Josephine Baker's Double Life as a Spy for the French Resistance

Josephine Baker's Double Life as a Spy for the French Resistance



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As war drums reverberated across Europe in 1939, the head of France’s military intelligence service recruited an unlikely spy: France’s most famous woman—Josephine Baker.

Jacques Abtey had spent the early days of World War II recruiting spies to collect information on Nazi Germany and other Axis powers. Typically, the secret service chief sought out men who could travel incognito. Then again, nothing was typical when it came to the American-born dancer and singer.

Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Baker had grown up fatherless in a series of rat-infested hovels. She had only sporadic schooling and married for the first time at age 13. Stung by discrimination in Jim Crow America based on her skin color, she left at the age of 19 to perform as a burlesque dancer in the music halls of Paris where her risqué dance routines while clad in little more than a string of pearls and a rubber banana skirt made her a Jazz Age sensation. After branching out into singing and acting in films, she became Europe’s highest-paid entertainer.

A celebrity of Baker’s stature made for a most unlikely spy candidate since she could never travel surreptitiously—but that’s exactly what made her such an enticing prospect. Fame would be her cover. Abtey hoped Baker could use her charm, beauty and stardom to seduce secrets from the lips of fawning diplomats at embassy parties.

Having found in France the freedom that America promised on parchment, Baker agreed to spy for her adopted country. “France made me what I am,” she told Abtey. “The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”

The cries of “Go back to Africa!” she had heard from fascists while performing across Europe also fueled her decision. “Of course I wanted to do all I could to aid France, my adopted country,” she told Ebony magazine decades later, “but an overriding consideration, the thing that drove me as strongly as did patriotism, was my violent hatred of discrimination in any form.”

WATCH: America: The Story of Us: World War II on HISTORY Vault

Baker Uses Star Power to Learn Secrets

Baker started her espionage career by attending diplomatic parties at the Italian and Japanese embassies and gathering intelligence about the Axis powers possibly joining the war. Showing no fear of being caught, the neophyte spy wrote notes of what she overheard on the palms of her hand and on her arms under her sleeves. “Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy,” Baker said with a laugh when Abtey warned her of the danger.

In the weeks after German forces roared into France, Baker continued her nightly performances in Paris, sang to soldiers on the warfront over the radio and comforted refugees in homeless shelters. When the invaders closed in on Paris in early June 1940, Abtey insisted that she leave, so Baker loaded her possessions, including a gold piano and a bed once owned by Marie-Antoinette, into vans and departed for a chateau 300 miles to the southwest. As Nazi troops goose-stepped down the Champs-Élysées and occupied her Paris home, Baker hid refugees and French Resistance members in her new quarters.

In November 1940, Abtey and Baker worked to smuggle documents to General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French government in exile in London. Under the guise of embarking on a South American tour, the entertainer hid secret photographs under her dress and carried along sheet music with information about German troop movements in France written in invisible ink. With all eyes transfixed on the star as they crossed the border to Spain on their way to neutral Portugal, the French security chief, who posed as Baker’s secretary, garnered little notice from German officials. The limelight that Baker attracted allowed Abtey to travel in the shadows.

In Portugal and Spain, Baker continued to harvest details about Axis troop movements at embassy parties. Squirreling away in bathrooms, the secret agent made detailed notes and attached them to her bra with a safety pin. “My notes would have been highly compromising had they been discovered, but who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?” she later wrote. “When they asked me for papers, they generally meant autographs.”

READ MORE: Black Americans Who Served in WWII Faced Segregation Abroad and at Home

Baker Continues Spying Even When Ill

Ordered to Morocco in January 1941 to set up a liaison and transmission center in Casablanca, Abtey and Baker sailed across the Mediterranean Sea. The performer brought along 28 pieces of luggage and a menagerie of pet monkeys, mice and a Great Dane. The more conspicuous Baker’s travel, the fewer suspicions it generated.

In North Africa she worked with the French Resistance network and used her connections to secure passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis in Eastern Europe until she was hospitalized with peritonitis in June 1941. She underwent multiple operations during an 18-month hospitalization that left her so ill that the Chicago Defender mistakenly ran her obituary, penned by Langston Hughes. He wrote that Baker was “as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall today in Africa fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Baker quickly corrected the record. “There has been a slight error, I’m much too busy to die,” she told the Afro-American.

Even as Baker convalesced, the spy work continued as American diplomats and French Resistance members convened at her bedside. From her balcony she watched as American troops arrived in Morocco as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. After she was finally discharged, Baker toured Allied military camps from Algiers to Jerusalem. By day, she rode in jeeps across the scorching deserts of North Africa. At night, she bundled up and slept on the ground next to her vehicle to avoid land mines.

Following the liberation of Paris, she returned to the city she loved in October 1944 after a four-year absence. Dressed in her blue air auxiliary lieutenant’s uniform punctuated with gold epaulettes, Baker rode in the back of an automobile as the throngs along the Champs-Élysées tossed her flowers. No longer just a glamorous revue star, Baker was a patriotic heroine.

She donned her uniform once again in 1961 to receive two of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, at a ceremony in which details of her espionage work were revealed to the world. A teary-eyed Baker told her countrymen, “I am proud to be French because this is the only place in the world where I can realize my dream.”

READ MORE: The Female Codebreaker Who Busted Nazi Spy Rings


Josephine Baker Appreciation Page

I've just looked up a bit about Josephine Baker's life story. She was an amazing and resilient woman, so much more than the beautiful star of Paris reviews. She came up through a hard scrabble life, and was awarded a medal for her French Resistance work. She was resolute in her civil rights activism.

Here's a few paragraphs from the Wikipedia page on her. The whole page is worth a read, and I think her history needs revisited. I notice there are old threads concerning Ms. Baker, but I think she deserves more attention.

She was known for aiding the French Resistance during World War II.[3] After the war, she was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.[4] Baker once said: "I have two loves, my country and Paris."[5]

Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. After thinking it over, Baker declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children.[6][7]

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

Josephine Baker Reading list. I have no idea if this books are worth reading, but I thought I'd put the information out. If anyone has read them, reviews would be great. Books can be such a mixed bag, and any opinions would be super. Here's the first one I've come across.

Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones - Books on Google Play

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

‘Josephine Baker in Art and Life’ (Published 2007)

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

I'm not sure if this title draws me in. Josephine Baker's life probably attracts all kinds of writers. Then again, you can't judge a book by it's cover.

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

Here's a Josephine Baker book that has caught my eye. I like the fact it's aimed at young people.

In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine's powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.

Josephine

Bjorkish

ISaySeaux

John Michael's Muse

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe

Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe — Matthew Pratt Guterl

Creating a sensation with her risqué nightclub act and strolls down the Champs Elysées, pet cheetah in tow, Josephine Baker lives on in popular memory as the banana-skirted siren of Jazz Age Paris. In Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe, Matthew Pratt Guterl brings out a little known side of the celebrated personality, showing how her ambitions of later years were even more daring and subversive than the youthful exploits that made her the first African American superstar.


