Celebrities, by definition, live life out in the open. Spies, on the other hand, are happiest in the shadows. But rules are made to be broken. In this True Spies trilogy, Sophia Di Martino tells the stories of three spies whose fame and fortune was no obstacle to their espionage. Whether they used their notoriety to their advantage or operated in spite of it, these glamorous part-time spooks had a hand in the clandestine history of the 20th century. In the third and final installment of Celebrity Spies, triple-threat superstar Josephine Baker weaponizes her unstoppable charisma in the service of the French resistance during WWII. Armed only with charm and a fierce passion for freedom, Josephine goes up against Hitler's Gestapo in a crucial mission to smuggle secret intelligence out of Occupied France.
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Celebrity Spies, Part 3: The Josephine Baker Effect

++Content Warning: This episode contains racist themes in a historical context.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Josephine didn't have a choice but to fight. 

NARRATOR: Celebrity Spies, Part 3: The Josephine Baker Effect.

DAMIEN LEWIS: One day in the summer of 1940, not long after she's retreated, Josephine finds that there is a squad of German troops surrounding the chateau. All the exits are, you know, guarded and sealed. And a German colonel in full uniform comes into the chateau and demands to see her. 

NARRATOR: The year is 1940. The location is France, about 300 miles south of Paris. World War Two is raging. The Nazis have overrun most of Europe. Of the major powers, only Great Britain stands in the way of total victory for Hitler and his murderous onslaught. The Germans made an armistice with the French authorities, establishing a collaborative government under the premiership of the elderly Marshal Pétain. ‘Vichy France’, as it became known, was a ‘free zone’, officially independent. But in reality, the Vichy government was a Nazi puppet regime. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: It's policed by something called the Armistice Commission. An organization set up by Berlin, which basically was a cover for the Gestapo and SS and other unpleasant individuals to wander about the free zone of France.

NARRATOR: Our guide through this incredible tale is acclaimed author Damien Lewis. Lewis has written the definitive account of this episode’s celebrity true spy: Josephine Baker. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: When I first heard that Josephine Baker had been a World War Two spy ten years ago and I thought, well, that's impossible. How could someone who's so high profile, so instantly recognizable, so iconic, serve as an agent of the shadows? 

NARRATOR: And come to the attention of the Armistice Commission, aka the Gestapo, who has just shown up at her door. Perhaps you’ve heard of Josephine Baker… You might know her as an American-born dancer and singer. The emigre who by 1937 was a French citizen entertaining Paris’s elite at the Folies-Bergère. She was one of the most famous entertainers in the world at the time. But the war doesn’t discriminate. In 1940, along with nearly two-thirds of Paris, she fled the capital when the city fell to German occupation, moving to the so-called Free Zone in the South. And now she was facing a German colonel, flanked by a cohort of armed Nazis, demanding entrance to her home so they could search it. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: Someone has gone to. The Gestapo said, look. Josephine Baker is hoarding arms and intelligence and resistors at a chateau and more. In fact, you know that she's also trying to make contact with the allies. So he confronts her and says, look, you know, there has been a denunciation, and we understand that you're doing X, Y, and Z.

NARRATOR: What happened next was as unexpected as it was extraordinary.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And she basically says, how dare you to come here and say these things to me, with icy disdain. She says… is it worse to be denounced or to believe the denouncer, as you have done?

NARRATOR: Completely thrown, the Colonel tries another approach, and asks if Josephine will invite him in for coffee so they can discuss the accusations.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And she said, “Well, I would if we had any coffee, but we don't have any. And why do we not have any coffee? Because Nazi Germany has invaded and everything's in short supply.”

NARRATOR: She doesn’t stop there. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: Why don’t you leave? Leave France, which you've invaded illegally, and then come back again as friends. And then I'll gladly sit down with you and invite you to a cup of coffee.

NARRATOR: The Colonel is so overwhelmed that he orders his men to retreat. They pack up and leave the chateau without even conducting a basic search. What the Colonel had just experienced was something that was known as the Josephine Baker Effect. Initially, it was a phrase coined by one of her dancers who’d witnessed her incredible ability to seduce audiences night after night on stage.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It was her ability to reach out from the stage and to touch every single one of her audience, every man and woman, and make it seem as if she was singing and dancing and performing specifically for him or for her. 

