Enter your email to read this article
Read news on any topic, in one place, from publishers like The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more.

How Josephine Baker used her magnetic charisma to become a World War II spy

Josephine Baker was a woman not to be underestimated.

She grew up in abject poverty in America, but she went on to become one of the world's highest paid female entertainers.

With her magnetic charisma, the dancer, singer and actress was one of France's great music hall stars.  

And whenever she walked down Paris's Avenue Champs-Elysees with her pet cheetah Chiquita on a diamond-studded leash, she would attract the gaze of all who saw her. 

Much of Baker's adult life was captured on camera but, until recently, there was part of her life that remained largely unknown.

During World War II, she became a spy for the Allies.

And the true story of how she used her fame to secretly gather Nazi intelligence is revealed in Damien Lewis's The Flame of Resistance: The Untold Story of Josephine Baker's Secret War.

So what made Baker pledge her allegiance to France, particularly when her life was on the line?

Escaping hardship through talent

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri in the United States. She grew up in a poor family, stealing coal from railway cars as a child to get by.

"By the age of 13, she had pretty much run away from school," Lewis tells ABC RN's Late Night Live.

She was a talented singer and dancer, so she moved to New York seeking fame and fortune.

She made it onto the Broadway stage in her late teens and her performances were met with rave reviews.

But no amount of applause could make up for the racial discrimination and segregation she faced.

"It meant that she was always constrained, she could never really make it on the stage as a black female," Lewis says.

However, her horizons broadened when, at the age of 19, she was approached by a theatre manager offering her the starring role in a new show opening in Paris.

"So she took her heart in her hands, sailed on a liner from New York to Paris, and went out to seek fame and fortune in the City of Light," he says.

She made quite a splash.

"She was hugely provocative and massively successful, [with] rave reviews, and she took not just Paris and France but Europe by storm."

During the 1920s, she joined La Revue Nègre, where — wearing a makeshift banana skirt and a string of pearls on stage — she performed the infamous 'danse sauvage'

But racism still loomed large and by the 1930s, intelligence agencies could see an invasion by Nazi Germany was likely.

"The French and British intelligence services were woefully underfunded and woefully undermined. And so they set upon this idea of recruiting what they called 'honourable correspondents'," Lewis explains.

"These are freelance DIY spies, who basically spy for love of country and for love of freedom. And somebody set upon the idea of trying to recruit Josephine Baker."

Not everyone was in favour. French intelligence agent Captain Jacques Abtey was against it.

He couldn't understand how somebody of such universal acclaim could serve as an agent of the shadows.

Some in intelligence circles also didn't think women were suitable as spies.

"They said words to the effect that they would shatter like glass at the first sign of any danger," Lewis says.

Yet those higher up prevailed, and Captain Abtey drove to Baker's Château des Milandes in the Dordogne region. He expected to see her in a ball gown, with her pet cheetah on a leash.

Instead, when he arrived, a voice greeted him from the bushes.

There stood Baker wearing a battered felt cap, a pair of gardening trousers and a gardening top, holding a rusty tin full of snails to feed her pet ducks.

She invited him into the chateau, where they sat by the fireplace and drank champagne.

"He was treated to a close up, one-on-one of the Josephine effect," Lewis says.

"This was her ability — and I had it described to me by people who were her dance partners at the time — to reach out from the stage to every single member of the audience, man or woman, and make it feel as if she was performing absolutely and specifically for [them]."

Captain Abtey recognised the benefits of harnessing this 'Josephine effect', and he asked her immediately if she wanted to become a spy.

"She basically said … 'France has made me all that I am, and Paris has allowed me to thrive. I will give France and this cause my life if I have to'," he says.

Top secret missions

Baker began her first mission by manipulating those around her at a Paris gentleman's club.

The Allies needed to know the intentions of neighbouring countries should Nazi Germany declare war, and Baker had connections at both the Italian and Japanese Embassy in Paris.

Once she'd found out what she could, she met up with Captain Abtey to relay the top secret information. She'd discovered that Italy had their sights on a pact with the Nazis.

However she almost crashed the luxury car she was driving across Paris, while telling him what she knew.

A French policeman pulled the car over. But once she flashed her famous smile, he let her off and the couple continued on their way.

Once France was occupied by Germany in 1939, her job as a spy became much more difficult. Getting intelligence to the Allies was risky.

"It's almost impossible to believe now but France fell so quickly. In four weeks, every single agent that Britain had in France, every single wireless contact, every single source went dark, went silent — there was nothing," Lewis says.

However, the French Resistance found a way out using Baker's fame.

She and Captain Abtey set off on a mission to Lisbon, Portugal, where the intelligence service had a secret office in the British Embassy.

The journey was not without its risks. At one point Captain Abtey gave her a cyanide pill to take, in case she was captured. Baker was known to Hitler and other Nazis and Captain Abtey feared what would happen to them both if they were caught. A quick death would have been the best option.

But they were travelling on the pretence of a performance by Baker in Lisbon, so they put the war intelligence in her touring trunks. This included notes written with secret ink on music sheets, photographs of invasion landing craft and signals intercepts from the Luftwaffe.

"She managed to get through countless checkpoints," Lewis says.

"The most extraordinary thing is so many of these officials who should have been searching her luggage or asking questions, when they saw it was Josephine Baker, they ran to fetch their wives and girlfriends and said, 'Come, come, you must get a photograph with Josephine'."

A French hero

Baker died in 1975. In 2021, she was recognised for her dedication to the Resistance and her civil rights activism when she was inducted into France's Pantheon

It's the highest honour the French Republic can bestow on its citizens and her remains were interred in the Pantheon in Paris. 

At the time, French President Emmanuel Macron said: "She broke down barriers. She became part of the hearts and minds of French people … Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because, while you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you."

She's one of only 80 individuals who have received this honour, one of only five women and the only woman of colour.

"The French have absolutely taken Josephine to their heart," Lewis says.

RN in your inbox

Get more stories that go beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.

Your information is being handled in accordance with the ABC Privacy Collection Statement.
Related Stories
French PM wants to continue sanctions on Russia to ‘make the cost of the war unbearable’
France's National Assembly resumed its work on Monday with a debate on the war in Ukraine and its consequences for France, with a call from Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to "continue the sanctions" to "make the cost of the war unbearable for Russia".
From analysis to the latest developments in health, read the most diverse news in one place.
French novelist, memoirist Annie Ernaux wins Nobel Prize for Literature
French author Annie Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature "for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory", the award-giving body said on Thursday.
France lambasts Iran after spying 'confession' aired
France lashed out at Iran for "dictatorial practices" and taking two of its citizens hostage after a video aired on Thursday in which they appeared to confess to spying, amid weeks of unrest that Tehran has tied to foreign foes.
Iran airs alleged confessions of French couple accused of spying
Iranian state television on Thursday broadcast what the authorities in Tehran claim are "confessions" by two French nationals, five months after the pair were arrested in the Islamic republic.
Toby Jones discovers his grandfather was shot in the face during Second World War
In tomorrow's Channel 4 documentary, My Grandparents’ War: Toby Jones, the Hollywood actor learns of the extraordinary things his late grandparents did during the Second World War
One place to find news on any topic, from hundreds of sites.
Iran airs 'staged' confession video of French couple accused of spying
Iranian state television aired a video on Thursday in which two French citizens detained for "spying" in May are shown "confessing" to acting on behalf of a French security service. The video, which France's foreign ministry denounced as both "shameful" and "staged", was broadcast amid weeks of protest in Iran…