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Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy

Review

Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy

How did a dancer and singer known for her near-nude cavorting with the Folies Bergère in the Roaring Twenties become an international secret agent, an American civil rights activist, and foster mother to numerous children who was awarded (among other recognitions) the title of Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur? In AGENT JOSEPHINE, award-winning author Damien Lewis has devoted considerable time and diligent research to revealing the real Josephine Baker.

"[Baker] might have been feted only as the gorgeous 'lady in the banana skirt' were it not for Lewis’ determination to offer her multilayered, fully fascinating and undeniably admirable life history to a new generation."

Josephine Freda McDonald was born in 1906 into extreme poverty in St. Louis, Missouri. From odd jobs around her slum neighborhood, she realized that she had a talent for song and dance. By 1925, these gifts would transport her from backstreet vaudeville to Paris, where she was celebrated for her beauty and adored by such notables as Ernest Hemingway and Jean Cocteau. She had a large appreciative fan base and enjoyed her highly publicized success, with a forthright personality that infused her queenliness onstage.

When war broke out in Europe, Baker was recruited by her lifelong friend and sometime lover, Jacques Abtey. He saw her potential as a spy, someone who could mix well with military, embassy and bureaucratic operatives and report on the intelligence that slipped from their lips at social gatherings. This role was amplified as the war heated up, and Baker --- clearly a highly intelligent, dutiful, loyal American despite her lowly status as a Black female back home --- took on all assignments offered.

When the war was over, Baker was horrified by her visit to Buchenwald. Upon returning to the US, she readily took up the banner of racial integration. She was even offered leadership of the Black struggles after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she had addressed March on Washington crowds, the only female speaker to share that significant stage.

Lewis has constructed a lengthy biography of this remarkable woman. AGENT JOSEPHINE is based on factual data concerning her espionage cohorts, and against the background of war, hatred, racial and religious bias. It stresses the contrast between the underprivileged child and the adult hero she would become --- largely because of her strong character and true grit.

Baker did not refuse the espionage tasks given her during World War II, though her life was always in peril. Likewise, despite threats by the Klan and others, she did not shy away from promoting American civil rights. Yet to many, she might have been feted only as the gorgeous “lady in the banana skirt” were it not for Lewis’ determination to offer her multilayered, fully fascinating and undeniably admirable life history to a new generation.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on July 15, 2022

Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy
by Damien Lewis

  • Publication Date: July 12, 2022
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • ISBN-10: 154170066X
  • ISBN-13: 9781541700666