NARRATOR: But it was a skill that she was able to deploy equally effectively off-stage, sometimes to disarm her enemies - even ones carrying machine guns. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: It was this magical quality which very, very few performers have. And Josephine had it in spade-fulls in a way that he had never seen before or since. 

NARRATOR: Josephine had to put the Gestapo off the scent. Because every single one of the Colonel’s accusations was true. If he and his soldiers had turned up just minutes earlier, they would have found themselves bumping into two agents from the Deuxième Bureau, the French intelligence service that had been driven underground by the Nazi occupation. Josephine’s chateau had become a hub for the fledgling French Resistance movement. A haven for spies to store intelligence and seek shelter. Josephine Baker - Black, American, famous - was an agent of the Deuxième Bureau. And she was about to embark on her most daring mission. One that would see her weaponize her glamorous image and raw charisma in the service of liberté, égalité, and the continent she called home.

DAMIEN LEWIS: What would have happened to Josephine had she been unmasked? Well, death would have been a very good thing. Let's be frank about it. Had the Gestapo got hold of her and had proof? …very, very bad things would have happened to Josephine Baker.

NARRATOR: To understand how a young girl born into poverty in a segregated America ended up altering the direction of the Second World War, we need to go back to the start. Like so many of our True Spies, the seeds of Josephine Baker’s legendary charisma and extraordinary courage were sown in a difficult childhood.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She was a fighter. From her earliest days. And she saw no other option but to fight for what she cherished.

NARRATOR: Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3rd, 1906, to a black mother and a white father. This was the time of the segregationist ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the South, and Black and mixed-heritage Americans were considered second-class citizens by the white majority.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It's unclear exactly who her father was. It could have been a white German guy. It could have been a Hispanic guy. It's just unclear. And all through her life, she was never clear about that herself. 

NARRATOR: From the start, Josephine was conflicted about her identity. So much so that she would never give the same answer twice as to who her father really was. In fact, the question of her origins became a theme of the skillful manipulation of her public image in the years to come. Josephine’s mother, Carrie, was herself an entertainer. While black culture had been driven underground in the early part of the 20th century, it was thriving if you knew where to look. And Carrie was immersed in this world and would talk of the ragtime pianos pounding through the night as prostitutes sang blues songs in the red-light district.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Her relationship with her mother was obviously close, but it was fraught. Very, very fraught. I think Josephine's mother and this is, you know, what Josephine herself maintained, blamed her in some ways for cutting her own career on the stage short when she fell pregnant with Josephine, who was the firstborn, and she had stopped performing. So there was this kind of, there was this tension all the way through her childhood growing up.

NARRATOR: When she was just 13 years old, Josephine was married off to a man of 30 to reduce the financial burden on her family. The marriage didn’t last. The couple split after Josephine attacked her husband with a beer bottle. Soon Josephine started to dream of a life away from poverty and the racist South. She became a chorus girl, performing in small dive bars. She moved to Philadelphia, where she married again, at 15. She kept this husband’s name, Baker, for the rest of her life. And all the while Josephine worked relentlessly on improving her act. In 1924, she moved to New York and it was here, while living in Harlem, that her career started to take off. But once again, married life clashed with Josephine’s hunger and drive to escape the limitations of her upbringing.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It fell apart on Josephine's ambition to make it and to make it as a stage star. A star of the stage first and then, of course, screen and song as well.

NARRATOR: Working as a dancer, Josephine caught the eye of an impresario named Caroline Dudley Reagan. Reagan saw huge potential in Josephine and convinced her to come to Paris to star in a brand-new show she was putting together. It was 1925. Aged just 19, Josephine embarked on the transatlantic voyage to the country that would become her adopted home. Paris in the 1920s was one of the focal points in all of Europe for a new kind of bohemian artist. It was wild, risqué, and flourishing teeming with expatriate Americans like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway - the latter briefly becoming one of Josephine’s lovers. And rather than being abused for the color of her skin, Josephine was celebrated for it. Albeit within the context of the racial attitudes of the time.

DAMIEN LEWIS: So Josephine arrives in Paris to star in the Revue Nègre, which is, you could say it's a risky, provocative show, which kind of brings to the fore the French and the European fascination at that time with the black African archetype. 

NARRATOR: Even for the liberal Parisians, Le Revue Nègre was shocking. While Josephine’s act lasted less than an hour, she performed virtually naked, putting on a sexually charged turn that drove audiences wild. She quickly became a sensation. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: One of the things which really defines her and makes her stand out, it's her ability, you know, on stage and offstage to make Paris believe it has the right or Parisians to believe they have the right to party again. 

