On November 30, 2021, forty-six years after her death, there was a momentous, somber yet joyous, celebration as Joephine Baker was inducted into the Panthéon in Paris, France. She was the sixth woman and fourth person of color to be honored in this way. Best known as an internationally acclaimed entertainer, Baker was also a “world class spy” at a time when that job was most needed--during World War II. She is buried in Monaco, but soil from the United States, France and Monaco were in the coffin that was draped with the French flag. It was a spectacular ceremony that can be found on the internet.
As a performer Josephine Baker was an international sensation who broke many barriers, in particular racial. She was gorgeous, exuberant, rebellious and offbeat which was evident in all of her stage performances. However there is an important part of her life that has not been fully and completely known, and that was as a spy during World War II. Damien Lewis states that researching and writing this book presented “an unusual set of challenges, and mostly due to the secrecy that surrounded, and still surrounds, operations of the security services." Josephine Baker “rarely if ever spoke or wrote in detail about any of her wartime work, and went to her grave in 1975 taking many of those secrets with her.” In the Preface, Lewis presents the impetus for his research about her wartime activities, and that jumping off point has an unlikely, magical serendipity to it. What results is a meticulously researched book that reveals parts of Baker's life that have only been alluded to, but never fully revealed. The writing style is precise, compelling, and Damien Lewis has created a biography that is an enthralling match for the woman, her ingenuity, determination and most of all her bravery.
How did a young woman of color, born into poverty in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, first get to New York, then to Paris, France? In the 1920s America was a country that accepted racist and segregationist values, and Jim Crow Laws validated those concepts. In France, Josephine Baker discovered a country, in particular Paris, that was relatively free of prejudice. In the period between the two World Wars, Paris was a city of high spirits, experimentation and freedom. Baker felt welcomed and fell in love with the city that became her home.
With the rise of Nazi Germany, Baker realized that the freedom of expression and lack of prejudice that she valued in France were being threatened. She had to make some momentous decisions about where she should go, or more importantly what she should do. Always feisty and a fighter, she stayed and found ways to fight and subvert what was inevitable and forthcoming. Eventually Baker was “recruited as an ‘Honourable Correspondent’—what amounts to a voluntary, unpaid, freelance intelligence agent, or spy.” Despite the numerous obstacles Lewis faced in unearthing information, he says, "Never for one moment did Josephine's wartime tale disappoint. ... it is more incredible than I ever imagined ... defined by raw courage, maverick daring, double- and triple-bluff and fabulous chutzpah. ... and involves bribery, corruption, torture, assassinations, fake passports, currency trafficking, high-society partying, exotic locations ... and more."