Her performing days numbered, Baker settled down in a sixteenth-century chateau she named Les Milandes, in the south of France. Then, in 1953, she did something completely unexpected and, in the context of racially sensitive times, outrageous. Adopting twelve children from around the globe, she transformed her estate into a theme park, complete with rides, hotels, a collective farm, and singing and dancing. The main attraction was her Rainbow Tribe, the family of the future, which showcased children of all skin colors, nations, and religions living together in harmony. Les Milandes attracted an adoring public eager to spend money on a utopian vision, and to worship at the feet of Josephine, mother of the world.


Alerting readers to some of the contradictions at the heart of the Rainbow Tribe project—its undertow of child exploitation and megalomania in particular—Guterl concludes that Baker was a serious and determined activist who believed she could make a positive difference by creating a family out of the troublesome material of race.

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

This provides a brief biography of Josephine Baker. I found more information in the wikipedia entry.

Josephine Baker

www.biography.com

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

And here’s some information about Zou-Zou, courtesy of, again, wikipedia. I’m uncomfortable reading the synopsis of the film, for so many reasons.

Zouzou (film) - Wikipedia

Zouzou is a French film by Marc Allégret released in 1934.[1] As its star, Josephine Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture.

As children, Zouzou and Jean are paired in a traveling circus as twins: she's dark, he's light. After they're grown, he treats her as if she were his sister, but she is in love with him. In Paris, he's a music hall electrician and she's a laundress who delivers clean underwear to the hall. She introduces him to Claire, her friend at work, and the couple fall in love. Jean conspires to get the show's star out of town and for the theater manager to see the high-spirited Zouzou dance. When Jean is accused of a murder that Zouzou witnesses, she needs money to mount his defense. She pleads to go on stage, where her singing and dancing are a triumph. During her debut, she sees a newspaper photo of the murderer, who has been arrested for a bank robbery, so she rushes to the police station to identify him. Jean is released from jail and is reunited with Claire. Zouzou continues to pine for him despite her successful stage career.

MellowYellow92

F*ck the Bucks 2021

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

Ok, just one more. Here, in 2021, when I read the film plots I’m bothered on multiple levels, some I haven’t even gotten in touch with yet. However, I remember one does have to look at the times the films were made, and the culture Josephine Baker lived in. I think I’d need a degree in sociology to tease out all of what it took for a woman of color to be in the entertainment business then. Heck, any woman in the entertainment business had a tough row to hoe.

Siren of the Tropics was her first movie, which led to others. Again, from wikipedia

Siren of the Tropics - Wikipedia

Siren of the Tropics (French: La Sirène des tropiques) is a 1927 French silent film starring Josephine Baker. Directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant and set in the West Indies, the film tells the story of a native girl named Papitou (Baker) who falls in love with a French man named André Berval (Pierre Batcheff).

The film is set in a fictional colony called Monte Puebla. Monte Puebla incorporates many colonial stereotypes, with the name suggesting that it could be a Spanish colony, the grass skirts and roofs suggesting a Polynesian influence, and the clothing being a jumble of multiple cultures.[1] The story begins when a rich Parisian man named Marquis Sévéro wishes to divorce his wife and marry his goddaughter, Denise, but Denise is in love with an engineer named André Berval. In order to get rid of Berval, Marquis Sévéro sends him to the West Indies as a prospector, promising that he can marry Denise once he returns. After arriving in the West Indies, Berval meets a woman named Papitou. Papitou quickly falls in love with him, unaware of the fact that he is planning on marrying Denise upon his return to Paris. When Berval leaves the West Indies to return home Papitou follows him, despite the fact that he has a fiancé. Once she arrives in Paris, Papitou accepts that Berval loves only Denise, and finds her true calling as a music hall performer.

Prior to the film's release, newspaper articles detailing Baker's tour through Europe piqued public interest.[2] Following the film's premiere in December 1927 in Stockholm, it received almost unanimously positive reviews from film critics. The film was screened from December 1927 until July 1928, which was considered an exceptionally long running time. Most of these positive reviews focused on Baker's body, comparing her agile movements to those of animals. Following her positive reception in Siren of the Tropics and increased public interest surrounding her, Baker published an autobiography called "Les mémoirs de Josephine Baker." Following the film's very successful premiere, Baker also had a doll made in her likeness and sold in Stockholm, and starred in a toothpaste commercial.[3] This positive reception of Baker's feature film debut set the stage for her starring roles in the films Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935).

As an aside, Princesse Tam-Tam, the lingerie company (named after her 1935 movie), which was trendy and trop cher for me many, many years ago, still has a shop—which if I were on instagram, I’d know—oh well…

Women's lingerie online - Swimwear & Homewear | Princesse tam.tam

www.princessetamtam.com

AreYouOK

A genetic pain in the azz

Josephine Baker Reading list. I have no idea if this books are worth reading, but I thought I'd put the information out. If anyone has read them, reviews would be great. Books can be such a mixed bag, and any opinions would be super. Here's the first one I've come across.

Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones - Books on Google Play

Reviews seemed mixed on this book. Most of the reviews on this book were positive, and I only saw one two star review:

Although this was an interesting book, the author continually skipped huge periods of time, and then told about them in a paragraph or two. There was a time that she was in America and she decided to leave her man, the Count. Suddenly, it was two years later. Briefly the author mentioned that she had married and converted to Judaism. Why did the author skip over that time? Also, there was a brief mention of adopting children, and then nothing. What about the time she spent adopting and raising children? The book was well written, however, it skipped over too many important events. Wikipedia gave me more information on some periods of her life than this book did. Overall, a bust.

AreYouOK

A genetic pain in the azz

‘Josephine Baker in Art and Life’ (Published 2007)

This book looks promising. While the author, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, is a fan, she is also a professor of sociology and an expert in semiotics, her tribute comes with lots of footnotes. is not strictly a biography. The life history is here, of course, but not necessarily chronologically. Instead, the themes of Baker's life and the art she used in making her many stage and real-life personas are examined, showing how she deliberately manipulated sex and race roles to form the themes of her life and performance.

From one of the reviews:
Baker was born in 1903 and grew up in St. Louis, performing on the streets and moving to vaudeville. She became a cast member of reviews such as _Shuffle Along_ and _Chocolate Dandies_, playing to enthusiastic reviews in New York when she did her comic routines. Among the many pictures included in this volume are those of Baker in clown outfit, including enormous shoes, but also, strangely, in blackface. It was just the first of her manipulations of racial roles. In her first movie in 1927, she played a stowaway who "is chased by crew members and shocks society matrons by falling into a coal bin, turning black, and then into a flour bin, turning white." She headed to Paris in 1925, and was a sensation, admired by Picasso and Hemingway. Alexander Calder did wire sculptures of her. She was used to performing in front of primitive or surrealistic sets, and it was Jean Cocteau himself who designed the banana skirt. Her performances wowed Paris, but sometimes did not go well when Baker traveled. In Vienna in 1928, priests and politicians tried to ban her threat to public morality, and rang bells as a warning to clear the streets when she entered the city. Baker did stage performances all her life, but had more important things on her mind. During World War II, she helped the Red Cross and the French Resistance. After the war, she started adopting children, twelve of them of diverse ethnic and national backgrounds. This was her "Rainbow Tribe", installed in her chateau at Les Milandes. Because of overoptimistic finances, she lost the chateau (and she and the tribe were rescued by, among others, Princess Grace of Monaco). When Baker toured the US, she forced theater owners to desegregate when she performed. There was a famous incident in 1951 at the Stork Club which did not admit blacks, but Baker arranged an admission, only to be ignored by the waiters. Columnist Walter Winchell was present, and Baker called upon him to witness the incident, but instead he attacked her on his radio program and wrote to J. Edgar Hoover requesting an FBI investigation of Baker's political activities, and of course Hoover obliged.

