Dancer, singer… spy: the French Pantheon in the spotlight Joséphine Baker

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isn November 1940, two passengers board a train in Toulouse for Madrid, then Lisbon. One was a striking black woman dressed in expensive furs; the other supposedly his secretary, a blond Frenchman with mustache and thick glasses.

Joséphine Baker, toast of Paris, the world’s first black female superstar, one of his most photographed women and the highest paid artist in Europe, traveled, openly and in her usual style, like herself – but she was playing a whole new role.

His supposed assistant was Jacques Abtey, a French intelligence officer developing an underground counterintelligence network to gather strategic intelligence and route it to the London headquarters of Charles de Gaulle, where the couple hoped to travel past Portugal.

Apparently they were on their way to research sites 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 were lining up to invade Britain.

The information was mostly written on the singer’s musical scores in invisible ink, to be revealed with lemon juice. The photographs she had hidden in her underwear. The set was handed over to British agents at the Lisbon Embassy – who informed Abtey and Baker that they would be far more valuable assets in France than in London.

So back in occupied France, Baker duly departed. “She was immensely courageous and totally committed,” Cardiff University professor Hanna Diamond said of Baker, who on Tuesday will become the first black woman to enter the Pantheon in Paris, the mausoleum of “great men” in Paris. France.

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

“There is a lot that we don’t know, and maybe never will know, about the espionage work she did exactly, the secrets she actually passed on,” said Diamond, an expert from WWII France studying a book on Baker’s wartime exploits.

“Pieces of her life that we know well: the humble beginnings in Missouri, the international sensation of Parisians of the 20s and 30s, the American civil rights activist, the mother of a multiracial adoptive family… It is not the case of the heroine of the resistance. . ”

President Emmanuel Macron ruled this summer that 46 years after her death, Baker would become only the sixth woman to be commemorated at the Pantheon in a ceremony on November 30 – the anniversary of the marriage to Jean Lion that enabled her to acquire French nationality.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis in 1906, Baker left school at age 12 and landed a spot in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921. Like many black American performers at the time, she moved to France to escape discrimination.

'The Black Venus': Josephine Baker, 1935.
‘The Black Venus’: Josephine Baker, 1935.
Photograph: MARKA / Alamy

From the choir line of La Revue Nègre, she went on to become a big star, tapping into colonialist, racist and sexist male fantasies in performances that both shocked and delighted audiences and won admirers of Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.

Nicknamed “the Black Venus,” she danced the Charleston with nothing but a pearl necklace and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas, played with a snake suggestively wrapped around her neck, hurtled down the Champs -Elysées with her pet cheetah and became an international superstar.

Offstage, as the hits and main roles in cinema succeed one another, Baker cultivates a scandalous private life, having adventures with men and women including novelist Colette, architect Le Corbusier and the crown prince. from Sweden.

After the war, she fought for equal rights as vigorously in public as at home, speaking to Martin Luther King during the 1963 March on Washington and adopting 12 children from around the world to live with. she in her castle in the Dordogne.

Joséphine Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon take a walk in the Tuileries in Paris with seven of their adopted children.
Joséphine Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon take a walk in the Tuileries in Paris with seven of their adopted children. Photographie : Bettmann/Getty Images

His wartime espionage activities, however, are – for obvious reasons – rather less reliably documented. Much of what is known, said Diamond, who recently published an initial extended primary source essay on Baker’s war, comes from an Abtey book published in 1948.

“He was a maverick character – a bit of an operator,” she said. “He was telling his own story clearly, championing his own cause, at least as much as he was telling his. He was not, say, disinterested, and it is difficult to trace the original sources to verify his account.

What is certain, however, is that Abtey recruited Baker after meeting her – reluctantly – in late 1939, presented by a patriotic promoter. Determined to show her gratitude to the country that made her and to contribute to the war effort, the star was already performing for Allied troops, and working with refugees for the Red Cross. (Later in the war, she will refuse to play for the Germans).

“She had an unconditional love for France. She wanted to do her part for the country,“Said Diamant. “She also intuitively understood the dangers of Nazism. She helped Lion and his Jewish family escape the Germans. She had little formal education, but associated Nazism with the racism she had known.«

Abtey was wary of what Baker could offer and was skeptical of what a female superstar could realistically do. But she convinced him to give her a test, sending her to the Italian Embassy where she extracted sensitive information from an attache and successfully brought it back.

Abtey, who is widely believed to have been the singer’s occasional lover, has become his master. He trained her in basic espionage techniques – invisible ink, handwriting, reverse reading – but soon saw that her true usefulness lay in her magnetic charm and her ability to effortlessly switch roles. . She was an artist, and espionage would be her biggest role.

Joséphine Baker, right, as a volunteer with the Free French Women's Air Auxiliaries.
Joséphine Baker, right, as a volunteer with the Free French Women’s Air Auxiliaries. Photographie : Archives Hulton/Getty Images

“It subverts our notion of what espionage is,” Diamond said. “It’s a subterfuge to go under the radar. But here is this huge star, hidden in plain sight. No one suspects her. And above all, she can travel anywhere, and take those around her with her. For Abtey, this is priceless. As much as she is a spy, she is also a spy facilitator.

From the beginning of 1941, this is what Baker did. Instructed by London to base themselves in North Africa, she and Abtey traveled to Morocco. The singer has traveled from Casablanca to Lisbon, Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, ​​giving concerts, attending receptions in her honor, flattering ties, politicians and envoys – and passing handwritten notes, usually pinned to her bra, to British agents.

For a few months she was seriously ill with blood poisoning, possibly after a miscarriage. But even during his recovery, his hospital room became a place of secret meetings, with diplomats, VIPs and officials summoned to Baker’s bedside where gossip was traded and secrets smuggled.

Joséphine Baker performs on stage for an audience which includes a number of uniformed soldiers, Casablanca, Morocco, 1943.
Joséphine Baker performs on stage for an audience which includes a number of uniformed soldiers, Casablanca, Morocco, 1943. Photographie : PhotoQuest/Getty Images

With North Africa, after the Allied invasion of 1942, now De Gaulle’s operational and administrative springboard, Baker resumed traveling through the region after his recovery, giving concerts for the troops, raising funds for the resistance – and gathering intelligence as it goes. In 1944, she enlisted as a female auxiliary in the air force.

“She absolutely saw herself as a soldier,” Diamond said. “She saw what she did as the best, most effective way for her to wage her war. And while there is this cloud of uncertainty about what exactly she conveyed, she certainly conveyed a lot. “

Ultimately, Diamond said, Baker “realized early on that she could use her fame for a cause. And she did. She took huge risks. She deserved her Legion of Honor – and her Croix de Guerre.

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