NARRATOR: As her fame and fortune grew, so she became more outlandish and flamboyant. She amassed a collection of exotic pets, including monkeys that would often disrupt performances by running into the orchestra pit. And, most famously, a cheetah.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She's the most photographed woman in the world prior to the war. She's this iconic figure, this image of her with a cheetah, Chiquita, which was bought for her by one of her impresarios, one of her managers who realized that it was a brilliant prop, a showbiz prop. So with cheetah Chiquita on its diamond-studded leash, you know, stalking the streets of Paris, this becomes the iconic image of the time and the age and of Josephine, the superstar.

NARRATOR: Soon film companies came calling, and Josephine went on to star in a handful of films. She also embarked on several tours, taking the show beyond Paris as far away as South America. By the age of twenty, Josephine was earning five thousand dollars a month and transferred to the infamous Folies-Bergère. With the world at her feet, she decided to return to America as part of her world tour. Expecting a warm welcome, Josephine was offered a chilling reminder of how far behind the Americans still were. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: There are scenes of her in New York, you know, crying her eyes out because she realizes nothing's changed. And so she does, you know, turn her back on the States. She embraces France, embraces French citizenship and, you know, embraces this country, which she says has made me all that I am.

NARRATOR: But in free, bohemian Europe, a storm is gathering. Fascism is beginning to take hold in Italy, Spain, and now Germany. And Josephine is about to be caught in the center.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Mid to late 1930s, Josephine's actually performed in Germany, in Berlin, she took the review to Berlin and she took the city by storm, absolutely.

NARRATOR: But by her second visit, in the late 30s, Josephine is greeted by a very different Germany. By now she was married to a Jewish man, an industrialist named Jean Lion. Josephine is appalled at the rampant anti-Semitism that she finds sweeping through the German capital. In one of her five autobiographies, she recalled an incident in which she witnessed a Jewish shopkeeper being humiliated by German soldiers.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She’s left America, and fought tooth and nail to be allowed to be herself.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And suddenly, with the rise of Nazi Germany, she sees the specter of the possibility that that will be taken away. 

NARRATOR: As someone who knew firsthand what it was like to fear for your life on the grounds of your race, she was determined to oppose these fascist thugs.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She's very outspoken, very, very outspoken against the rise of Nazism. 

NARRATOR: So outspoken that she came to the attention of the Nazi high command.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Joseph Goebbels identifies her as an enemy of the Nazi state.

NARRATOR: Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s vicious propaganda minister and as pure an embodiment of evil as has ever existed. However, the Nazis’ campaign of misinformation was so effective that many refused to believe they posed a real threat to European security. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: Their propaganda prior to the war which they flooded France with, was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And basically, the message was, why would we want to attack France? We are anti-communist and of course, will be attacking, you know, eastwards. We'll be pushing eastwards to stop the rise of communism. And it worked.

NARRATOR: In the run-up to the German invasion, not everyone believed the claims put forward by Hitler’s propaganda machine. A handful of members of the French intelligence agency, the Deuxième Bureau, led by a man named Paul Paillole were highly skeptical. And they needed help gaining intelligence that would support their fears that Hitler was about to attempt an all-out invasion of both France and Britain.

DAMIEN LEWIS: The French and British intelligence services shouting their warnings. They knew what was coming and no one was listening. No one in power was listening. 

NARRATOR: After the First World War, a war that tore apart Europe, nobody in Western Europe could even conceive that there might be another war.

DAMIEN LEWIS: The intelligence services of France and Britain and other nations were woefully run down. You know, their budgets were cut. They had very few staff.

NARRATOR: While the French intelligence service was being wound down, the Germans had flooded Europe with operatives of their own, known as the Abwehr military intelligence. Outmatched, with their funds severely depleted, the Deuxième Bureau had no choice but to employ civilian spies. These were people recruited from professions that would allow them access to sensitive information. Known as Honourable Correspondents, they were volunteers working for free, which is just as well, as the Bureau could barely pay its full-time staff. And celebrities like Josephine Baker were high on the recruitment list.

DAMIEN LEWIS: There is a tradition of showbiz people being honorable correspondents for the very same reasons. They travel the world, move in high society circles, have lots of luggage, and have lots of notes taken. It's another very good cover. 