Baker died in 1975, having just opened to glowing reviews of a retrospective show in Paris. Thousands watched the procession and Paris came to a standstill. Jules-Rosette analyzes her continuing influence on chameleons like Madonna, Grace Jones, and Michael Jackson. Baker was a real original, though, formed by her times but deliberately forming herself and taking roles to transform herself artistically, with the larger goal of transforming the world. It was a lifetime of brilliant performances on and off stage, and fully worthy of the intellectual dissections Jules-Rosette has brought together in a readable and entertaining volume.

AreYouOK

A genetic pain in the azz

I'm not sure if this title draws me in. Josephine Baker's life probably attracts all kinds of writers. Then again, you can't judge a book by it's cover.

One of the authors of this book, Jean Claude Baker, is an unofficial addition to the 12 adopted children of her orphan "rainbow tribe". With this in mind, he gives us the good and bad.

From one of the reviews:
Jean Claude recounts Tumpy's (a childhood nickname) poor beginnings in St. Louis to her death as a worldwide superstar in Paris.

Good things first, she was an untouchably talented dancer who has continually inspired dancers of all generations even after her death. Her voice, a shrill and lilting instrument, grew to almost Sarah Vaughn like heights.

Despite her talents, Josephine could be a selfish and hurtful woman. She had a problem with lying all throughout her life. She never knew her father, but one minute she'd claim he was a successful black lawyer in Chicago and the next he was a simple Jewish man. Her whole early life in St. Louis would be flipped and turned around at her whim, to the point where published accounts would contradict themselves.

Luckily, Jean Claude interviewed the people who knew her best and gave true accounts of her personality. She was also extremely promiscuous in her later teens. She went through male and female lovers like underwear and had no hestitation to use others when it would benefit her career. Even her legendary Rainbow Tribe was created out of plain publicity (shout-out to the Octomom). She barely spent time with the kids and left them in the constant care of nannies.

She also had a penchant for slapping people she was angry with and her kids were no exception. She even sent one of her boys away to boarding school when she caught him with another boy, despite her own genderbending sexual history.

Although Josephine could be downright mean, Jean Claude also reveals her funny and loving side. She made an effort to smother the kids with love when she had time to spend with them and she had a quick wit.

Although the negative attitude of Josie is discussed at great length, Jean Claude isn't stepping into "tell all" territory. He obviously loved her, all flaws aside. He just wanted to create a more human portrait of a woman whose life has been clouded in myth and mystery.

Lilgreyrab

Overly Huggy Granny

This following, by Christopher Klein, reads like the plot of a dynamite movie. I wonder why Josephine Baker hasn’t had a superhero modeled after her.

Josephine Baker's Daring Double Life as a World War II Spy

Using fame as a cover, the glamorous entertainer spied for the French Resistance against the Nazis.

As war drums reverberated across Europe in 1939, the head of France’s military intelligence service recruited an unlikely spy: France’s most famous woman—Josephine Baker.

Jacques Abtey had spent the early days of World War II recruiting spies to collect information on Nazi Germany and other Axis powers. Typically, the secret service chief sought out men who could travel incognito. Then again, nothing was typical when it came to the American-born dancer and singer.

Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Baker had grown up fatherless in a series of rat-infested hovels. She had only sporadic schooling and married for the first time at age 13. Stung by discrimination in Jim Crow America based on her skin color, she left at the age of 19 to perform as a burlesque dancer in the music halls of Paris where her risqué dance routines while clad in little more than a string of pearls and a rubber banana skirt made her a Jazz Age sensation. After branching out into singing and acting in films, she became Europe’s highest-paid entertainer.

A celebrity of Baker’s stature made for a most unlikely spy candidate since she could never travel surreptitiously—but that’s exactly what made her such an enticing prospect. Fame would be her cover. Abtey hoped Baker could use her charm, beauty and stardom to seduce secrets from the lips of fawning diplomats at embassy parties.

Having found in France the freedom that America promised on parchment, Baker agreed to spy for her adopted country. “France made me what I am,” she told Abtey. “The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”

The cries of “Go back to Africa!” she had heard from fascists while performing across Europe also fueled her decision. “Of course I wanted to do all I could to aid France, my adopted country,” she told Ebony magazine decades later, “but an overriding consideration, the thing that drove me as strongly as did patriotism, was my violent hatred of discrimination in any form.”

Baker Uses Star Power to Learn Secrets

Baker started her espionage career by attending diplomatic parties at the Italian and Japanese embassies and gathering intelligence about the Axis powers possibly joining the war. Showing no fear of being caught, the neophyte spy wrote notes of what she overheard on the palms of her hand and on her arms under her sleeves. “Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy,” Baker said with a laugh when Abtey warned her of the danger.

In the weeks after German forces roared into France, Baker continued her nightly performances in Paris, sang to soldiers on the warfront over the radio and comforted refugees in homeless shelters. When the invaders closed in on Paris in early June 1940, Abtey insisted that she leave, so Baker loaded her possessions, including a gold piano and a bed once owned by Marie-Antoinette, into vans and departed for a chateau 300 miles to the southwest. As Nazi troops goose-stepped down the Champs-Élysées and occupied her Paris home, Baker hid refugees and French Resistance members in her new quarters.

In November 1940, Abtey and Baker worked to smuggle documents to General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French government in exile in London. Under the guise of embarking on a South American tour, the entertainer hid secret photographs under her dress and carried along sheet music with information about German troop movements in France written in invisible ink. With all eyes transfixed on the star as they crossed the border to Spain on their way to neutral Portugal, the French security chief, who posed as Baker’s secretary, garnered little notice from German officials. The limelight that Baker attracted allowed Abtey to travel in the shadows.


In Portugal and Spain, Baker continued to harvest details about Axis troop movements at embassy parties. Squirreling away in bathrooms, the secret agent made detailed notes and attached them to her bra with a safety pin. “My notes would have been highly compromising had they been discovered, but who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?” she later wrote. “When they asked me for papers, they generally meant autographs.”

Baker Continues Spying Even When Ill

Ordered to Morocco in January 1941 to set up a liaison and transmission center in Casablanca, Abtey and Baker sailed across the Mediterranean Sea. The performer brought along 28 pieces of luggage and a menagerie of pet monkeys, mice and a Great Dane. The more conspicuous Baker’s travel, the fewer suspicions it generated.

