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Josephine Baker was the star France wanted and the spy she needed

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The ghostwriter, historically, has always been in the business of espionage. Subordinates survive by being vigilant and suspiciously gathering intelligence about those they work for. Flight from bondage, even from an identity, also involves espionage. Harriet Tubman was named Moses for a liberator who escaped caste boundaries when his mother placed him undercover among the reeds in this pitch-smeared basket. Brown skin could be covered in soot and stereotyping or scholarly tunes. George Harris, one of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s very yellow fugitives, achieved an inscrutable weirdness with the help of walnut bark: “A slight change in the hue of his skin and the color of his hair had metamorphosed into the Spanish-looking man he then appeared; and as grace of movement and courteous manners had always been perfectly natural to him, he found no difficulty in playing the bold part he had adopted.

In this respect, Joséphine Baker, who made her way to the heart of the Roaring Twenties—Roaring Twenties France—and played the civilized primitive when she arrived there, might have been the sweetest operator of the twentieth century. The most famous dancer, singer and nightclub entertainer of her time, she was both inescapable and elusive. She seduced Parisians for the first time in 1925 when she appeared on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, naked except for her feathers. The following year, at the Folies Bergère, audiences saw expanses of brown skin interspersed with pearls and a skirt strung with tumescent bananas. As her star rose, Baker was known to walk the streets of Paris with her companion Chiquita, a cheetah tied by a rope of diamonds. Without really laying eyes on the woman, a visitor to Paris would see her everywhere: in the photographs and on those Paul Colin posters, like a doll in a shop window, like Parisiennes wrapping their heads in Bakerfix ointment.

Who was she, really? Baker’s tributes are generally unsubtle and beatific, embodied by contemporary black inhabitants of the arts who have managed to do what Baker could not: carve out a stardom on American soil. Diana Ross, Beyoncé and Rihanna have starred in her figure; Lynn Whitfield received an Emmy when she starred in HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story” (1991). In “Frida” (2002), Baker maintains an affair with the main character, a nod to the free sexuality of each; she rumbas through “Midnight in Paris” (2011). Cush Jumbo directed an acclaimed tribute show, “Josephine and I,” in 2015, and Carra Patterson recently played her, with bizarre showgirl unease, in an episode of the horror series “Lovecraft Country.” Ruth Negga and Janelle Monáe are now set to take their turn, in a pair of TV series about her. Last November, Baker was inducted into the French Pantheon, the first woman of color to grace the hallowed monument, among figures such as Victor Hugo and Marie Curie. “The stereotypes, Josephine Baker takes them up,” said President Macron. “But she jostles them, digs them, transforms them into sublime burlesque. A spirit of the Enlightenment ridiculing the colonialist prejudices on the music of Sidney Bechet.

Even if Baker’s career had been limited to his role as an artist, it would have had the feel of a thriller. The racing profession of the time was bound to involve espionage: all identities are shams, and Baker had a chameleon gift for moving among them. But during the war years, she was also – as a new book, “Agent Josephine” (PublicAffairs), by British journalist Damien Lewis, recounts in plenty of fresh detail – a spy in the most literal sense. There was, after all, little that La Bakaire didn’t understand about the resistance.

“This is not a book telling the life story of Josephine Baker,” warns Lewis. Its saga, though it spans five hundred pages, is mostly about Baker’s service as a secret agent, and mostly confined to the dark years of World War II. There is also another sense, in which it is not the story of his life: the narrative is largely told by an assemblage of third parties. Lewis’s bibliography and notes clearly show how much he drew on interviews with veterans, the memoirs of agents, the private family archives of a British spymaster and the war records of the offices of intelligence, some of which was only made available to the public in 2020. But Baker maintained a code of silence about the seven years she spent fighting the Nazis and, Lewis writes, “went on her falls in 1975 taking many of these secrets with her”.