NARRATOR: It’s at this point that a key player enters our story: Captain Jacques Abtey. Abtey was a highly regarded Secret Agent who worked directly under the head of the Deuxième Bureau, Paul Paillole. Abtey was the epitome of the classic spy. Raised in Alsace, multi-lingual and immensely brave, the handsome, charming Abtey had been approached by his boss to consider recruiting Josephine Baker into the elite ranks of Honourable Correspondents. At first, Abtey would have none of it.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And the reason for the reticence was twofold. First of all, you know, we're talking 1937, 38, and at that time, you know, women were not seen as being good spies. It's as simple as that. That was the attitude of the predominantly male espionage world. 

NARRATOR: But Abtey had another, perhaps more justifiable concern. Josephine was a performer, and he was skeptical that she could hold her nerve under pressure.

DAMIEN LEWIS: They feared that Josephine - and I'm paraphrasing - but it's words to the effect that would be one of those high-flying showbiz personalities who would shatter like glass at the first hint of any danger. And that goes back to her image, you know, her flashy image with the cheetah and the diamonds and the ball gowns and all the rest of it. 

NARRATOR: But with Germany’s Abwehr agents swarming into the French capital, the Bureau needed all the help they could get. Paillole insisted that Abtey at least meets with Josephine to assess her suitability for the job. The result of that meeting would change the course of history. Abtey travels out to le Vesinet in the suburbs of Paris, to Josephine’s neo-Gothic chateau, and meets with her. Abtey needn't have worried about Josephine Baker’s commitment or nerve. In fact, she was already engaged in helping the victims of Nazi aggression. As refugees poured into Paris in the wake of Hitler’s march on Europe, Josephine would perform at night and then head down to the homeless shelters to help out.

DAMIEN LEWIS: He turned up there expecting to see Josephine in an archetypal way. Ball gown, dripping in jewelry, exotic pets on all, on every arm. And instead, there's a cry from the bushes in her garden, a figure emerges dressed in a battered, felt cap and gardening trousers. And it's Josephine. And actually, she's got in her hand, she's holding a battered, rusty tin can, and it's full of snails. And what she'd been doing is gathering snails from the grounds to feed to her ducks. 

NARRATOR: Unbeknown to Abtey, he was about to get his first dose of the Josephine Baker Effect.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She invites him into the chateau, into her home. The butler serves them champagne in front of the roaring fireplace, and he sits down with her. He then has to pop the question, would you like to spy for France? 

NARRATOR: Josephine looked him squarely in the eye and said: “I am ready, Captain, to give my life to France.” Abtey is both overwhelmed and delighted by the magnetism, the sheer audacity of his new recruit. The appeal cuts both ways, and the pair soon became lovers. Josephine’s first test was to prove herself capable of gathering intelligence in the high society circles she could access. And she also had something else to prove. She had herself been taken in by the Italian fascist leader Mussolini's strong man act and supported his invasion of Ethiopia. He’d entered the West African country on the grounds that he was there to stamp out slavery. When it was clear he intended no such thing, Josephine quickly saw the error of her ways. And now was the chance for her to turn the tables.

DAMIEN LEWIS: The Allies do not know what the Italian government is planning to do if Nazi Germany declares war. What would the Italians do? It's a key thing strategically, the control of the Mediterranean is absolutely defined by that. And so Abtey says, go find out from the Italians what their intentions are.

NARRATOR: Abtey also makes sure Josephine receives basic training in spycraft. He teaches her to use a gun and how to work with invisible ink, which back then was one of the key ways intelligence was hidden from interested parties. But as he was soon to learn, her greatest weapon wasn’t one that he could supply. It was her own charisma. It was the Josephine Baker Effect. Josephine quickly inveigles herself with the Italian ambassador and gets him to disclose Mussolini’s plans to side with the Germans. Scribbling the intelligence on her arms and hands, Josephine took it straight to Abtey. Abtey was then able to dispatch the intelligence to his British counterparts. It was a stunning achievement and one that more than proved Josephine’s capabilities as an Honorable Correspondent. But a far greater challenge was to come. Between May and June 1940, the German invasion of France was underway. Shocking as it seemed to some, the French government quickly caved. But not shocking to all. Again, the intelligence agents led by Paillole and Abtey had tried to sound the alarm, but it went unheeded. Nonetheless, once the Armistice had been declared, the Deuxième Bureau had to go underground. Worse still, the close lines of communication between French and British intelligence were severed. In a famous address to his own intelligence chiefs, Churchill declared: “France has gone dark”. But that’s not to say that the Deuxième Bureau had stopped operating. In fact, they were working harder than ever. The problem was they had no way of getting the information out. Churchill was adamant that this problem had to be solved.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Churchill is very clear about the fact that if France remains dark, the war is lost. We have not one agent, not one source, not one radio operational in France, sending us intelligence. How can we hope to win the Battle of Britain or survive Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of the UK by Nazi Germany, how can we hope to strike back if we know nothing about what's going on in France? I need agents back in there. I need visibility. 