In North Africa she worked with the French Resistance network and used her connections to secure passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis in Eastern Europe until she was hospitalized with peritonitis in June 1941. She underwent multiple operations during an 18-month hospitalization that left her so ill that the Chicago Defender mistakenly ran her obituary, penned by Langston Hughes. He wrote that Baker was “as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall today in Africa fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Baker quickly corrected the record. “There has been a slight error, I’m much too busy to die,” she told the Afro-American.


Even as Baker convalesced, the spy work continued as American diplomats and French Resistance members convened at her bedside. From her balcony she watched as American troops arrived in Morocco as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. After she was finally discharged, Baker toured Allied military camps from Algiers to Jerusalem. By day, she rode in jeeps across the scorching deserts of North Africa. At night, she bundled up and slept on the ground next to her vehicle to avoid land mines.


Following the liberation of Paris, she returned to the city she loved in October 1944 after a four-year absence. Dressed in her blue air auxiliary lieutenant’s uniform punctuated with gold epaulettes, Baker rode in the back of an automobile as the throngs along the Champs-Élysées tossed her flowers. No longer just a glamorous revue star, Baker was a patriotic heroine.


She donned her uniform once again in 1961 to receive two of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, at a ceremony in which details of her espionage work were revealed to the
world. A teary-eyed Baker told her countrymen, “I am proud to be French because this is the only place in the world where I can realize my dream.”


Josephine Baker&rsquos Hungry Heart

BEAUTIFUL, charming, talented, and celebrated, the toast of Europe and South America during the heyday of her career, Josephine Baker was born in a black slum area of St. Louis in 1906. She was captivating audiences in Paris as an entertainer by the mid-1920’s and achieved acclaim as the 20th century’s first international black female sex symbol by the mid-1930’s. She reveled in her seductiveness onstage and off, living a life that was the very stuff of legend and rumor. Even today, over thirty years after her death in 1975, her name still evokes a sense of glamour and trails an aura of sexuality.

Poster for La Sirene des Tropiques (silent film), 1927

This centennial year of her birth is a fitting time to glance back at the woman and the life that together constitute the legend of La Baker—and it’s especially fitting to examine the legend in a queer context. An African-American by birth who felt more at home in France than in the U.S., a person of virtually no formal education whose ambition and innate abilities allowed her to rise from obscurity and poverty to wealth and fame, a lesbian famous for her exploits with men—these were just some of the contrasts and contradictions in the fantastical life of Josephine Baker. Both her friends and her public recognized the talent, ambition, and sexual provocativeness, but few seemed to see her life as the queer dialogue it was with the world around her. For make no mistake: Josephine Baker led one queer life. It’s not just that she was lesbian or bisexual, although her sexuality was an important part of it it’s the fact that nearly everything she did expressed desires and needs that deviated significantly from the prescribed social norms of her times. What’s more, to live life on her own terms, she was always willing to transgress those norms at every turn.

Summarizing Baker’s life is no easy matter. It sprawled over seven decades, several continents, many cities, a number of husbands, the adoption of twelve children, numerous performances onstage and in several movies, participation in the French resistance during World War II, and work on behalf of black civil rights after the War, to name a few of her activities. As for her queer life—well, most of the biographies, including her own memoirs (ghost-written by others) and the 1991 HBO film bio The Josephine Baker Story, starring Lynn Whitfield, simply ignore it. The huge exception is Jean-Claude Baker’s 1993 book Josephine: The Hungry Heart.

Jean-Claude knew Josephine well. As explained in his biography, he first met her in Paris in 1957, when he was fourteen years old, and later became a close friend and confidant. After her death, he spent eighteen years working on his meticulously researched biography. Although never formally adopted by her, she considered him one of her own. He loved her deeply enough to change his original last name (Tronville-Rouzaud) by legally adopting hers, and in 1986 he opened Chez Josephine, a bistro located on New York City’s Theater Row that he still runs, which is named after Josephine’s own bistro of 1920’s Paris.

The major sources for this article are Jean-Claude’s biography, comments by him (taped with his permission) at a talk he gave in 1994 at New York City’s LGBT Community Services Center, and two subsequent interviews I conducted with him over the years. I’ll be returning to his views as an authentic touchstone of insight into the woman he still calls his “second mother.”

A Life Lived

To begin at the beginning, then, Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, and, because her mother Carrie McDonald wasn’t married at the time, was given the name Freda J. McDonald at birth. (It’s not known what the “J” stood for. She began to be called “Josephine” some time in her childhood, perhaps because her godmother was Josephine Cooper, the owner of a laundry where Carrie worked.) Already at birth, Josephine had several strikes against her: she was born black in a racist society, she was poor, and she was female. She was put to work at an early age to bring in money, mostly as a domestic in the homes of white families. This meant that by age seven her childhood was over. It also meant that she was placed in a position where she was vulnerable to the sexual advances of predatory white males in the households where she worked, and predations weren’t long in coming.

The full consequences of the sexual abuse Josephine suffered will never be known, but one thing is clear: even as a youngster, it put her in touch with her sexuality in what can only be called an adult way. By age thirteen she was “playing house” with a fifty-year-old steel foundry worker known as “Mr. Dad” who ran an ice cream and candy parlor on the side. The arrangement was a neighborhood scandal, and Josephine’s mother soon ended it. But clearly Josephine had discovered one way of escaping poverty, and she was not averse to pursuing it. Then a few months after the Mr. Dad episode, she married. The fact that she was underage—at thirteen years old so far underage that not even parental consent was sufficient to make it legal in Missouri—seems to have occurred to no one. On December 22, 1919, she became Mrs. Willie Wells, with the blessings of her family, family friends, and the minister who performed the ceremony.

It was not a marriage made in heaven and was soon at an end (though there was no divorce). But if playing the role of housewife was not to Josephine’s liking, she had already discovered one that was: performing onstage, with its attendant right to be the center of attention while you pretend to be something you’re not. She had been fascinated for years by all things theatrical, and in November 1920 her dreams at last converged with reality when Josephine Wells was hired as a chorus girl by Bob Russell of the Russell-Owens Company to tour the black vaudeville circuit with one of his companies. Josephine had secured the job through the influence of Clara Smith, one of Russell’s star blues singers. She became Clara Smith’s protégée—Smith’s “lady lover” in the contemporary lingo of black vaudeville. The implications were as sexual as they sound, according to Jean-Claude Baker’s informants, so people connected with the show knew exactly what was going on.

Once on the road, Josephine’s professional life quickly blossomed. In 1921, she left Russell-Owens to join the resident performing company at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia. By February 1922, she had joined the road show of the all-black Broadway musical hit Shuffle Along, with music and song lyrics by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. And on September 1, 1924, she opened on Broadway as one of the leads in the new Blake-Sissle musical, The Chocolate Dandies. Along the way, she made another big change. On September 17, 1921, she married a young man named Billy Baker, the son of a prominent black Philadelphia restauranteur. By the time she left for Europe in September 1925, she had shed the marriage to Billy (without divorcing him) but not the surname. For the next fifty years, she would be known as Josephine Baker.

