In the 1920s and 30s, Joséphine Baker was an international superstar, known for her daring dances and exotic costumes. But during World War II she performed her greatest role yet: Spy.
Onstage at the Casino de Paris, Joséphine Baker stretched her arms out toward the expanse of pale faces staring up at her as she sang. By now, the African-American expat superstar had grown used to performing for white crowds across Europe, but in 1939, the audience was changing. The men who came to see her new revue, Paris/London, were bored French and British soldiers on leave from their combat duties. Months earlier, France and Britain had declared war on Germany after Germany’s invasion of Poland, but things were mostly uneventful so far, and restless troops clamored for entertainment. Baker was happy to help in that department, but little did she know she’d soon be taking on the role of a lifetime as a secret agent for the French Resistance.
Baker had been taking on challenges all her life. Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, she grew up on the streets of St. Louis, Missouri’s worst slums; by age 16, she had been married and divorced twice (although her 1921 marriage to Willie Baker was short-lived, she kept his surname). Baker joined an all-black vaudeville troupe as a teen, and her dancing, singing, and comedic talents took her to New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and later, to Paris, where she performed in a show called La Revue Nègre. Her finale number, “Danse Sauvage,” in which she danced nearly nude save for some strategically placed feathers, was a breakout hit. French audiences embraced the overtly sensual and striking Baker; she achieved greater success abroad than she could have dreamed of as a woman of color in the United States.
Men threw themselves at Baker constantly, but nothing could prepare her for the unlikely fan she’d earn in Jacques Abtey, the 33-year-old head of the French military intelligence service Le Deuxième Bureau. Abtey was looking for undercover agents willing to work without pay for the French war effort, and his friend Daniel Marouani, whose brother Felix worked for Baker, suggested her. Abtey was hesitant to approach Baker, fearing she’d end up like Mata Hari, the flamboyant dancer-turned-spy who was executed by firing squad after she betrayed the French military that recruited her. For Abtey, there were just too many similarities between the two women, and he didn’t think Baker was worth the risk.
Marouani insisted that Baker would be perfect for the job; she traveled a lot, had friends in high places, and hated the Nazis, who reminded her of America’s racists. Abtey relented and agreed to meet Baker at Château des Milandes, her enormous home 300 miles south of Paris. He expected to see a vibrant woman dressed in elegant clothing; instead, he found the 34-year-old Baker walking around the grounds of her estate, wearing old clothes and a crumpled felt hat to shade her eyes. She carried a rusted can full of snails she had collected to feed her ducks.
Later, over glasses of champagne served by a white-coated butler, Abtey explained his mission. Baker’s reply stunned him: “France made me what I am,” she said seriously. “I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything. They have given me their hearts, and I have given them mine. I am ready, Captain, to give them my life. You can use me as you wish.”
Impressed with her sincerity and enthusiasm, Abtey hired her on the spot. Now a secret agent (officially known in the French military as an “honorable correspondent”), Baker began training with the same energy she exuded in any part she played. She learned karate and practiced with a pistol; within just a few weeks, she could shoot out the flame of a candle at 20 yards. She moved back to Paris to be closer to the action, splitting her time between music halls and the Red Cross shelter where she aided Belgian refugees. Baker kept an ear out for relevant information, and wrote notes on her arms and on the palms of her hands. Baker also attended parties and receptions all over Europe, where she would listen carefully for intel on German troop movements.
"France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything. They have given me their hearts, and I have given them mine. I am ready to give them my life."
The performer’s international popularity turned out to be an invaluable resource. High-ranking officials of the Axis powers adored her, including Italy’s ruler (and Hitler’s ally), Benito Mussolini. It took only a week for Baker to gather important statistics and possibly a code book from the Italian embassy, which she passed along to Abtey.
Things became riskier after the Germans invaded France and headed towards Paris, but Baker’s casual indifference toward danger was remarkable. “Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy,” she laughed when Abtey expressed concern for her safety and urged her to leave the city. Baker followed his advice, though, and returned to Milandes, where she took to hiding war refugees (including a French navy officer, an air force captain, a Polish man, and some friends from Belgium) in the nooks and crannies of her huge home. She worried constantly that one of her stowaways might be a secret Nazi sympathizer, but she kept calm and carried on until the day five German officers showed up at her front door and demanded to search the château for weapons. Baker answered them nonchalantly: “I think that monsieur l’officier cannot be serious. It is true that I had Red Indian grandparents, but they hung up their tomahawks quite a while ago now, and the only dance I’ve never taken part in is the war dance.” The Germans seemed charmed, and left without any further questions, but the incident emphasized that Baker was not safe anywhere in France as the Nazi occupation spread across the country. Though she was separated from her French-Jewish husband, Jean Lion, Baker was still technically married to him, and being a black woman married to a Jewish man made her particularly vulnerable to the Nazis. If her espionage activities were discovered, there was no doubt she would be sent to a concentration camp.