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Abtey urged Josephine to get out of Paris as fast as possible. She packed up her menagerie of pets and as many of her valuable possessions as she could, and traveled down to the Dordogne. She had fallen in love with a fourteenth-century Chateau, Les Milandes. She quickly rented it and soon it became a haven for the fledgling French Resistance that was just beginning to take shape at this time. The Deuxième Bureau had reformed under the cover of something called the Rural Development Agency. Paillole and Abtey, masquerading as “rural advisors” - could travel freely in occupied France gathering intelligence. But now the challenge was getting this intelligence out of the country and into the hands of the British. Furthermore, it was only going to be a matter of time before the entire operation would be compromised. There was no doubt in Josephine or Abtey’s minds that the so-called Armistice Commission would return to her chateau. They had to act fast.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It's on the back of that colonel from the German Armistice Commission visiting the chateau that they presented her with this mission.

NARRATOR: Abtey laid out the plan.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It's to take all the intelligence gathered during that hiatus. So from the invasion of France by Nazi Germany to this date, and we're now talking in the autumn of 1940 to take off all of the intelligence that's been gathered by the French Underground Intelligence Service now and to somehow spirit that to the UK, to Britain, which at that stage was the only dog in the fight. 

NARRATOR: But the question remained: how? This is where Josephine’s celebrity came in. The plan was to arrange a tour - a real tour - that would take Josephine to, amongst other places, Lisbon in neutral Portugal, where British Intelligence had operators on the ground. And then something happened that made the mission all the more urgent.

DAMIEN LEWIS: A young Frenchman turns up at the Chateau Gates. Le Besnarais is his name, and he demands to see Josephine. And of course, she doesn't know who he is and she doesn't want to see him because she's very concerned. It's the day after the Gestapo visits her chateau. 

NARRATOR: She had every reason to suspect this unexpected visitor was some kind of a ploy to entrap her. But how could she be sure?

DAMIEN LEWIS: So she invites him into the kitchen of the chateau and he says, "Look, I've got a suitcase full of intelligence here. It's all the signals of the Luftwaffe that the French has been able to gather, including from their air bases from which they will be flying the missions for the Battle of Britain and subsequently the Blitz. It's all that information I’ve got it in my suitcase."

NARRATOR: If true, this would be an astonishing win for French intelligence. Josephine is joined by Jacques Abtey later that day, who agrees that the young Frenchman’s methods feel too amateur to be anything other than a clumsy trap.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And he says exactly the same thing. Look, you just need to get on the first train back to where you come from because we do not know what you're talking about. 

NARRATOR: But then, after the young man leaves, Josephine and Abtey start to wonder if the amateurish nature of the approach is in fact what makes the young man’s offer an authentic one.

DAMIEN LEWIS: They get the local police chief, who's part of the resistance network that they're building to come to the chateau, and they go with him to the local station, and eventually they track this guy down. 

NARRATOR: The young man hands over the materials. Josephine and Abtey realize that this, combined with the hoard of intelligence gathered since the German occupation, now in Josephine’s possession, represents a gold mine of critical information that must be smuggled out at the earliest opportunity.

DAMIEN LEWIS: If Josephine can somehow get all this intelligence to Lisbon, it can be, in theory, delivered to the British Embassy, and handed over to that cell. And from there, there are regular flights by BOAC, the forerunner to British Airways, which were going pretty much daily from Lisbon to Bristol Airport. And so it could be flown back to the UK. 

NARRATOR: Using her connections, Josephine secures a transit visa for Abtey, who will be accompanying her.