As a performer, everything was subordinated to Josephine’s ambitions. The people who worked with her found her temperamental, manipulative, devious, and relentless in the pursuit of her goals, but they all agreed that she loved everything about being onstage.

No doubt some of the joy she felt at being part of the entertainment world also lay in discovering the institution of “lady lovers.” The facts are all there, if somewhat hidden in the mad whirl that was becoming Josephine’s life by the early 1920’s. Of course, the effort to hide these facts was an institution unto itself, at least to the extent that one could hide one’s sexual activities in the black performing community of the time. In his biography, Jean-Claude explains the concept of “lady lovers” through the words of Maude Russell, who first met Josephine when both worked at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia and who later appeared with her in Shuffle Along: “Often … we girls would share a [boardinghouse]room because of the cost. … Well, many of us had been kind of abused by producers, directors, leading men—if they liked girls. … And the girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.” These comments make lady lovers sound like little more than some kind of healing program for sexually abused women performers—one way of deflecting attention from the facts of what was going on. But they point to a subset of black performers, both male and female, whose sexual orientation was directed toward their own sex.

So where did Josephine Baker fit into this picture? Her love life involved several marriages and multiple lovers of both sexes, in relationships that varied from one-night and one-afternoon stands to longer-term affairs that went on concurrently both with each other and with her marriages. In the U.S., her lovers and husbands seem to have been exclusively black in Europe, her lovers were white as well as black, and her husbands were exclusively white. More was known publicly about her male lovers than her female lovers partly because heterosexual behavior was socially acceptable, while queer behavior was not, but also because, as a sex symbol, she had much to gain professionally by the rumors—and sometimes the public acknowledgment—of her liaisons with men. As for female lovers, if Josephine had seen any career advantage to announcing them to the world, no doubt she would have done so. But because she could see no upside to it, she kept quiet about her affairs with women.

Just how many lesbian affairs Josephine engaged in, and with whom, will probably never be known with any certainty. Jean-Claude’s biography mentions six of her women lovers by name: Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, and Mildred Smallwood, all of whom she met on the black performing circuit during her early years onstage in the United States along with fellow American black expatriate Bricktop and the French novelist Colette after she relocated to Paris. Bricktop in particular served as an early mentor who showed her the ropes around Paris for the first few months after her move to Europe.

That move came about when Josephine was hired by a white American named Caroline Dudley Reagan (a confessed bisexual) to star in Reagan’s Paris extravaganza La Revue Nègre. The show premiered on October 25, 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was an immediate hit, and Josephine herself was an instant sensation. Josephine “conquered Paris,” in Jean-Claude’s words, for two reasons: her ability to project an intense sexuality onstage, and the color of her skin. Equating blackness with sexuality is as much a form of racism in France as it is in the U.S., but in 1920’s Paris it worked completely to Josephine’s advantage. She was showered with presents and love letters, and taken out for expensive meals by admirers. She wore the skimpiest of costumes onstage each evening, but was deluged with dresses by Paris fashion designers to wear by day. Crowds followed her in the streets asking for her autograph.

From Paris La Revue Nègre moved next to Brussels, then to Berlin, where Josephine became the darling of café society and was soon partying with the likes of German publisher and art collector Count Harry Kessler, playwright Karl Vollmoeller, and theater director Max Reinhardt. In Berlin we can discern another strand in her queer life. Although Jean-Claude describes the following incident in his biography, I quote here from the published diaries of Count Harry Kessler, who was himself homosexual:

Saturday, 13 February 1926 Berlin. At one o’clock … a telephone call from Max Reinhardt. He was at Vollmoeller’s and they wanted me to come over because Josephine Baker was there and the fun was starting. So I drove to Vollmoeller’s harem on the Pariser Platz. Reinhardt and [the other male guests]were surrounded by half a dozen naked girls. Miss Baker was also naked except for a pink muslin apron, and the little Landshoff girl [Vollmoeller’s mistress] was dressed up as a boy in a dinner-jacket. Miss Baker was dancing solo with brilliant artistic mimicry and purity of style. … The naked girls lay or skipped among the four or five men in dinner-jackets. The Landshoff girl, really looking like a dazzlingly handsome boy, jazzed with Miss Baker to gramophone tunes.

Vollmoeller had in a mind a ballet for her [Josephine], a story about a cocotte [kept woman], and was proposing to finish it this very night and put it in Reinhardt’s hands. By this time Miss Baker and the Landshoff girl were lying in each other’s arms, like a rosy pair of lovers.

Josephine Baker and Jean-Claude Baker, 1971

At some point in the Berlin run of La Revue Nègre, and just three months after arriving in Europe, Josephine broke her contract with Caroline Reagan and returned to Paris to headline in a new show at the Folies-Bergère. It was there that she donned her most famous costume: a belt of bananas (and little else). It wasn’t long before she was taking lessons in French and thinking about becoming a French citizen.

In 1926, a gigolo named Giuseppe Abatino, nicknamed Pepito, entered her life as both mentor and lover. With Pepito’s help, and her own flair for the grandiose, Josephine began to transform herself from a popular entertainer into an international legend whose stature eclipsed that of Mistinguette, reigning queen of French musicals, and eventually rivaled that of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, her contemporaries on the stage and screen. Her own movies included the silent film Siren of the Tropics in 1927 and the talkies Zou Zou in 1934 and Princess Tam Tam in 1935. Even the Great Depression had little effect on her fortunes: the 1930’s were mostly spent performing in Paris and on international tours, buying homes, making movies, running her Paris nightclub Chez Josephine, and making—and spending—a great deal of money.

In 1935 she ended her relationship with Pepito. On her own once more, she set out in earnest to find herself a French husband, which she succeeded in doing so that on November 30, 1937, she wed the (white) French businessman Jean Lion (without, it should be noted again, having divorced either Willie Wells or Billy Baker). This marriage, like its predecessors, didn’t last long, but it accomplished one all-important goal: as the wife of a Frenchman, she could now claim French citizenship under French law, and within four days of the wedding she had obtained her French passport.

Josephine and Lion were formally divorced in April 1941. In the meantime, World War II intervened. Such circumstances test the mettle of every citizen, and by all accounts Josephine acquitted herself well as part of the French Resistance, first in France during the “phony war” before the Germans actually invaded her new homeland, and later in North Africa. When she returned to Paris in October 1944, after its liberation, she was greeted by throngs of people on the Champs-Élysées welcoming her home. She was also awarded the Medal of Resistance and eventually the Légion d’Honneur by France in recognition of her wartime work. She also met and became involved with Jo Bouillon, a (white) French jazz bandleader, whom she married on June 3, 1947, her forty-first birthday. This marriage was no more legal than those that preceded it, and no less troubled, but it lasted a great deal longer—to the end of Josephine’s life nearly thirty years later.

