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The Starlet-Spy

She was an international superstar. She was a world-class spy. The untold story of Josephine Baker.

The Nazi barked orders to his men in German. The soldiers had taken up positions around the magnificent chateau in southwest France, and now their black leather jackboots clicked on paving stones as they closed ranks to secure the many entrances to the opulent property. One of the armed men rang the doorbell as his superior officer stood beside him. Four more uniformed Nazis waited in the courtyard nearby. The thick blue field uniforms and high boots of their infamous wardrobes caused them to sweat profusely in the hot afternoon.

Finally, a servant opened the heavy door to the chateau’s main entrance. The officer-in-charge demanded to see the mistress of the house. Seeing little alternative, the servant admitted the soldiers into the lobby and asked them to wait.

In spite of the obvious impatience of the men downstairs, world-renowned superstar Josephine Baker slowly made her way through lavishly furnished reception rooms that stretched deep into her mansion. When she entered the front room, the officer-in-charge stepped forward officially. He had received a tip she was hiding arms, he told her. He needed to conduct a thorough search of the premises to verify whether there was any truth to it. The consequences for such a crime could be imprisonment, perhaps worse.

“I’m a starlet for heaven’s sake,” she shot back, “what on earth do you think you might find here?” Then, with a wave of her hand, she let him understand that she had nothing to hide.

The Nazi soldiers proceeded to comb the chateau, scattering paintings and mementos from friends like Picasso. They spread out over the prolific grounds, which made an ideal sanctuary for Baker’s animals: dogs, monkeys, mice, rabbits, and a pet cheetah among them.

Inside, Baker led the German officer into her library. Holding his chin aloft, he inspected her vast book collection as she expected he would, with all the feigned erudition of a man who believed himself superior. Reading him as capably as one of those massive tomes, she played to his ego, and his demeanor softened.

“My job takes me to many of the chateaux in the region,” he said in French, abandoning his brusque authority, “but yours is particularly magnificent.”

She thanked him, beaming the youthful smile — a playful parody of a smile — with which she’d won over millions of admirers. She put the officer at ease in the library, and soon he grew comfortable, almost chatty with her. She played the part, drawing him off guard.

All the while, she kept one ear pricked for the shout of discovery she was certain would come. Hidden from view somewhere in that massive home was a man named Jacques Abtey, Baker’s intelligence handler. They had been in the middle of planning an operation, one that would make a vital contribution to the nascent resistance movement, when the Nazis came knocking. Abtey was already compromised, and Baker, his star student and one of the most famous women in the world, was a spy.

Jacques Abtey was feeling frustrated the day he met her.

It was September 1939 and war had just been declared with Germany. Abtey, blond and fair, with Scandinavian good looks and an air of seriousness that belied his thirty-three years, was responsible for anti-German counterintelligence in Paris. The war was still young; the French thought they could win. But the intelligence services were concerned about infiltration by German sympathizers attempting to undermine the French war effort from within. Abtey’s office, known as the Second Bureau, was short-staffed, and he was under the gun. He had a mountain of work to attend to.

So it was unwelcome news when one of his informers, Daniel Marouani, a concert promoter in Paris, implored him to meet Josephine Baker, the American-born entertainer known for her erotically charged performances. With her extensive social connections and adoring fans, Baker had access to useful information, he implored. She could be very helpful to Abtey.

What could Marouani be thinking? the spymaster griped. You can’t trust starlets. That fact had been incontrovertibly proven during the First World War when France enlisted a well-known exotic dancer who performed under the stage name Mata Hari to spy on Germans. What seemed a clever idea ended in disaster when it came to light the woman, a double agent, had been passing secrets to a German officer with whom she’d been carrying on an affair. The French executed Mata Hari by firing squad in 1917, the incident was not well received publicly, and ever since there’d been an unofficial dictate in French intelligence to stay away from female agents — especially celebrities.

But Marouani was persistent, and facing an onslaught of pestering, Abtey reluctantly agreed to accompany him to a mansion in an affluent Paris suburb. He knew little about the star apart from what he’d gleaned from her records, photos, and press articles. His impression was that she was eccentric, popular with the Paris crowds. She had opened her own nightclub in Montmartre that drew the literati of the day. He remembered seeing photographs of her wandering down the Champs Elysées with a pet baby cheetah on a lead. None of this did anything to soothe his annoyance.