DAMIEN LEWIS: So Jacques Abtey is traveling under a false passport. He's now Jacques Herbé. He's got a false name. He's grown a mustache which Josephine teases him and looks appalling. He's wearing glasses. He's aged himself in his passport. Because you have to be over a certain age to be allowed to leave France as a male. And he is, in theory, a former ballet teacher from Marseilles who's now serving as Josephine's impresario, a tour manager.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile the tour has started to be advertised. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: So the posters are on the streets. Josephine Baker is coming. The archetypal images of her, the press are reporting on it. It is the perfect cover. 

NARRATOR: Now they had to solve the question of how to transport the intelligence. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: They had photographs of the invasion craft that Nazi Germany was going to use to launch Operation Sea Lion. Those photographs had to go as raw intelligence. They had all the, all the details of the German plans to use Ireland as a backdoor to invade Britain, which, you know, became very real. Submarines landed agents on the Irish coast. They had plans to invade Gibraltar.

NARRATOR: Much of the ‘hard’ intelligence - like the photographs - had to be stored in the vast collection of luggage and tour trunks that Josephine would be expected to carry with her. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: And so this was a massive kind of caravan that went with Josephine Baker on tour.

NARRATOR: There was so much intelligence that Josephine even had some of it stowed away in her underwear. The rest of the information was transcribed, in invisible ink, onto the sheet music that Josephine would also be taking with her.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It’s Colonel Paillole, who says, you know, the future of the Allied cause was written on the score sheets of J'ai Deux Amours, or which was Josephine's kind of theme tune, the song that had been written for her.

NARRATOR: But then Abtey receives word that the Nazis have located the headquarters of the Deuxième Bureau in Paris. He knows they will have obtained files and possibly even names of the Bureau’s operatives. There could well be a warrant out for Abtey. The whole plan was now in jeopardy.

DAMIEN LEWIS: It would immediately uncover her as well. She would immediately fall under suspicion and thereby she'd be searched and the game would be up.

NARRATOR: On November 30th, 1940, they set off. First by train, through the South of France, across the Spanish border, and into the Pyrenees before stopping again in Madrid and picking up a plane to Lisbon. It was a journey fraught with danger, not least because it was littered with checkpoints, crawling with uniformed Vichy officers and plainclothes agents of the Gestapo. Picture this: the most famous woman in the world, her spymaster who also happened to be her lover, and her entourage, carrying a cache of intelligence so critical it could determine the outcome of the war. They reach the border between France and Spain. Inevitably word had gone ahead that none other than Josephine Baker was on the train. The checkpoint guards and Gestapo officers were waiting. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: She gets down from the train carriage, resplendent in pearls and diamonds and her finest furs looking a million dollars. 

NARRATOR: It was now that the Josephine Baker effect would face its greatest test.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Bear in mind, they've just encountered a load of refugees, a load of Jewish refugees at the last station in France. And it's a horrendous, bruising experience for them both, especially for Josephine, being that she has herself been forced out of her homeland.

NARRATOR: And don’t forget, too, that beneath her finery Josephine is hiding some of the intelligence they so desperately need to smuggle to the Allies. Josephine walks towards the waiting officers and suddenly smiles that winning smile, greeting them like long-lost friends. The guards take in this extraordinary apparition. They exchange glances with the Gestapo officers.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And the most incredible thing is all those people who should stop and search and question her and suspect her, do the opposite. They see Josephine, they can't believe it's her, and they actually end up calling their girlfriends, their wives, and their friends to get a photograph taken with Josephine Baker, the superstar because she's there.

NARRATOR: The power of Josephine’s celebrity combined with her flawless performance throws all of the agents off the scent.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And so she breezes on that platform with her trunks in tow, with all that intelligence stuffed inside them. And not a person at any moment thinks to stop her or search or find out what she's carrying. 

NARRATOR: This pattern continues for the rest of the journey. Every time they are stopped, Josephine turns up the star wattage and the enemy agents are powerless to resist. They reach Madrid and the waiting BOAC flight that will take them to Lisbon. However, one thing they don’t factor in is that airport security is even tighter than the border checkpoints.

DAMIEN LEWIS: When they go through the airport, they are menaced by, you know, lots of the enemy. There are Luftwaffe aircraft sat on the runway, you know, stark with their swastikas and the black and white Luftwaffe cross emblazoned across them.

NARRATOR: However frightened she might have been, and the specter of the Luftwaffe at the airport must have been terrifying, Josephine knew she couldn’t show it. It had been a long journey, she and Abtey were exhausted, but to blink now would risk losing everything.

DAMIEN LEWIS: But it's the same thing, that Josephine Baker effect gets them through. 