She might also be sneaky about other facts. Like many women of color eager to shape their destinies, Baker subjected her origin story to numerous revisions. “I’m not lying,” she said. “I make life better.” Her autobiographies can generously be described as free collaborations: “Les Mémoires de Joséphine Baker”, published in 1927, when she was twenty-one, and updated in the following years, was in draft form before she and her co-author, Marcel Sauvage, do not share a language. And once they did? “It would be completely funny then – and sometimes very difficult,” Sauvage wrote in the preface to the book. “Miss Baker doesn’t like to remember.” Her third autobiography, “Joséphine”, was published in 1977, two years after her death, compiled from files of notes, press clippings, documents and the draft of a memoir that her last husband, Jo Bouillon, had collected with the help of a co-author. The resulting baker is another assemblage, an “I” placed next to the testimony of other people who were enlisted, as Bouillon writes, “whenever information was missing”. More candid was the biography “Josephine: The Hungry Heart”, published in 1993 and written by her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker with journalist Chris Chase; the effort to sort through his mother’s various fictions is noted in its pages. “Josephine was a fabulist,” he wrote. “You couldn’t ask him for a strict count like you would a tailor measuring slipcovers.”

She had her reasons. “A black childhood is always kind of sad,” Baker told Sauvage. Hers began on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, when a locally famous dancehall girl, Carrie McDonald, delivered a baby she named Freda Josephine. The baby was plump and ended up being called Tumpy (for Humpty Dumpty), a nickname that persisted long after poverty had thinned her into a wanderer. The identity of his father remains contested, and becomes for Baker the occasion 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 residing in America. The shifting mythos was reflected in the ethnic promiscuity of her screen roles: the tropical daughter of a colonial official, possibly Spanish, in “La Sirene des Tropiques” (1927), a Tunisian Eliza Doolittle, in “Princess Tam-Tam” (1935).

Little Tumpy wanted to dance, but the opportunities were few. By 1921 Baker had fled her life in St. Louis and her second husband – she was all fifteen when she married the man, William Howard Baker – and was performing as a comedy choir among the Dixie Steppers, a traveling vaudeville troupe . Aiming higher, she booked a one-way ticket to New York, where she ended up working as a backstage dresser for the all-black revue “Shuffle Along.” When a touring cast member fell ill – it was only a matter of time – Baker stepped in with bubbly style. After the success of the series, 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 socialite and impresario named Caroline Dudley Reagan for a new production across the Atlantic. “La Revue Nègre” opened in Les Champs on October 2 of the same year. That evening, a featured was born.

Surely you must have been there. Reviewers have stumbled over gerunds in their efforts to validate the wriggling thing to print. In the jungle dreamscape “Danse Sauvage”, Baker, clad in little more than a feathered loincloth, stepped onto her male dance partner’s shoulders, upside down and in a split. André Levinson, perhaps the greatest ballet critic of the time, wrote:

It was as if the jazz, capturing the vibrations of this body in flight, interpreted word for word his fantastic monologue. . . . The gyrations of this cynical but joyful mountebank, the good-natured smile of his big mouth, suddenly give way to visions where good humor is totally absent. In the court pas de deux of the savages, which came in the finale of the Revue Nègre, there was a savage splendor and a magnificent animality.

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

At a certain moment, its efflorescence seems to deviate from linear narration, requiring a form adapted to the artistic flights of the time: collage. The appeal of La Joséphine—in Europe, at least; America has never run so hot for her – hyperbole exhausted. “The most sensational woman ever seen,” said Ernest Hemingway. “Beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic” was EE Cummings’ assessment. Le Corbusier, one of her lovers, dressed as a drag Baker, blackening his skin and wearing a feathered sash. George Balanchine gave her dance lessons; Alexander Calder sculpted it in wire. Adolf Loos, after a chance meeting, began sketching an architectural marvel called Baker House, with picture windows cut into an indoor swimming pool. But Baker’s power was not a matter of being lifted onto the shoulders of great men; she regarded most of them with equal indifference. In a 1933 interview, she missed the name of a famous Spanish painter: “You know, Pinazaro, or what’s his name, the one everyone talks about?” As Margo Jefferson observed of Baker, “She was her own devoted muse.”

In the thirties, Baker refined his visual signature. The show “Paris Qui Remue”, at the illustrious Casino de Paris, made this plain. The feathers had disappeared. Writing for this magazine, in 1930, Janet Flanner reported: “His caramel-colored body which overnight became a legend in Europe is still magnificent, but it has become lean, trained, almost civilized. A Parisian critic announced with more enthusiasm: “She left us a negress, funny and primitive; she returns a great artist.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds