In this respect, Josephine Baker, who clowned her way into the heart of les Années folles—France’s Roaring Twenties—and played the civilized primitive when she got there, might have been the smoothest operator of the twentieth century. A dancer, a singer, and the most celebrated night-club entertainer of her era, she was at once inescapable and elusive. She first captivated Parisians in 1925 when she appeared on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, nude save for her feathers. The next year, at the Folies Bergère, audiences saw stretches of brown skin intersected by pearls and a skirt strung with tumescent bananas. As her star rose, Baker was known to stroll the streets of Paris with her fellow-performer Chiquita, a cheetah collared by a rope of diamonds. Without actually laying eyes on the woman, a visitor to Paris would see her everywhere: in photographs and on those Paul Colin posters, as a doll in a shop window, in the style of Parisiennes palming their heads with Bakerfix pomade.
Who was she, really? Baker homages are usually unsubtle and beatifying, embodied by contemporary Black denizens of the arts who managed to do what Baker couldn’t: carve out stardom on American soil. Diana Ross, Beyoncé, and Rihanna have played in her silhouette; Lynn Whitfield received an Emmy when she starred in HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story” (1991). In “Frida” (2002), Baker has an affair with the title character, a nod to the free sexuality of each; she rumbas through “Midnight in Paris” (2011). Cush Jumbo staged an acclaimed tribute show, “Josephine and I,” in 2015, and Carra Patterson recently played her, with strange showgirl malaise, in an episode of the horror series “Lovecraft Country.” Ruth Negga and Janelle Monáe are now slated to take their turn, in a pair of TV series about her. Last November, Baker was inducted into the French Panthéon, the first woman of color to grace the hallowed monument, among such figures as Victor Hugo and Marie Curie. “Stereotypes, Joséphine Baker takes them on,” President Macron said. “But she shakes them up, digs at them, turns them into sublime burlesque. A spirit of the Enlightenment ridiculing colonialist prejudices to music by Sidney Bechet.”
Even if Baker’s career had been restricted to her role as an entertainer, it would have had the allure of a thriller. The racecraft of the day was bound to give rise to spycraft: all identities are impostures, and Baker had a chameleonic gift for moving among them. But during the war years she was also—as a new book, “Agent Josephine” (PublicAffairs), by the British journalist Damien Lewis, chronicles with much fresh detail—a spy in the most literal sense. There was, after all, little that La Bakaire didn’t understand about resistance.
“This is not a book telling Josephine Baker’s life story,” Lewis cautions. His saga, though it stretches across five hundred pages, is mainly concerned with Baker’s service as a secret agent, and mainly confined to the years shadowed by the Second World War. There’s another sense, too, in which it isn’t her life story: the account is largely told by an assemblage of third parties. Lewis’s bibliography and notes make clear how deeply he has drawn on interviews with veterans, memoirs by agents, the private family archives of a British spymaster, and the wartime files of intelligence bureaus, some of which were not made available to the public until 2020. But Baker maintained a code of silence about the seven years she spent fighting the Nazis and, Lewis writes, “went to her grave in 1975 taking many of those secrets with her.”