Kirkus Reviews QR Code


American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy

by Damien Lewis

Pub Date: July 12th, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-5417-0066-6
Publisher: PublicAffairs

A breathless, sympathetic chronicle of the wartime exploits of Josephine Baker (1906-1975).

Rather than crafting a conventional biography, Lewis concentrates on the wartime years, creating a heroic portrait of the selfless, brave, somewhat reckless, pioneering, unswervingly patriotic spy for the Allies who was active even before the Nazi occupation of Paris, where she lived and worked. In a suspenseful, serpentine narrative, the author piles on the detail about Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in France, an agency that worked closely with the Deuxième Bureau, France’s counterespionage service. All were locked in an intelligence battle with the Abwehr, “Nazi Germany’s much expanded intelligence service,” which “sought to overwhelm and subvert her enemies.” Baker, who had been performing in Paris since the early 1920s—after fleeing her impoverished Jim Crow youth in St. Louis and experiencing further hardship in New York City—was running her own club, Chez Josephine, and hobnobbing with admirers of all nationalities. Due to her line of work, she was effective in feeling out the allegiances of significant figures from Italy, Japan, and Spain without raising suspicion. Baker’s Deuxième Bureau supervisor, Capt. Jacques Abtey, also became her lover. “Theirs would prove an intense and tumultuous affair,” writes Lewis, “but one with a special magic all of its own.” After being forced to retreat during the occupation, they worked in various remote locales and slipped effortlessly across national borders. Lewis shows readers how Baker’s difficult life experiences served her well as an agent. “Josephine had never once had it easy,” he writes. “At every stage she had had to fight, to graft and to work unbelievably hard to get ahead. Josephine was blessed with a core of steely fortitude—an unbreakable spirit that was hard wired into her soul.” The author also explores how her wartime work profoundly affected the rest of her life, imperiling her health but also setting her on the postwar course of civil rights activism.

A complex, entertaining story of intrigue and sangfroid involving a beloved, courageous hero.