NARRATOR: Josephine and Abtey are waved through security and board the plane with the vast stash of intelligence. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: Once she's on the aircraft and they're flying from Spain into Portugal, towards Lisbon, she sinks down into her furs, and she falls into an exhausted sleep.

NARRATOR: For a seasoned spy like Abtey, it was an astonishing achievement. But for Josephine, it had meant risking everything. However, to doubt her determination is to underestimate how much she valued her freedom. This, let’s remember, was a woman descended from slaves, born into the horrors of Jim Crow. Who left everything she knew to find a home in bohemian Paris. Lovers, acolytes, riches, stardom, and freedom had become everyday things for her. She refused to succumb to a fate she rejected. She had denied it, transcended it. Seen in that light, it’s clear why she would go to these lengths to defend her freedom. Josephine was also an adventurer. And maybe she was just born that way. Like the other Celebrity Spies in this series, Josephine never felt more alive than when she faced extreme danger. And what could be more extreme than squaring up to Nazis, knowing that the keys to their defeat were stuffed into your underwear? But Josephine’s story was far from over when she landed in Lisbon. While Abtey was off delivering the intelligence to none other than super spy Wilfred Biffy Dunderdale - the real-life inspiration for James Bond - Josephine was back on stage and planning her next mission.

DAMIEN LEWIS: They're desperate to get to the UK, they're desperate to jump on a BOAC flight and fly to the UK themselves.

NARRATOR: The reason was that Josephine and Abtey wanted to meet with Charles De Gaulle, the French military general exiled by the Vichy regime for his opposition to the Armistice. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: They want to meet De Gaulle to get signed up for the free French Intelligence Service. That's their raison d'etre. 


But it was not to be.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Dunderdale says, No, don't come. And he's his key reason for saying no. It's because he wants them back in France and he wants them back in France to solidify that pipeline, that flow of intelligence When she goes back to Marseilles to meet with Paul Paillole after the first Lisbon mission, and this is crucial, he says to her. You know, Josephine, you must perform. She said, no. I said I will never perform in France until every Nazi has left. That's my standpoint. He says, No, you have to perform and you need to understand why, you need to perform because that is your cover. If you don't perform, you are finished. You have to perform. 

NARRATOR: But the danger was never far away.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Jacques Abtey comes to join Josephine in France shortly thereafter, and he stays in Lisbon to basically take orders from Dunderdale. Then he links back up with Josephine in Marseilles. But by January 1941, Paillole has warned Josephine, you know, the Gestapo is coming for you. They know what you're up to. You're on the list. You need to go.

NARRATOR: Josephine had no choice but to leave France. But rather than head for safety, she travels to Casablanca. However, her intense lifestyle was beginning to catch up with her. The emotional and physical pressure of her spy work was taking its toll. Added to this, Josephine had, for years, craved a child of her own. But after multiple attempts, was told she would never get pregnant, owing to an underlying medical condition. There are suggestions that she wanted a child with Abtey, and was heartbroken at being unable to conceive. In Casablanca, it all caught up with her, and she fell seriously ill. She was bedridden for a year. Amazingly despite this, she used the opportunity to set up an intelligence hub enabling the continuous flow of information to the British. For the remainder of the War, Josephine continued to serve the French and British intelligence services as well as perform regularly for the Allied troops. But even in this role, she was never able to fully escape her roots. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: She realized very quickly, as did Abtey, that the American military was segregated. There were black units and white units. 

NARRATOR: And she decided there and then that once they had defeated the Nazis, she would confront segregation in America. Once again, she is let down by her homeland.

DAMIEN LEWIS: After the war, she returns to the states to I guess, you know, it's a comeback tour. It's to reclaim her homeland. She tries to check into a New York hotel with her white husband and she's told that there was no room available. And it's the same old, same old. It's the same as she was experiencing before the war when she fled America to France.

NARRATOR: Inevitably, in refusing to play to segregated audiences, Josephine finds herself allied to more progressive elements of American society. But this is the era of the Red Scare and the McCarthy witch-hunts. And just as our other two celebrity spies, Sterling Hayden and Graham Greene discovered, the authorities were quick to move against any stars who were considered to be too left-wing. Josephine is quickly added to notorious FBI boss J Edgar Hoover’s watchlist. In 1951 she was accused of having Communist sympathies and her visa was revoked. Her fame, at last, had become an impediment. 

