By Damien Lewis

Quercus 2022

ISBN: 978 9 152941 675 6

RRP: $32.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


The tragic events from mid-1940, with the fall of France to Nazi Germany, and the conflict that ensued, including with the Allied landings in North Africa, southern Italy and on the beaches of Normandy, brought not only untold misery and slaughter but also acts of remarkable courage and heroism from a secret underground army. One of the bravest and most effective of these espionage agents was the Parisien super star, US born Josephine Baker.

Those stories lay largely unrecognised until the post-war recovery spawned an outpouring of memoirs. Some of the most intriguing of the stories involve the lives of those who worked in Intelligence – made all the more difficult in the telling by what author Damien Lewis calls an “unusual set of challenges”. Namely “the secrecy that surrounded, and still surrounds, operations of the security services”.

It was not until the 1970s that accounts by some of the French Resistance security leaders began to push the boundaries of the secrecy regulations. In particular, Gilbert Renault (aka Colonel Remy), in the early 1970s writing an account of French espionage in the war. Remy wrote that his book sought to honour the famous US singer and dancer Josephine Baker who had worked as an undercover French security agent. There was also Colonel Paul Paillole, Baker’s immediate chief in the French Intelligence service, who published a memoir after her death 1975. Earlier, there had been the memoirs of Jacques Abtey, Baker’s partner in the service – one in 1949 and another in 1967 – albeit unable to reveal full details of the work he and Baker had undertaken.

Lewis remarks that the rules of secrecy surrounding French security agents were far more stringent than that for the French Resistance. Lewis also makes the comment that stories of French collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation remain particularly sensitive as if this might have been a factor in the secrecy. For all that, the French, in making public after 75 years the files of French Intelligence, are ahead of the British who rarely release files on British security agents.

For Damien Lewis, the availability of the French security files relating to Josephine Baker from 2000, along with the large number of memoirs and other records of those who worked with her or knew her has now made possible his comprehensive and heroic record of Josephine Baker’s World War II exploits, not only revealing her extraordinary courage and daring but also that of the colleagues who operated with her, chief among which was Jacques Abtey who was also her on and off lover.

Lewis’ The Flame of Resistance. American Beauty. French Hero. British Spy. is a riveting read. Lewis recreates dialogue between the characters as if in a novel but stays closely within the boundaries of the historical documentation. He also notes in his Preface that where accounts have differed about particular missions or events he has had to determine “where, when and how events took place”. His methodology in this is the “most likely” scenario.

Tackling the subject of Josephine Baker’s war time activities – of which she did not write herself – Lewis is struck by the scope and personal investment of her story as told by others and the documents in the files. He writes: “Never for one moment did Josephine’s wartime tale disappoint. Indeed, it is more incredible than I had ever imagined possible and defined by raw courage, maverick daring double and triple bluff and fabulous chutzpah.”

Born poor and black in St Louis in 1906, Baker had made her way out of her street kid life though song and dance via a vaudeville troupe and in time was part of a touring show out of New York. From those days, she managed to stand out for her antics on stage and in 1925, having relocated to Paris where her race and colour was not a hindrance, she became a star of the musical stage. Her singing and dancing was exotic and risque. Lewis writes that “she had taught Paris to enjoy itself again and to rediscover its heart”. Baker would call France home in fervent ways from then on.

Baker – as the foremost popular talent in Paris – in 1937 became the star of En Super Folies staged to draw attention to a six-month art, culture and technology exhibition. Her notoriety attracted much attention but also condemnation from the nation with the biggest pavilion, that of Nazi Germany. A propaganda leaflet sent out by Goebbels condemned decadent artists and featured a picture of Josephine Baker on its front cover. In 1937, Baker also married French industrialist Jean Lion and became a French citizen.

It is not recorded by Lewis exactly how or why the French Intelligence service came to ask Jacques Abtey to recruit Josephine Baker as an Honorary Correspondent to work with French Intelligence which was also co-operating closely with British Intelligence. The choice was controversial but in time would prove inspired. Her rich and petted lifestyle did not seem to lend itself to the risks of espionage. But Baker was a firm antagonist of Nazi Germany and would prove as patriotic to France as any locally born citizen.

It is the accounts from memoirs that make the Lewis account of particular sensitivity and intimacy. The personal connections between Abtey and Baker are clear from the start, as is her down to earth energy and generosity for the cause. Even in the most straitened times, Baker would not allow the service to pay her. At her first meeting with Abtey at her mansion home in Paris, she is dressed in grubby gardening clothes collecting snails for her ducks.

