S. Lee Manning: I have an affinity for jazz, France, and spies, so for my post this month, I chose to celebrate someone who combined all three.
Many people know that Josephine Baker was an American jazz star, celebrated in France, who in her later years worked for civil rights.
Did you also know she was a spy? While most spies strive to be invisible, Josephine’s very fame allowed her to become a valuable asset against the Nazis.
Her story starts with a rise from poverty to stardom.
Josephine Baker was born in a poor black neighborhood in St. Louis and was hired out to a white woman as a maid when she was eight years old. At sixteen, she joined a dance troop and eventually wound her way to New York and the Cotton Club.
She took the last name of a man she’d married briefly in 1921. In 1925, she left for Paris, which offered her freedoms not available to a black woman in the United States and became an international sensation, promoting “le jazz hot.”
Appearing almost naked except for a string of rubber bananas around her waist, she sparked an
international craze for banana-clad Josephine Baker dolls. By 1936, she was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. She lived the glamorous life of a star, covered with jewels, strolling in Paris with her pet cheetah. In 1936, she traveled back to New York for a show, but horrified by the prejudice against her as a black woman performer, she returned to Paris. In 1937, she became a French citizen.
The start of World War II changed everything.
In 1939, she toured the front lines, doing shows for the French soldiers. But her more secret work came with her recruitment by the Deuxieme Bureau, the French intelligence service. As a star, she attended embassy parties thrown by the Italian and Japanese embassies, and diplomats would attend her glamorous affairs – which put her in a perfect position to overhear information.
She would scribble information on her arms, even her hands, and report back to Jacque Abtey, her handler. She brushed off the risk to herself, saying no one would suspect her.
Following the fall of France, things became more dangerous.
Abtey, who was also her lover, holed up in her estate. After the Germans in August 1940 banned black and Jewish entertainers from appearing on stage, Abney and Josephine devised a plan for her to take information from France to British intelligence. With Abtey posing as her ballet instructor, Josephine traveled to Lisbon for a scheduled performance, delivering notes written in invisible ink on her music. The two succeeded in their mission and received new orders. From Lisbon, they traveled to Casablanca to set up a liaison station.
In Casablanca, she continued to mingle with diplomats and continued to gather information. Abtey remained in Casablanca, while she traveled back and forth to Lisbon. According to legend, she not only concealed messages on her music, but also would pin messages inside her bra. After a stillbirth, she was hospitalized in Casablanca for eighteen months. After the Americans captured the city, she was tapped by General De Gaulle to entertain troops in North Africa, and her image was used for propaganda for the Free French.
At the end of the war, her efforts earned her the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance.
After the war, her life was tumultuous, and she lost most of her fortune. But she continued to fight for civil rights. While not a featured speaker during King’s 1963 March on Washington, she offered her thoughts during the introduction to the main speakers, saying in that address: I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents… But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee….
In 1975, she died of a stroke at the age of 68, a few days after her last appearance on the stage. Twenty thousand people lined the streets of Paris to say farewell – and she received a 21-gun salute,
making her the first American woman to be buried in France with full military honors.
Bravo, Josephine, a true rogue woman.
What an incredible and intriguing story — one I did not know. Thank you so much for researching and writing about this amazingly talented woman who became a spy….I mean, who knew??? It sounds like a story that you could turn into a terrific thriller — what do you think? Great post.
I've been fascinating by Josephine Baker for years, but had never heard all of what you've revealed, S. Lee. Thank you for bringing her to life!
Wow, what an amazing woman and an equally amazing story! (Loved the part about the invisible ink on the sheet music).
She was quite a woman. I didn't know all this until I did the research for the post.