Abtey and Marouani were admitted to Baker’s Paris home by a servant. When the exterior gate closed it seemed they had stepped into another world. An ornamental stream flowed through lawns flanked by magnolia trees and enormous rhododendrons, a far cry from the jammed Paris streets in the city center. Across the grounds they spotted an open bandstand where Baker famously hired orchestras to perform for guests. Taking in the massive property, the pair almost missed the sing-song call of a woman greeting them in English.

Abtey saw her tatty felt hat first as it poked above the bushes. Then Baker rounded the hedge, beaming ear to ear. She had one hand in the pocket of a pair of shabby trousers. In the other she carried a rusty tin can full of snails she’d been collecting from her garden. It was an unexpected sight to anyone who knew Baker as the sex icon of the jazz age 1920s, when the star exposed nearly every inch of herself onstage with barely-there dresses fashioned from sequins or, in one famous case, bejeweled bananas. Now thirty-three, she had moved from the avant-garde to the role of fashion icon and was one of the best-dressed women in Paris. But even in her gardening clothes, her lithe body projected the sensuality and energy for which she had become so well known. Her hair was carefully coiffed beneath the hat, short and shaped, projecting youthfulness.

“I’m so pleased to meet you, Mr Fox,” she chirped, addressing Abtey by the cover name she had been given. “Hello, Marauani.”

During a brief tour of her home, Baker meted out details about her life. She grew up a poor Black girl in a low rent district of St. Louis. The daughter of entertainers, a Black-and-Native-American mother and Spanish-European father, she came of age in vaudeville, and her prospects were dimmed by the racism she faced onstage and off. In that era, most Black performers were relegated as background performers in better paying white establishments and rarely permitted to headline or build a career. Many talented musicians and stage entertainers threw in the towel, opting for steady paychecks in local factories.

When an opportunity to perform in France came along as part of a comedy troupe, she pounced on it, and soon she began performing as a singer-dancer in nightclubs. The Paris crowd had never seen anything like her: A sparkplug of sensual energy, she shook and vibrated onstage in performances that were provocative and arousing. She became a star almost overnight, and France offered her a life she could never have dreamed of in the US.

Seated inside the villa, Abtey accepted a glass of champagne and listened to Baker speak with emotion about France. She wanted to aid the war effort utilizing her unique skill set as a performer, as well as her international contacts and close relationships in high society and with people in power. She could offer useful information in those early days of the war when world powers were still choosing alliances and hedging bets.

How deep could an American’s loyalty truly run for France? Abtey wondered silently.

“I have been shown only love from the people of Paris,” Baker pronounced in a sweep of emotion. In France she was an artist, a star. “They have given me their hearts and I have given them mine. I am ready, Captain, to offer my life in the service of France.”

It was interesting, he had to admit. She was a bold, popular personality, one who attracted notice everywhere and to whom the very environment seemed to yield. No one would ever suspect her as an agent.

Then again, here was a performer whose fortune was built seducing audiences. Abtey felt himself being drawn in, and his guard went up. But the afternoon was young, and Baker cajoled him into giving her a test. She was a regular guest at the Italian Embassy, where one of the attachés was of particular interest to the intelligence service. Abtey, worn down by her charm, asked her to see what she could find out. She took the assignment eagerly.

Abtey returned to his office. The mountain of paperwork had only grown larger during his afternoon away, and he marveled at how many hours had passed; it was as if he had been intoxicated or under a spell. He put the business with Baker out of his mind, but a few days later he received a message and found himself walking to a meeting point, where she immediately zipped up to the curb in her enormous Packard, a huge luxury car with whitewall tires and exaggerated fenders that ballooned up over the wheel wells. As soon as Abtey jumped in she began unspooling information she’d collected. She became so animated that she stopped looking at the road and lost control of the careening car for a moment. A traffic enforcement officer approached, blowing his whistle angrily, but smiled when he recognized her. Abtey, clinging white-knuckled to the seat as she took off, noted with interest the traffic officer’s leniency — here was a woman to whom the normal rules seemed not to apply.

