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. Born into poverty in St. Petersburg Louis, she became a star of the Paris stage in the 1920s. Stories of her walking down the Champs-Élysées with her pet (and sometimes co-star), a cheetah named Chiquita, had already made her the stuff of legend. In “Agent Josephine,” the prolific historian Damien Lewis goes a step further in burning this legend, arguing that Baker was a spy for the British.

Or, more or less a spy. Lewis employs careful language to hedge the title’s bold assertion. In his author’s note, he writes that Baker told her biographer, Marcel Sauvage, “precious little about her wartime activities on behalf of the Allies, and very deliberately so. She rarely if ever spoke or wrote in detail about any of her wartime work, and went to her grave in 1975 taking many of her secrets with her.” A few pages later: “Baker had also played a little-known, clandestine role during the war, as a sometime resistance fighter and very possibly also a special agent or spy.”

Baker was certainly an active member of the French Resistance. At her former home, Château de Milande, there is an entire wing dedicated to her war work. Lewis is a verbose writer who can dedicate myriad pages to his own biography: “My father and my stepmother, Lesley, live in France, in a beautiful medieval-era chateau that they purchased in a near-ruin with cattle still living in some of the the buildings.” At times, he makes himself sound like the Indiana Jones of archival research, imbuing the process with drama: “I knew the files I wanted existed and were supposedly open to the public, but where no official actually seemed to be able to place their hands upon them.”

In his cinematic telling, Baker had a terrible tour of Germany and Austria in 1928, where she experienced firsthand the rise of fascism. During the early days of the war she volunteered at a Paris food bank. She became more active once the Nazis began to occupy her adopted home, signing on with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, an agency akin to the CIA that worked with the French counterespionage service the Deuxième Bureau. She convened a group at her chateau shortly after the 1940 fall of Paris to listen to a speech by de Gaulle.

Maurice Chevalier is used in the book as a kind of foil to Baker’s heroism and bravery. The two stars shared a stage in Paris, where they didn’t hit it off. While she was working for the Resistance, 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’s telling, there are deliberate echoes of Mata Hari, the World War I-era cabaret dancer who was found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans and shot. Baker certainly traded on her connections, including using her friendship with Miki Sawada, the wife of the Japanese ambassador to France, to gain embassy access. And she leveraged her own status as a celebrity — and a person who fit in nowhere and everywhere — as cover, employing a tour through Lisbon and on to Morocco in order to flee France.

She brought with her a menagerie of exotic pets, including her Great Dane, Bonzo; Glouglou the monkey; Mica the golden lion tamarin; Gugusse the marmoset; and two white mice named Bigoudi and Point d’Interrogation. Lewis’s assertion — 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 consciously created for herself. The book dips in and out of biography, cutting from World War II to her hardscrapble youth as the daughter of a teenage mother; she was raised largely by her grandmother, who had been born into slavery. The United States is fairly portrayed as a country where racism is both rampant and open. But France is idealized. Lewis quotes a Parisian club owner who tells a racist American patron that “you are in France … and here we treat all races the same.” Lewis unquestioningly accepts the assertion, an overly simplistic and frankly inaccurate view of a country that struggles with race to this day. But then, this is after all a book that begins with Baker’s quote: “More is achieved by love than hate. / Hate is the downfall of any race or nation.”

A fascinating subject at a pivotal time in her life, Baker still doesn’t come alive on the page and remains unknowable. Maybe her ability to conceal and charm are why she was so good at espionage, but Lewis doesn’t take much time to explore the question of how she conceived of her own story. “I don’t lie. I improve on life,” she once told a reporter. But she is a complex woman, one 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 ragtag, oddly posh crew of supporting characters who surrounded her in her adventures. There’s Capt. Maurice Léonard Abtey, who commuted to work in Paris via kayak on the Seine; Father Dillard, a chateau-born Jesuit resistance fighter; Hans Müssig, aka Thomas Lieven, “a Teutonic equivalent to James Bond” whose life story was turned into a thinly veiled book with the exceptional title “It Can’t Always Be Caviar.”

Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale is particularly memorable. A son of a shipping magnate (and supposed role model for 007), he rides around in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, uses an ebony cigarette holder and wears gold Cartier cuff links. (The famed French jeweler makes so many cameo appearances in the book that Cartier should consider sponsorship, or at least sell replicas of the bracelet Baker commissioned for a lover, engraved with the letters PFQA — for “plus fort que l’amour.”)

Lewis points out that, ultimately, the war years were Baker’s coming-of-age and true awakening. Baker returned to American stages in 1951, where she was refused 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 take on her country of origin and its problems; Baker spoke at the March on 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, or an actual spy? Not to the French government. In the end, she earned the Medaille de la Résistance Avec Palme, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur, and was buried in the Pantheon. All the accouterments, in short, of a true French heroine.

Marisa Meltzer’s most recent 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. | PublicAffairs | $32

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