The chance to escape occupied France came when French Resistance leader Charles de Gaulle asked Baker and Abtey to head to the neutral city of Lisbon, Portugal, so they could send reports to his station in London. Abtey defected from the French army to join de Gaulle’s Free French movement, and de Gaulle was glad to have him—and Baker—on board. Baker made the travel arrangements under the guise that she was just passing through Lisbon on her way to performances in South America. She and Abtey had to transport 52 pieces of classified information, a prospect that seemed daunting until they had the brilliant idea to transfer the data to Baker’s sheet music using invisible ink. The top-secret information became hidden on the pages of Baker’s theme song, “Two Loves Have I.” Baker dressed for the trip in elaborate clothing and costly furs, attracting so much attention that Abtey, who was posing as her assistant, was able to lay low and cross international borders without a hassle.
When the pair made it to Portugal, Baker was welcomed with open arms to parties held by the British, Belgian, and French embassies. After each night of dancing, flirting, and gathering information from chatty ambassadors, she returned to her hotel room, made careful notes on slips of paper, and pinned them to her bra and panties. Baker would later recall, “Being Joséphine Baker had definite advantages…wherever I went, I was swamped with invitations. I particularly liked attending diplomatic functions, since the embassies and consulates swarmed with talkative people. Back at my hotel, I carefully recorded everything I’d heard. My notes would have been highly compromising had they been discovered, but who would dare search Joséphine Baker to the skin? The information remained snugly in place, secured by a safety pin.”
Baker may have literally kept her cards close to her chest when it counted, but her reputation for showy extravagance worked in her favor as a spy. When she moved throughout Europe on assignment for de Gaulle, she brought with her many suitcases and a menagerie of pets (including three monkeys and a Great Dane named Bonzo); she believed that traveling with an outrageous excess of luggage made her cover story more believable.
After the Germans successfully occupied all of France, Baker knew she couldn’t go home again. She and Abtey headed to Northern Africa to set up a permanent liaison and transmission center with British intelligence. But obtaining all of the necessary travel visas presented problems, as responses to requests were slow, even for the famous Joséphine Baker. “They sure weren’t passing them [visas] out like metro tickets,” she quipped. Baker and Abtey finally managed to arrive in Casablanca, Morocco, where they met with Free French representatives. Baker toured Morocco, Spain, and Portugal, providing entertainment for enthusiastic audiences and information for the French Resistance. Her career was red-hot, and so was her connection with the deeply devoted Abtey; the two became lovers, and what was at first a reluctant partnership developed into an intense five-year relationship.
Baker’s work came to a screeching halt in 1941, when she suffered a miscarriage and had to undergo an emergency hysterectomy. Complications from the surgery landed Baker in the hospital for the next 19 months. Resistance members gathered in Baker’s private hospital room to discuss German strategies and troop operations at her bedside.
Baker was not seen again in public for some time, and in November 1942, newspaper headlines around the world mistakenly declared that she had passed away. Baker contacted a reporter to clarify that “There has been a slight error; I’m much too busy to die.” Once she recovered, she hit the road again with a grueling tour schedule, performing several times a day for Allied troops and always insisting on integrated audiences.
In 1943, Baker gave a benefit performance for the Free French forces in Algiers, where she finally met Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle presented her with a tiny gold Cross of Lorraine, the symbol he had chosen to represent the Free French. It became Baker’s most prized possession amongst her many beautiful jewels. She was also made a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force, and later received the Croix de Guerre and Medal of the Resistance with Rosette.
America’s military involvement sealed the Allies’ victory in 1945, and Baker couldn’t help but feel proud of the nation where she was born. After World War II ended, Baker became an activist for the American civil rights movement. She wore her Free French uniform when she spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.
Baker’s last years were plagued by financial hardships, but even after she lost her château at Milandes, she maintained the same resilience that made her both a compelling performer and effective freedom fighter. Just four days before she died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68, she starred in an eponymous revue based on her life in show business and earned rave reviews. On April 15, 1975, Joséphine Baker received a full military funeral in Paris. Some 20,000 mourners came to pay their respects to a woman who had certainly changed the world—and quite possibly helped save it, too.
By Peggy Caravantes
Peggy Caravantes is the author of The Many Faces of Joséphine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy (Chicago Review Press).
Photo: Library of Congress
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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