The durability of this marriage was due in part to a crusade against racial discrimination that Josephine had undertaken after “rediscovering her race” (in Jean-Claude’s words) during World War II. Over the years she gave talks on the subject, challenged segregation laws when in the American South, and marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the historic March on Washington in 1963. She was so vociferous in her denunciations of American racism at various international forums that the FBI compiled a dossier on her activities and the CIA kept tabs on her. But arguably her most public activity was an experiment in racial harmony that she undertook at Les Milandes, a château in southern France that she bought after the War. There she assembled what she called her “Rainbow Tribe” of twelve children that she and Jo Bouillon adopted from different parts of the world. (Because of a congenital malformation of the uterus, Josephine was unable to have children herself.) All the children were given Bouillon’s last name, and they were the glue that kept the marriage contract itself in force long after the couple’s spousal relationship had come to an end.

By all accounts race relations were harmonious enough at Les Milandes. However, personal relations were anything but peaceful, especially between Josephine and Jo Bouillon. Much of the problem could be traced to Josephine’s impulsiveness, extravagance, and need to control all aspects of life at the château. Her experiment would have been an expensive undertaking under any circumstances, but her own temperament and inability to handle money gave rise to much friction. The situation wasn’t helped by Josephine and Jo’s differing sexual needs. Bouillon never hid his homosexuality from Josephine. At times he even seemed to flaunt it as a way of asserting his independence from a wife whose imperious personality and demands continually overwhelmed him. Josephine, for her part, flaunted her affairs with women. In his biography, Jean-Claude quotes a French informant as saying: “Josephine and Jo … used to fight in the streets of Castelnaud [a village near Les Milandes]. She would scream ‘Faggot!’ [and]he would yell ‘Dyke!’ They weren’t hiding anything. Jo would come to our house with another man, their arms linked, Josephine would find happiness with a girl from a Paris ballet company.” In Josephine’s last years, according to another informant, she “surrounded herself with women, nurses, secretaries. A lot of young girls were in her entourage, so people talked, but by then they had seen so much that nothing could surprise them.”

In 1960, Jo Bouillon decamped (without divorcing Josephine) to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he established a new life as a restauranteur. In 1968, creditors foreclosed on Les Milandes. Josephine was still performing onstage, but the money no longer flowed as freely as before. She was perpetually in debt, and she and her children were increasingly dependent on the generosity of benefactors like Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

In bad health for years, Josephine finally collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris on April 10, 1975, the day following a triumphant stage comeback, and died two days later without regaining consciousness. Three funerals were held in her honor, one in Paris and two in Monte Carlo. At the behest of Princess Grace, she was buried in Monaco—a great distance both in miles and in circumstances from her humble origins in St. Louis nearly 69 years before.

A Life Examined

Parsing Josephine Baker’s queer life is problematic. It’s true that by age fifteen she was already participating in what would prove to be a lifelong string of affairs with other women. Yet she was always careful to hide these liaisons from her public. Moreover, according to Jean-Claude, although she had many gay friends, on occasion she exhibited a real streak of homophobia. Case in point: the one lesbian experience she was willing to put on record was an incident she described in her 1935 memoir, Une Vie de Toute les Couleurs, as having occurred in 1925 while she was appearing at the Plantation supper club in midtown Manhattan. According to Jean-Claude’s biography, she and three other “cabaret girls” were invited to dine at the home of a famous (but unnamed) New York actress. When she discovered that the actress expected a sexual five-way as the dessert course, Josephine says she “was furious and created such a ruckus that I was thrown out.” Did the incident actually occur? Probably—but perhaps not in quite the way Josephine described it. She was always good at covering her tracks when she wanted to, or even creating false tracks if she thought the situation warranted it. Against the libertine reputation she had acquired in Europe by the 1930’s, she’s seen here as trying to project an image of herself as sexually naïve.

As a second example, several years after Jo Bouillon moved to Argentina, she exiled one of her Rainbow Tribe sons to Buenos Aires to live with his “faggot father” after discovering he was having sex with another young man. Her excuse: she didn’t want him “contaminating” his brothers.

Of course, Josephine lived in a highly homophobic era that left most GLBT people, especially those in the public eye, little wiggle room when it came to protecting themselves from antigay bigotry and harassment. But that doesn’t excuse her own homophobia. It was an ugly part of her character, and it could certainly be damaging to those, like her son, who felt its effects personally. She was, at any rate, no queer role model. Still, something in her performances and even in her personal life spoke to her gay admirers, especially gay men, who were always drawn to her. Indeed, by the late 1960’s, according to Jean-Claude, gay people made up “eighty percent of her faithful audience.”

You don’t have to go far to see why. Her life pulsated with needs and desires that can only be called “queer,” animated by a queer energy that reached her audiences regardless of how carefully she tried to keep the gay aspects of her life hidden. One reason for this: by late in Josephine’s career, her performances had something of the camp about them. “Onstage she looked like a drag queen,” said Jean-Claude in an interview. “A badly made-up drag queen—glitter over her makeup, too much mascara, extravagant gowns that exaggerated the feminine, extravagant gestures. Nobody else performing in Europe during the 1930’s moved like she did. Later, here in the U.S., it would be called ‘vogueing.’” Another reason she connected with gay audiences is that she challenged the rules of acceptable sexual behavior in public, something that would have been a big draw for those whose sexuality was stigmatized as socially unacceptable or even criminal.

On top of that, much like Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, Josephine communicated with audiences from a vulnerable part of herself, a part that had been hurt and was still suffering, connecting with them as a survivor of abuse and helping them to realize that they could survive their own traumas. In Jean-Claude’s words: “She was burning in hell from all the pain and abuse, but she was able to shut up her feelings within herself and give it back to people in a majestic and generous way. She was one of those exceptional people who know how to break down barriers to reach and touch the body, the soul of anyone.”

Jean-Claude subtitled his biography “The Hungry Heart.” But Josephine’s was also a hungry queer heart, aching all her life for the love and acceptance she felt denied her as a poor, abused, black child in St. Louis. She couldn’t heal herself, but when she sang as a survivor, it was a message welcome to gay people’s ears. No wonder the legend of La Baker is still alive and well. For gay audiences, it will probably live on for many years to come.

Note: All three movies starring Josephine Baker were released as DVDs in 2005 by Kino Video.

Baker, Jean-Claude, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. Random House, 1993.

Baker, Jean-Claude. Author interviews, February 28, 1995, and May 17, 2006.

Baker, Jean-Claude. Talk at New York City’s LGBT Community Services Center, September 13, 1994.

Dudley (Reagan), Caroline. Detail: La Révue Nègre (unpublished manuscript, used with permission of Caroline’s daughter Sophie Reagan Herr).

Kessler, Harry. Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918 –1937). Grove Press, 2000.

Rivollet, André. Joséphine Baker: Une Vie de Toutes les Couleurs. B. Arthaud (Grenoble, France), 1935.

All art for this piece courtesy of the Jean-Claude Baker Foundation.

Lester Strong is special projects editor for A&U magazine and a regular contributor to OUT magazine.