DAMIEN LEWIS: And they gathered intelligence on her for a very long period of time. 

NARRATOR: But as ever, Josephine refused to be beaten, and made a triumphant return in 1963 to speak alongside Martin Luther King at the famous march on Washington.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She's the only woman, as far as I'm aware, who speaks alongside Martin Luther at that historic event. 

NARRATOR: Josephine showed up in her full French Air Force uniform, wearing her war medals. This symbol of French Resistance to fascism was now lending her weight to the Civil Rights cause in the US.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And then, of course, Martin Luther King is assassinated. And Coretta King, his wife, approaches Josephine and says, look, would you, would you head up the civil rights movement in the States? 

NARRATOR: Josephine was sorely tempted. But by the early 60s, she had adopted over a dozen children, from all over the world. Her rainbow tribe as she called them. Now that she finally had the family she had always longed for, she declined Coretta’s offer.

DAMIEN LEWIS: And it's a tough decision, but that doesn't mean that she steps away from the cause. She's with that cause and she lives that cause, you know, to the end of her days. She's transformed during the war, and that is who she has become.

NARRATOR: “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” she said in 1963. “And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.” And what of Jacques Abtey, her fellow spy and lover from the War? The affair ended soon after peace was declared, but they stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Josephine made sure there was always a bed made up for him, should he ever come to visit. He may not have been the love of her life, but he was her loyal partner on her greatest adventures, and she was always grateful to him for asking her to join the fight against Hitler.

DAMIEN LEWIS: He eventually retires from the French intelligence service and he goes to, you know, stay in Josephine's grounds and becomes an artist there. So they have this very, very special relationship right until Josephine's last day.

NARRATOR: It was not until 2021 that Josephine Baker’s contribution to the Allied victory was properly acknowledged by the French state. Over seventy years after the end of the war, she was interred at the Panthéon in Paris, the highest honor attainable in France, and the first black woman to be celebrated in this way. Once again it was France, not her country of birth, that finally acknowledged her extraordinary courage.

DAMIEN LEWIS: She was a fighter. From her earliest days. And she saw no other option but to fight for what she cherished and held dear. It was the approach from the French intelligence service in partnership with the British Intelligence Service, which gave her the means to do so. It was their vision of how she might contribute to the world of espionage that gave Josephine the opportunity she hungered for. 

NARRATOR: It’s difficult to sum up a life so full of courage, danger, joy, and heartbreak. Josephine Baker’s legacy as a performer defies probability, given the harsh conditions of her birth. Yet when her work as an agent of the French Resistance is factored in, she takes on a stature that elevates her into a heroic realm that few, if any of us, can access. Perhaps instead of trying to say it in so many words, we should tell one last story. During the war, Josephine used a Jeep to travel across Africa when entertaining troops and gathering intelligence. One day, some British soldiers discovered her and Abtey, standing by her jeep, which had broken down in the desert.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Josephine asked for their help. And they took her and Abtey to their local base. They repaired the Jeep, you know, and got them back on the road again. And they said, the one thing we expect in return is you to perform for us, which she did.

NARRATOR: When Josephine came to depart the next day, she saw that the soldiers had changed the number plate to read ‘Josephine’s Jeep’. It was that same jeep, Josephine’s Jeep, that she featured in the comeback show she was performing when she died. She had returned, one more time, to America. She performed a sell-out show at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. The reviews, this time, were ecstatic. The nation of her birth had, at last, given her the reception she longed for.

DAMIEN LEWIS: Jean-Pierre Deguire, who was a dancer, you know, on that show with her, he said, you know, the most incredible thing was the Josephine effect we've talked about a lot. He said it was completely there. It was undimmed, even at that age, even after all those years, even after all she had suffered, she still had it. And she could still, she still electrified her audience. So, you know, in a way, she died young, but she died well.

NARRATOR: Josephine Baker died four days after the Carnegie Hall concert, aged 68. She was found, lying in her hotel bed, surrounded by newspapers open with glowing reviews. She had finally found peace. I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next time for part one of another True Spies miniseries.

Guest Bio

Author Damien Lewis worked as a war and conflict reporter for the world’s major broadcasters, reporting from across Africa, South America, the Middle and Far East, and winning numerous awards. His books have been translated into more than 40 languages and include Churchill’s Secret Warriors, Hunting The Nazi Bomb, SAS Ghost Patrol, SAS Italian Job and SAS Band of Brothers.

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