With her acceptance of the offer to work with French Intelligence, Baker’s words of acceptance are recreated through Abtey by Lewis, but they exactly sum up the spirt in which she would conduct the following years in the cause: “France has made me all that I am. I shall be eternally grateful to her … I gave my heart to Paris, as Paris gave me hers. Captain, I am ready to give my country my life. Dispose of me as you will.”

Baker’s personality reflected the rags to riches experience she had conquered over three decades. For all her privileges as super star and wife of an industrialist, she had never lost her fearless energy from those days in her childhood when she boarded trains to steal lumps of coal, continuing to throw them down to members of her gang even as the train began to move.

The remarkable feature of Josephine Baker’s espionage years is that she never went underground. Josephine Baker as the star of the stage was very much a significant part of a major Intelligence operation. But her cover was her public face. After the German occupation of France in May 1940, Baker allowed her country retreat, the rambling Chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne, to become a secret hideaway for weapons and installed a radio set in one of the towers. In time, there were plans to use her performances, at first in Lisbon, as a way to smuggle secret documents to London. Abtey, disguised as her tour manager, provided detail of the perilous journey into fascist Spain. Getting off a train in the Pyrenees, the famous star “resplendent in her furs” and with no trace of nerves moved along the platform to the stares of police as much as customs officers who were stunned by her very presence. Baker’s cover got her party through the checkpoints.

Lewis writes that Baker could carry off the pretence with effect:

Laughing, chatting everywhere flashing a welcome, she breezed her way through the border checks, charming all-comers. The awe-struck officials didn’t seem inclined to trouble Josephine with a second glance at her mountain of luggage … At one moment she turned to him [Abtey posing as her tour manager], and whispered, teasingly, “You see what a good cover I am?”

They were brazen in the gamble but it was the Baker stardom that was crucial. Behind her, agents risked their lives putting together secret information gathered on the Germans, using invisible ink and more besides to smuggle it out in her clothing. Abtey and Paillole were the directors, gatherers and plotters but, equally, Baker was the means to deliver. And Baker’s extravagant lifestyle included moving with her collection of animals who spent their time with her in hotel room and then her cabin on board a ship to Morocco. Lewis describes the scene:

After all what kind of spy laden with top secret intelligence travelled with Bonzo the Great Dane, Glouglou the monkey, Mica the golden lion tamarin, Gugusse the moustachioed marmoset, plus Bigoudi and Point d’Interrogation, the two white mice? That wasn’t the way spies tended to operate.

It’s a big book told with flair and packed with the secret and dangerous campaigns of World War II Intelligence in the European and North African theatre. The stories flow in stages as the war moves through the Nazi occupation of France and the setting up of the Free French with de Gaulle in London, and on to the US landings in Northern Africa and Sicily and the D-Day landings. In pre-war Paris, alive with German spies for the Abwehr, Paillole develops his French underground. Then Abtey and Baker escape from Paris after the occupation, with Baker’s chateau a jumping off point for a plan to make Lisbon a route to deliver information to London. From there, under Paillole’s direction, Abtey and Baker move their operations to Casablanca connecting with Paillole in Marseilles and smuggling further Intelligence out through Lisbon. In all this, a host of characters emerge as small and large heroes, along with the occasional traitor.

In the final gripping chapters, Baker emerges from more than a year hospitalised in Casablanca with life threatening illnesses, during which her room at the clinic became an espionage meeting place. With Abtey and a handful of colleagues she continued her work for the war in treks across North Africa performing before packed out audiences of Allied troops, those about to go into action as well as the wounded and injured recovering in hospital centres. On these trips, not only did the small group come near to death – both theirs and the carnage of battle – but they also gathered Intelligence on the rapidly growing anti-colonial movements among the Arabs in French North Africa.

In time, Baker was appointed a 2nd Lieutenant in the French Women’s air Force Corps – propaganda division, going on to do performances in Germany after the armistice, even to sing for the ragged inmates of the Buchenwald death camp. Her performances were often emotional and arousing. At a grand gala on 14 July 1943 in Algiers to celebrate the beginning of the Allied push back in North Africa, Charles de Gaulle, as he greeted Baker, pressed into her hands a “tiny gold Cross of Lorraine”. Baker would be eternally honoured by the French, eventually being awarded the Legion d’Honneur in December 1957. Josephine Baker died in April 1975. Her chateau is today a museum to her memory and she is buried in the Pantheon in Paris, as Lewis concludes “a silent hero of the shadow wars”.

Lewis has produced a thriller of a book, taking up the twists and turns of so many in those shadow wars. Some were caught and executed, others were imprisoned, like Abtey in Tangiers where he staged a clever escape. In Baker’s case, she was both leader and foot soldier and, in her final years of the war, her show talent and its morale raising was almost as important as the espionage Intelligence she delivered.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.