Mary Anning

Now immortalised by Kate Winslet in the film Ammonite, Mary Anning was a determined and clever woman who became known as the "Princess of Palaeontology" and the greatest fossil hunter who ever lived.

Mary&rsquos hometown of Lyme Regis was a good place for Mary to cultivate an interest in geology and palaeontology, as fossils were &ndash and are still &ndash found in abundance there. When she was 12, in 1811, she had her first big find &ndash a skeleton of an ichthyosaur (a prehistoric sea reptile), the first of its kind ever found. Many more discoveries followed, including, when she was 24, that of a plesiosaur, a type of marine reptile.

This discovery put Mary on the map as far as the scientific community was concerned but, even so, her gender and social class prevented her from receiving significant financial gain from her work, and proper recognition of her discoveries only came after her death. However, her memory lives on, as Kate Winslet&rsquos film epitomises, as also does her recognition by the Royal Society of Science, in 2010.


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I didn't realise that this was written by a renowned biographer until I started reading. I am fascinated by the resistance in WW II. The drama, suffering, tragedy and excitement is gripping. It's also shocking and sobering as well as intensely moving. Often when witting on this subject other authors will not make much of the infighting and internal politics from this period (within the resistance itself). This is not the case with this biography. We've all heard of Odette but Virginia Hall was unknown to me. What a remarkable women. It's humbling to think of what these people went through for the love of freedom and the fight against injustice.

I was so impressed that I looked into the author and realised who it was. Sonia Purnell has written a number of biographys and is probably best known for her writting on Boris Johnson. I can't recommend this wonderfully researched book enough.

Having read a number of books on the history of espionage, and espionage in the Second World War in particular, I can say that this may be the most interesting and illuminating account of operations in Occupied and Vichy France ever written in English. I would say that it “reads like a novel,” except no, it reads much better than a novel.

Also a very important corrective to the lack of appreciation of female intelligence operatives during the Second World War. It is not really surprising, but nevertheless infuriating, to see how badly female agents were treated by the men in charge of Allied intelligence operations. Eventually, after her skill and heroism became so evident, SOE and OSS, and the French, did come around to recognizing Virginia Hall’s contribution. But I have to suspect that there were many other women, making great sacrifices, who were never recognized. (And then there was the shameful treatment of Josephine Baker, who was recognized by the French, but ignored by her own country because of racism as well as sexism.) A Woman of No Importance is straight history, and no feminist rant. But in the course of telling this story, Sonia Purnell has made a real contribution to feminist history.


Josephine Baker’s Daring Double Life as a World War II Spy

As war drums reverberated across Europe in 1939, the head of France’s military intelligence service recruited an unlikely spy: France’s most famous woman—Josephine Baker.

Jacques Abtey had spent the early days of World War II recruiting spies to collect information on Nazi Germany and other Axis powers. Typically, the secret service chief sought out men who could travel incognito. Then again, nothing was typical when it came to the American-born dancer and singer.

Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Baker had grown up fatherless in a series of rat-infested hovels. She had only sporadic schooling and married for the first time at age 13. Stung by discrimination in Jim Crow America based on her skin color, she left at the age of 19 to perform as a burlesque dancer in the music halls of Paris where her risqué dance routines while clad in little more than a string of pearls and a rubber banana skirt made her a Jazz Age sensation. After branching out into singing and acting in films, she became Europe’s highest-paid entertainer.

A celebrity of Baker’s stature made for a most unlikely spy candidate since she could never travel surreptitiously—but that’s exactly what made her such an enticing prospect. Fame would be her cover. Abtey hoped Baker could use her charm, beauty and stardom to seduce secrets from the lips of fawning diplomats at embassy parties.

Having found in France the freedom that America promised on parchment, Baker agreed to spy for her adopted country. “France made me what I am,” she told Abtey. “The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”

The cries of “Go back to Africa!” she had heard from fascists while performing across Europe also fueled her decision. “Of course I wanted to do all I could to aid France, my adopted country,” she told Ebony magazine decades later, “but an overriding consideration, the thing that drove me as strongly as did patriotism, was my violent hatred of discrimination in any form.”


Josephine Baker's Daring Double Life as a World War II Spy

SGT (Join to see)

On April 12, 1975, Josephine Baker, American French revue artist, French Resistance fighter, and civil rights activist, died at the age of 68. From the article:

"Josephine Baker's Daring Double Life as a World War II Spy

Using fame as a cover, the glamorous entertainer spied for the French Resistance against the Nazis.

As war drums reverberated across Europe in 1939, the head of France’s military intelligence service recruited an unlikely spy: France’s most famous woman—Josephine Baker.

Jacques Abtey had spent the early days of World War II recruiting spies to collect information on Nazi Germany and other Axis powers. Typically, the secret service chief sought out men who could travel incognito. Then again, nothing was typical when it came to the American-born dancer and singer.

Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Baker had grown up fatherless in a series of rat-infested hovels. She had only sporadic schooling and married for the first time at age 13. Stung by discrimination in Jim Crow America based on her skin color, she left at the age of 19 to perform as a burlesque dancer in the music halls of Paris where her risqué dance routines while clad in little more than a string of pearls and a rubber banana skirt made her a Jazz Age sensation. After branching out into singing and acting in films, she became Europe’s highest-paid entertainer.

A celebrity of Baker’s stature made for a most unlikely spy candidate since she could never travel surreptitiously—but that’s exactly what made her such an enticing prospect. Fame would be her cover. Abtey hoped Baker could use her charm, beauty and stardom to seduce secrets from the lips of fawning diplomats at embassy parties.

Having found in France the freedom that America promised on parchment, Baker agreed to spy for her adopted country. “France made me what I am,” she told Abtey. “The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.”

The cries of “Go back to Africa!” she had heard from fascists while performing across Europe also fueled her decision. “Of course I wanted to do all I could to aid France, my adopted country,” she told Ebony magazine decades later, “but an overriding consideration, the thing that drove me as strongly as did patriotism, was my violent hatred of discrimination in any form.”

Baker Uses Star Power to Learn Secrets
Baker started her espionage career by attending diplomatic parties at the Italian and Japanese embassies and gathering intelligence about the Axis powers possibly joining the war. Showing no fear of being caught, the neophyte spy wrote notes of what she overheard on the palms of her hand and on her arms under her sleeves. “Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy,” Baker said with a laugh when Abtey warned her of the danger.

In the weeks after German forces roared into France, Baker continued her nightly performances in Paris, sang to soldiers on the warfront over the radio and comforted refugees in homeless shelters. When the invaders closed in on Paris in early June 1940, Abtey insisted that she leave, so Baker loaded her possessions, including a gold piano and a bed once owned by Marie-Antoinette, into vans and departed for a chateau 300 miles to the southwest. As Nazi troops goose-stepped down the Champs-Élysées and occupied her Paris home, Baker hid refugees and French Resistance members in her new quarters.

