written in invisible ink in the margin of musical scores, destined to be smuggled to the British.

Given the value, danger, and sheer flamboyance of Baker’s spying activities, it’s a shame that she hasn’t found a better chronicler of her exploits or her complicated history. For Agent Josephine, Damien Lewis, the British author of several works of military history and biography, dug into hard-to-access archives and the chronicles left by key players to create an account that is long on detail but sadly lacking in psychological insight or storytelling panache.

On one early mission, Baker—whose stardom gave her entrée into rarefied social circles—was dispatched to discover what her friend Miki Sawada, wife of the Japanese ambassador, might know about her country’s plans in the mounting conflict. Lewis tells us only that Baker was “tasked to find out the true intentions” of Japan, and in the next sentence that “she soon winkled out the truth.” What this “winkling” involved, where it took place, or how Baker might have felt about betraying a friendship is nowhere to be found.

Other sources reveal that Baker used her body as a record-keeping device, pinning notes to her undergarments and writing on her skin in the bathrooms at embassy parties, trusting that officials would not dare to strip-search a superstar.

Baker waits to receive the Cross of the Legion of Honor in Dordogne, 1961.

Despite Baker’s nominal centrality, Lewis is more comfortable with the male characters in her story, whom he’s able to fit into familiar story arcs. These figures include naval officer Ian Fleming and his friend the “charming, suave, impeccably-dressed” chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in France, Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale, on whom Fleming modeled his James Bond.

In Fleming’s hugely influential oeuvre, of course, women are rarely protagonists—they’re dupes, distractions, double-crossers. And for a writer such as Lewis, apparently steeped in Fleming’s work, there’s a constant hum of astonishment that Josephine Baker would, or could, work as a secret agent.

He does not consider how the pressures of moving through the world as a poor Black woman—especially in Jim Crow–era America and Nazi-dominated Europe—might in fact have prepared Baker perfectly for her role as a spy. She was certainly well used to betrayal and had been manipulating other people’s (especially men’s) expectations and desires since she was a teenager. She became a star by simultaneously embracing and ridiculing colonialist notions of “exotic” Blackness and animalistic sensuality, and her later self-mythologizing makes her a slippery biographical subject.

The specifics of her espionage career are remarkable, and certainly worth the telling—both in this form and in the screen adaptation this book has its eye on throughout. But what’s truly remarkable is that she was so consistently underestimated. Josephine Baker was a spy all along.

Joanna Scutts is the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It and Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism