Book Review: “Agent Josephine,” by Damien Lewis

AGENT JOSEPHINE: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy, by Damien Lewis

In the first half of the 20th century, Josephine Baker was one of the most famous women in the world. She was born into poverty in St. Louis. Louis and became a star on the Paris scene in the 1920s. Stories that she walked down the Champs-Élysées with her pet (and sometimes co-star), a cheetah named Chiquita, had already made her a legend. In “Agent Josephine,” the prolific historian Damien Lewis goes a step further in polishing this legend, claiming that Baker was a spy for the British.

Or more or less a spy. Lewis uses careful language to uncover the title’s bold claim. In his authorial note, he writes that Baker told his cinema, Marcel Sauvage, “precious little about her war activities on behalf of the Allies, and that very deliberately. She spoke or seldom or ever wrote in detail about some of her war work and went to the grave in 1975 and took many of his secrets with him. ” A few pages later: “Baker had also played a little-known, secret role during the war, as a once resistance fighter and very possibly also a special agent or spy.”

Baker was certainly an active member of the French resistance movement. In her former home, the Château de Milande, there is an entire wing dedicated to her war work. Lewis is an elaborate author who can dedicate countless pages to his own biography: “My father and stepmother, Lesley, live in France, in a beautiful medieval castle, which they bought in an almost ruin of cattle still living in some of the buildings. ” At times, he makes himself sound like archivist Indiana Jones, who permeates the process of drama: “I knew the files I wanted existed and were allegedly open to the public, but where no official actually seemed to be able to to place their hands. on them.”

In her cinematic narrative, Baker had a terrible tour of Germany and Austria in 1928, where she experienced the rise of fascism on her own. During the early days of the war, she volunteered at a food bank in Paris. She became more active as the Nazis began occupying her adopted home, signing for Britain’s secret intelligence service, a CIA-like agency working with the French counterintelligence agency Deuxième Bureau. She convened a group at her castle shortly after the fall of Paris in 1940 to listen to a speech by de Gaulle.

Maurice Chevalier is used in the book as a kind of foil for Baker’s heroism and bravery. The two stars shared a scene in Paris where they did not hit it. While working for the resistance movement, he sang light and uplifting popular songs on the German-controlled Radio Paris. Lewis quotes Baker on Chevalier: “a great artist, but a very small man.”

In Lewis’ tale, there are deliberate echoes of Mata Hari, the cabaret dancer from World War I, who was found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans and shot. Baker certainly acted on his connections, including using his friendship with Miki Sawada, the wife of the Japanese ambassador to France, to gain access to the embassy. And she took advantage of her own status as a celebrity – and a person who fit in nowhere and everywhere – as a cover, taking a trip through Lisbon and on to Morocco to escape from France.

She brought with her a menagerie of exotic pets, including her great Dane, Bonzo; Aben Glouglou; Mica the golden lion tamarin; Gugusse marmoset; and two white mice named Bigoudi and Point d’Interrogation. Lewis’ claim – that for Baker, the unconditional love of animals was probably easier than relationships with humans – is both simplistic and probably accurate. Either way, he quickly moves on from this unusual foray into psychological analysis to return to his literary strengths, facts, and action.

Sometimes it feels as if Lewis is content to accept the narrative that Baker deliberately created for himself. The book dives in and out of the biography and goes from World War II to her tough youth as the daughter of a teenage mother; she was raised mainly by her grandmother, who had been born into slavery. The United States is quite portrayed as a country where racism is both widespread and open. But France is idealized. Lewis quotes a Parisian club owner as telling a racist American patron that “you are in France … and here we treat all races the same.” Lewis no doubt accepts the claim, an overly simplistic and frankly inaccurate view of a country struggling with race to this day. But then again, this is a book that begins with Baker’s quote: “More is achieved by love than hate. “Hatred is the destruction of every race or nation.”

A fascinating subject at a crucial point in her life, Baker still does not come alive on the page and remains unrecognizable. Maybe her ability to hide and charm is the reason she was so good at espionage, but Lewis does not take much time to explore the question of how she perceived her own story. “I’m not lying. I’m improving my life,” she once told a journalist, but she is a complex woman who owned a Jewish prayer book, wore a djellaba in Marrakesh and had a Roman Catholic funeral when she died in 1975. .

What is compelling is the clumsy, strangely upscale team of supporting characters that surround her in her adventures. There is Captain Maurice Léonard Abtey, who commuted to work in Paris via kayak on the Seine; Father Dillard, a castle-born Jesuit resistance fighter; Hans Müssig, aka Thomas Lieven, “a Teutonic equivalent to James Bond”, whose life story was transformed into a thinly blurred book with the exceptional title “It Can’t Always Be Caviar.”

Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale is particularly memorable. A son of a ship magnate (and presumed role model for 007), he drives around in a driver-driven Rolls-Royce, wears an ebony cigarette holder and wears gold Cartier cufflinks. (The famous French jeweler makes so many cameo appearances in the book that Cartier should consider sponsoring or at least selling copies of the bracelet that Baker ordered for a lover, engraved with the letters PFQA – for “stronger than love.”)

Lewis points out that the war years were ultimately Baker’s growing age and true awakening. Baker returned to American scenes in 1951, where she was denied a room in New York, received threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan, and was the subject of rumors that she was a communist sympathizer. And yet she was ready to address her country of origin and its problems; Baker spoke at the March in Washington in 1963 before Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Does it really matter if Josephine Baker was a particularly active member of the French resistance movement or an actual spy? Not to the French government. Eventually she obtained the Medal of Resistance with the Palme, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur and was buried in the Pantheon. In short, all the equipment of a true French heroine.

Marisa Meltzer’s latest book is “This Is Big”, about the founder of Weight Watchers.

AGENT JOSEPHINE: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy, by Damien Lewis | Illustrated | 592 pp. | Public Affairs | $ 32

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