Damien Lewis is the celebrated author, documentary film-maker and historian who is most famous for writing a number of best-selling non-fiction books (as well as a couple of fictional thrillers) about the SAS. I haven’t read any of his books prior to this and it was his subject matter here which got me interested- the extraordinary performer Josephine Baker. This book is titled “Agent Josephine” in the US and I wonder why the UK has gone with this less satisfactory title- I hope it wasn’t a commercial decision in case it put off what is probably a large male readership for this author’s work. In both editions the same subtitle adds a little more information – “American Beauty. French Hero. British Spy.”
Josephine Baker (1906-75) is a twentieth century great. Born in St. Louis, Missouri where her talent for performing helped her escape a life of poverty. Her career limited by racism she moved to France where she became a sensation, her vibrancy, often risqué costumes, dancing and singing talent as well as her beauty led to her becoming one of the most famous and most photographed women in 1920s/30s Europe. Her love for her adopted homeland and its acceptance of her was compromised by the rise of the Nazis and the fall of France.
After World War II Josephine was awarded, amongst other acknowledgements, the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest service medal. In succeeding years it has gradually been publicly recognised that hers was a vital role in supporting the Allies through Secret Service work. On researching her life the author has uncovered just how important this work was, how long she managed to escape enemy attention and how team, partnered and solo missions had a significant impact on events of the war years.
Before war broke out her pilot’s licence saw her flying in aid and support and when Paris fell she refused to perform in Nazi occupied France but demand for her unique brand of morale boosting celebrity elsewhere enabled her to smuggle intelligence, information and documents within the trappings of costumes, music scores etc. In the early years she was often accompanied by her menagerie of adored animals which added more chaos to her travels and actually helped her to carry out intelligence undertakings in plain sight.
Damien Lewis does well to bring the story alive of this extraordinary woman and her colleagues but even so, the secret nature of this work suggests that perhaps there is much more that she achieved which will never be uncovered. His focus is very much on her war work and I think I do need to read a general biography to flesh out her many other achievements and to provide a greater context for these activities. Recognition of just how unique this woman was, as a performer, as a member of the Resistance and as a British spy has begun to build up slowly over the decades. In 2021 she became the 6th woman and 4th person of colour accepted for interment in the crypt of the Pantheon, alongside French greats such as Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. I’m not convinced that she has gained the level of recognition her achievements demanded in her homeland and in the UK but hopefully this book will shine a light on this woman whose glamorous depiction of celebrity masked sheer bravery, determination and adherence to her beliefs. Hers is a tale of extraordinary missions, invisible ink, microdots, secreted documents alongside her desire for peace and uncompromising insistence on equality. This is a trail-blazer whose story demands to be known.
The Flame Of Resistance was published in the UK in 2022 by Quercus.