Josephine Baker Was the Star France Wanted—and the Spy It Needed


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The Negro, historically, has always been in the espionage ­business. Subalterns survive by being watchful, warily gathering intelligence about those for whom they labor. The flight from servitude, even from an identity, involves spycraft, too. Harriet Tubman was called Moses for a liberator who slipped the confines of caste when his mother placed him undercover among the reeds in that pitch-daubed basket. Brown skin could be cloaked in soot and stereotype or in learned airs. George Harris, one of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s high-yellow fugitives, attained an inscrutable foreignness with the assistance of walnut bark: “A slight change in the tint of the skin and the color of his hair had metamorphosed him into the Spanish-looking fellow he then appeared; and as gracefulness of movement and gentlemanly manners had always been perfectly natural to him, he found no difficulty in playing the bold part he had adopted.”

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.”

She could be sly about other facts, too. Like many colored women intent on arranging their destiny, Baker subjected her origin story to copious revisions. “I don’t lie,” she said. “I improve on life.” Her autobiographies can generously be called loose collaborations: “Les Mémoires de Joséphine Baker,” published in 1927, when she was twenty-one, and updated in later years, was in drafts before she and her co-author, Marcel Sauvage, shared a language. And once they did? “It would then be thoroughly funny—and at times, very difficult,” Sauvage wrote in the book’s preface. “Miss Baker does not like to remember.” Her third autobiography, “Josephine,” was published in 1977, two years after her death, produced from folders of notes, press clippings, documents, and the rough draft of a memoir that her last husband, Jo Bouillon, pulled together with the assistance of a co-author. The resulting Baker is another assemblage, an “I” laid alongside the testimony of others who were enlisted, as Bouillon writes, “whenever there was ­information lacking.” More candid was the biography “Josephine: The Hungry Heart,” published in 1993 and written by her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker with the journalist Chris Chase; the effort to sort through his mother’s various fictions is notated in its pages. “Josephine was a fabulist,” he writes. “You couldn’t hold her to strict account as you could a tailor who measured slipcovers.”

She had her reasons. “A black childhood is always a little sad,” Baker told Sauvage. Hers began on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, when a dance-hall girl of local renown, Carrie McDonald, delivered a baby whom she named Freda Josephine. The baby was plump, and came to be called Tumpy (for Humpty Dumpty), a moniker that persisted well after poverty had thinned her into a ragamuffin. The identity of her father remains disputed, and became an opportunity for Baker to improvise. Lewis notes, “She had variously claimed that her father was a famous black lawyer, a Jewish tailor, a Spanish dancer, or a white German then resident in America.” The shifting myth was mirrored in the ethnic promiscuity of her on-screen roles: the tropical daughter of a colonial official, possibly Spanish, in “La Sirène des Tropiques” (1927), a Tunisian Eliza Doolittle, in “Princesse Tam-Tam” (1935).

Little Tumpy wanted to dance, but opportunities were scarce. By 1921, Baker had fled her St. Louis life and her second husband—she was all of fifteen when she married the man, William Howard Baker—and was performing as a comic chorine among the Dixie Steppers, a travelling vaudeville troupe. Aiming higher, she booked a one-way passage to New York, where she ended up working as a backstage dresser for the all-Black revue “Shuffle Along.” When a member of the touring cast fell ill—it was just a matter of time—Baker stepped in with fizzing style. After the show’s successful run, she landed a role in the 1924 Broadway musical “The Chocolate Dandies,” playing a blackface version of Topsy. She was nineteen when she was recruited by a society woman and impresario named Caroline Dudley Reagan for a new production across the Atlantic. “La Revue Nègre” opened at the Champs on October 2nd that year. That evening, a vedette was born.

You surely had to be there. Reviewers tripped over gerunds in their efforts to commit the wriggling thing to print. In the jungle dreamscape “Danse Sauvage,” Baker, wearing little more than a feathered loincloth, entered on the shoulders of her male dance partner, upside down and in a full split. André Levinson, perhaps the foremost ballet critic of the day, wrote:

It was as though the jazz, catching on the wing the vibrations of this body, was interpreting word by word its fantastic monologue. . . . The gyrations of this cynical yet merry mounte­bank, the good-natured grin on her large mouth, suddenly give way to visions from which good humor is entirely absent. In the short pas de deux of the savages, which came as the finale of the Revue Nègre, there was a wild splendor and magnificent animality.

He was sure he had glimpsed “the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire.”

At a certain point, her efflorescence seems to depart from linear narrative, demanding a form suited to the artistic flights of the era: collage. The appeal of La Joséphine—in Europe, at least; America never ran quite as hot for her—exhausted hyperbole. “The most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” Ernest Hemingway pronounced. “Beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic” was E. E. Cummings’s estimation. Le Corbusier, a lover of hers, dressed himself in Baker drag, blackening his skin and wearing a feathered waistband. George Balanchine gave her dance lessons; Alexander Calder sculpted her out of wire. Adolf Loos, after a chance meeting, started sketching an architectural wonder to be called Baker House, with viewing windows cut into an indoor swimming pool. But Baker’s power wasn’t a matter of being hoisted upon the shoulders of great men; she regarded most of them with equable indifference. In a 1933 interview, she flubbed the name of a ­notable Spanish painter: “You know, Pinazaro, or what is his name, the one everyone talks about?” As Margo Jefferson has observed of Baker, “She was her own devoted muse.”

By the thirties, Baker had refined her visual signature. The show “Paris Qui Remue,” at the illustrious Casino de Paris, made this plain. The feathers were gone. Writing for this magazine, in 1930, Janet Flanner reported, “Her caramel-colored body which overnight became a legend in Europe is still magnificent, but it has become thinned, trained, almost civilized.” A Paris critic announced, with greater enthusiasm, “She left us a négresse, droll and primitive; she comes back a great artist.”

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