In November 1940, Abtey and Baker worked to smuggle documents to General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French government in exile in London. Under the guise of embarking on a South American tour, the entertainer hid secret photographs under her dress and carried along sheet music with information about German troop movements in France written in invisible ink. With all eyes transfixed on the star as they crossed the border to Spain on their way to neutral Portugal, the French security chief, who posed as Baker’s secretary, garnered little notice from German officials. The limelight that Baker attracted allowed Abtey to travel in the shadows.

In Portugal and Spain, Baker continued to harvest details about Axis troop movements at embassy parties. Squirreling away in bathrooms, the secret agent made detailed notes and attached them to her bra with a safety pin. “My notes would have been highly compromising had they been discovered, but who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?” she later wrote. “When they asked me for papers, they generally meant autographs.”

Baker Continues Spying Even When Ill
Ordered to Morocco in January 1941 to set up a liaison and transmission center in Casablanca, Abtey and Baker sailed across the Mediterranean Sea. The performer brought along 28 pieces of luggage and a menagerie of pet monkeys, mice and a Great Dane. The more conspicuous Baker’s travel, the fewer suspicions it generated.

In North Africa she worked with the French Resistance network and used her connections to secure passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis in Eastern Europe until she was hospitalized with peritonitis in June 1941. She underwent multiple operations during an 18-month hospitalization that left her so ill that the Chicago Defender mistakenly ran her obituary, penned by Langston Hughes. He wrote that Baker was “as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall today in Africa fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Baker quickly corrected the record. “There has been a slight error, I’m much too busy to die,” she told the Afro-American.

Even as Baker convalesced, the spy work continued as American diplomats and French Resistance members convened at her bedside. From her balcony she watched as American troops arrived in Morocco as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. After she was finally discharged, Baker toured Allied military camps from Algiers to Jerusalem. By day, she rode in jeeps across the scorching deserts of North Africa. At night, she bundled up and slept on the ground next to her vehicle to avoid land mines.

Following the liberation of Paris, she returned to the city she loved in October 1944 after a four-year absence. Dressed in her blue air auxiliary lieutenant’s uniform punctuated with gold epaulettes, Baker rode in the back of an automobile as the throngs along the Champs-Élysées tossed her flowers. No longer just a glamorous revue star, Baker was a patriotic heroine.

She donned her uniform once again in 1961 to receive two of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, at a ceremony in which details of her espionage work were revealed to the world. A teary-eyed Baker told her countrymen, 'I am proud to be French because this is the only place in the world where I can realize my dream.'”


The Double Life of Josephine Baker

We remember Josephine Baker as a singer and dancer, who had to leave her native country to find freedom and fame. What fewer know is that when Nazism threatened that freedom she so treasured, Baker also turned her talents toward defending it — as a spy.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker began her career as a teenage vaudeville performer, but rose to fame after she joined an all-Black troupe traveling to Paris in 1925. Baker marveled at the freedoms she experienced in France — for example, sitting wherever she wished on a train car. She gained wealth and fame, first as an erotic dancer, then in film and opera.

Soon, Baker’s fame presented a new opportunity. After World War II began in September 1939, a French intelligence agent named Jacques Abtey came to her home and asked her to become part of his network. She immediately agreed. “The Parisians gave me their hearts,” she said, “and I am ready to give them my life.”

Baker attended events and parties, socializing with the Axis elite, eavesdropping all the while. She would report her findings back to Abtey. Sometimes she would even take notes on her arm or the palm of her hand, secure in the conviction that no one would ever suspect her of being a spy.

Even so, Baker epitomized the Nazis’ definition of a threat. She was a successful, Black, bisexual performer, who, in 1937, married a Jewish man (she and Jean Lion divorced after several years of marriage).

With the Nazi invasion of France in May 1940, Baker fled Paris and entered into a new relationship with her adopted country. Knowing she could be in danger, Baker sought refuge in the south — which was administered by the collaborationist Vichy regime — rented a chateau, and offered refuge to others fleeing the Nazis.

From southern France, Baker continued her intelligence work. To make contact with British agents, Abtey disguised himself as her ballet instructor, and the two embarked on a tour of Portugal. They smuggled information written in invisible ink on the back of Baker’s sheet music and photographs pinned to the inside of her dress. With her natural charm and immense fame, they made it across the border without being searched, and the documents successfully made their way into the hands of British intelligence officers.

Baker also put her artistic talents to use helping the Allied cause. Starting in 1943, she toured North Africa performing for Allied soldiers, raising more than three million francs for the Free French Army. For her courageous service, the women’s auxiliary of the French air force made her an officer. She wore her air force uniform at appearances for the rest of her life — including the 1963 March on Washington, where she was one of the only women speakers.

After the liberation of Paris in 1944, Baker returned to the city. She discovered the dire conditions people there had been living in and sold her own valuables to help supply food and coal to those in need. In 1945, General Charles de Gaulle awarded her two prestigious honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. He also named her a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, the highest order of merit for military and civil action.

After years in her adopted country, Baker never forgot her original home and the struggles of Black Americans. At the 1963 march, she said, “I want you to know … how proud I am to be here today, and after so many long years of struggle fighting here and elsewhere for your rights, our rights, the rights of humanity, the rights of man, I’m glad that you have accepted me to come. … The world is behind you.”

Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, Josephine: The Hungry Heart (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001).

Meredith Hindley, Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II (New York: Public Affairs, 2017).

Tina L. Ligon and Christina Violeta Jones, “Let Freedom Ring. Honoring the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Rediscovering Black History (blog) (National Archives, August 20, 2013).

Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time (New York: Doubleday, 1989).

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Baker’s birthplace, which is St. Louis, Missouri.


6. There are Celebrities Among Their Ranks

At first glance, a career in the spotlight would appear to appear to be the polar opposite of the covert work of espionage. However, there are some famous people who have worked as spies, both before and after they became famous.

Before her career in the kitchen, chef Julia Child worked as a typist, then research analyst for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency during WWII. She earned the “Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service” for her work. Before becoming a US Supreme Court Justice, Arthur Goldberg also served in the OSS, where his work involved organizing European labor unions and dissident groups to resist the Nazis. Children’s author Roald Dahl earned a reputation as a ladies’ man during his undercover work with the British embassy in Washington D.C., as part of the British campaign to draw the US into WWII.

While, for obvious reasons, there are more spies who later became famous than celebrities who later became spies, there are still several famous people who also worked as secret agents. Jazz Age performer Josephine Baker used her travel schedule and position as a star to support the French Resistance during WWII. She reported on the identities of French Nazi supporters, conversations she overheard from German officers in her audiences, and even smuggled secret documents written in invisible ink on her music sheets.

US baseball catcher Moe Berg was known for being one of the smartest men to ever play the game. A Princeton graduate, Berg spoke 8 languages and had passed the bar before turning to baseball and joining the Washington Senators. Berg’s intelligence career began when he traveled to Japan as part of an all-star baseball exhibition tour. During his tour, he took home movies of Tokyo’s skyline and shipyards, which were reportedly used to help plan US bombing raids during WWII. After leaving baseball, Berg joined the OSS, where his work included parachuting into Yugoslavia to evaluate resistance groups and evaluating Nazi progress towards a nuclear weapon.


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