Dancer, singer … Spy: France’s Panthéon honors Josephine Baker | espionage

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In November 1940, two passengers in Toulouse boarded a train to Madrid and then on to Lisbon. One was a striking black woman in expensive furs; the other is supposed to be her secretary, a blond Frenchman with a mustache and thick glasses.

Josephine Baker, Toast of Paris, the world’s first black female superstar, one of the most photographed women and Europe’s highest paid entertainer, traveled openly and in her usual way like herself – but she played a whole new role.

Her supposed assistant was Jacques Abtey, a French intelligence officer who is developing an underground spy network to gather strategic information and relay it to Charles de Gaulle’s London headquarters, where the two hoped to travel to Portugal.

Allegedly, they were on their way to exploring locations for Baker’s planned tour of the Iberian Peninsula. In reality, they carried secret details of German troops in western France, including photos of landing craft that the Nazis set up to invade Britain.

Much of the information has been written in invisible ink on the singer’s musical scores to reveal with lemon juice. The photos she had hidden in her underwear. The entire package was handed over to British agents at the Lisbon embassy – the Abtey and Baker said they were far more valuable assets in France than in London.

So Baker duly went back to occupied France. “She was immensely brave and absolutely committed,” said Hanna Diamond, a university professor from Cardiff, of Baker, who on Tuesday will be the first black woman to enter the Panthéon in Paris, the mausoleum for France’s “great men”.

Josephine Baker in uniform. Photo: Hi-Story / Alamy

“There’s a lot we don’t know, and may never find out, what exactly the espionage work she did, what secrets she actually shared,” said Diamond, an expert on WWII France who worked on a book about Baker’s acts of war researched.

“We know a lot from her life: the humble beginnings in Missouri, the international sensation of Paris in the 20s and 30s, the US civil rights activist, the mother of a multiracial adoptive family … That is not the case with the resistance heroine.”

President Emmanuel Macron decided this summer that, 46 years after her death, Baker would be only the sixth woman to be born on March 30.

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis in 1906, left school at the age of 12 and ended up in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921. Like many black American artists at the time, she moved to France to avoid discrimination.

“Black Venus”: Josephine Baker, 1935.
Photo: MARKA / Alamy

Emerging from the La Revue Nègre choir, she became a huge star by harnessing colonial, racist, and male-sexist fantasies in performances that both shocked and delighted audiences, gaining admirers from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.

Called “Black Venus”, she danced the Charleston in nothing but a pearl necklace and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas, played with a snake wrapped suggestively around her neck, strolled with her cheetah on the Champs-Élysées and became an international superstar.

Away from the stage, when the hits and main film roles followed one another, Baker had a scandalous personal life and had affairs with men and women, including the writer Colette, the architect Le Corbusier, and the Crown Prince of Sweden.

After the war she fought for equal rights in public as vigorously as at home, spoke to Martin Luther King during the 1963 March on Washington and adopted 12 children from all over the world who were to live with her in her castle in the Dordogne.

Josephine Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon stroll through the Tuileries in Paris with seven of their adopted children.
Josephine Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon stroll through the Tuileries in Paris with seven of their adopted children. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

However, their espionage activities during the war are – for obvious reasons – rather less reliably documented. Much of what is known, said Diamond, who recently released a first expanded essay on the main source on Baker’s war, comes from a book Abtey published in 1948.

“He was a loner figure – a bit of an operator,” she said. “He was clearly telling his own story, making his own case, at least as much as he was telling hers. He wasn’t, shall we say, disinterested, and it’s proving difficult to track down original source material to verify his account. “

What is certain, however, is that Abtey Baker recruited after meeting her – reluctantly – in late 1939, introduced by a patriotic promoter. Determined to show her gratitude to the country she had made and contribute to the war effort, the star has already performed for Allied troops and worked with refugees for the Red Cross. (Later in the war she refused to appear for Germans).

“She had an unconditional love for France. She wanted to do her part patrie,Said Diamond. “She also intuitively understood the dangers of National Socialism. She helped Lion and his Jewish family escape the Germans. She had little formal education, but she combined Nazism with the racism she knew.”

Abtey was skeptical of what Baker could offer and skeptical of what a female superstar could realistically do. But she persuaded him to take a test for her, sent her to the Italian embassy, ​​where she extracted sensitive information from an attaché and successfully brought it back.

Abtey, who is widely believed to be the singer’s occasional lover, became her caregiver. He trained her in basic espionage techniques – invisible ink, writing on her arm, reading upside down – but soon realized that her real usefulness lay in her magnetic charm and effortless role-changing ability. She was an actress, and espionage would be her greatest part.

Josephine Baker, right, as a volunteer with the Free French Women's Air Aid.
Josephine Baker, right, as a volunteer with the Free French Women’s Air Aid. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“It undermines our idea of ​​what espionage is,” said Diamond. “It’s a delusion to disappear under the radar. But here is this huge star hiding in sight. Nobody suspects them. And most importantly, she can travel anywhere and take an entourage with her. This is priceless for Abtey. As much as she is a spy, she is an espionage broker. “

Baker did so from early 1941. Having been instructed by London to settle in North Africa, she and Abtey traveled to Morocco. The singer traveled from Casablanca to Lisbon, Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, ​​gave concerts, attended receptions in her honor, flattered attachés, politicians and envoys – and gave handwritten notes, mostly attached to her bra, to British agents.

She was seriously ill with blood poisoning for a few months, possibly after a miscarriage. But even during her recovery, her sickroom became a place for secret meetings where diplomats, personalities and officials were called to Baker’s bedside, where gossip was exchanged and secrets were smuggled out.

Josephine Baker performs on stage before an audience that includes a number of uniformed military personnel, Casablanca, Morocco, 1943.
Josephine Baker performs on stage before an audience that includes a number of uniformed military personnel, Casablanca, Morocco, 1943. Photo: PhotoQuest / Getty Images

With North Africa, now De Gaulle’s operational and administrative springboard after the Allied invasion of 1942, Baker traveled through the region again after her recovery, giving concerts for the troops, collecting donations for the resistance – and collecting information along the way. In 1944 she volunteered as a female air force helper.

“She absolutely saw herself as a soldier,” said Diamond. “She saw what she was doing as the best and most effective way to wage her war. And while there is this uncertainty about what exactly she passed on, she certainly passed a lot on. “

Ultimately, according to Diamond, Baker “realized very early on that she could use her celebrity for a good cause. And she did. She took great risks. She deserves her Legion of Honor – and her Croix de Guerre. “


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