As his heart rate stabilized, he also realized that the information Baker was passing along was solid. The attaché had revealed to Baker aspects of Italy’s political inclinations that confirmed the intelligence service’s suspicions. She was a natural, a born performer adept at reading people and drawing them into her confidences. By the time the ride was over, Abtey had come to an uneasy decision: There was something to the idea of using her to collect information. But his faith in her was razor thin; certainly, she couldn’t be trusted to do anything without strict oversight. To that end–and putting out of his mind the uncomfortable fact that he was enjoying spending time with her–he would personally oversee her instruction.

They started at once on a crash course in espionage, and Abtey found that his pupil was an avid learner. France had had a spy service since the 1870s, but at the outbreak of the Second World War the art of spycraft was still mostly instinctual, although it would get a technological update throughout the later years of the war. Spies learned how to detect lies, interrogate marks without their knowledge, and memorize vital information using mnemonic devices. There were some gadgets, such as invisible ink and small containers to conceal photographs and documents, and Baker learned useful tricks, such as how to scribble up her arm and read documents upside down. But mostly Abtey was teaching her improvisation, and in this regard she was a remarkably quick study. She also had an unteachable quality intrinsic to great spies: She changed roles, moods, even identities like clothes. It was as if she had been born into a double life.

Performing to packed houses in the evenings, Baker longed to utilize her newfound skills. Meanwhile, she accepted a post as a volunteer nurse for the Red Cross during the day. Frustrated not to be using all she was learning, she nevertheless gave the job her full attention. War refugees were flooding into the city from outside Paris, and as Baker helped oversee their care, her instincts told her to stay on the lookout for suspicious characters. When she noticed one young man who claimed to be a German deserter, she undertook a minor investigation and then reported him to Abtey. He was quickly discovered to be a spy and quietly hauled off by French police. Grudgingly, Abtey acknowledged the success.

Meanwhile, the war was not going well for the French. When Paris was bombed in early June, leading to fears of a coming invasion, Parisians started to flee the city in droves. Even the French government soon abandoned the capital, heading first to Tours and then to Bordeaux. The country Baker had adopted as her own, the very heart of her identity, was now in chaos. She had been performing in Paris with a fellow singer and sometimes rival named Maurice Chevalier, but dwindling crowds and fears that the theatre might be bombed brought the show to an abrupt close and she departed for her chateau in the south.

Abtey stayed on in Paris to oversee the evacuation of his office and the destruction of sensitive documents. But he left by June 14, 1940, when German troops marched into the capital victorious. Under the terms of the Armistice, they occupied the north of the country and in the south a puppet government was established with leaders who were sympathetic to the Nazis. The regime was named after Vichy, the small southern spa town which became the new seat of French power. Bending the rules of the Armistice, the Germans maintained a low-key presence in the south to monitor opposition and were quick to track down any hostile activity.

In full flight, Abtey rendezvoused with a superior officer from the now collapsed French intelligence apparatus, Captain Paul Paillole. Vowing to continue their work clandestinely, they hatched a plan. Paillole had already rounded up a ring of former French spies now living in hiding, whom he planned to reactivate. He planned to mobilize Abtey, his most trusted man, to establish a communications network — boats, planes, and human couriers — within German-occupied Europe in order to send vital intelligence gathered by the spies to the emerging resistance movement led by General Charles de Gaulle in London. If successful, their intelligence pipeline would be an indispensable source of strategic information for the nascent French Resistance.

Abtey, a stoic patriot, accepted the heavy charge on the spot. Paillole promised he would acquire a fake passport for him, though Abtey surmised it wouldn’t be enough. To set up a secret, continent-wide communications linkup he would have to travel continuously. But the Germans had placed severe travel restrictions on men under forty, and his youth would draw attention. How on earth was he to accomplish his mission if he couldn’t move freely?

The answer occurred to him in a vision of feathers and lace and at once he headed south to the country estate of his star pupil.

She struggled to pack. Her off-stage identity was as much a performance as the one she donned onstage, and her clothes were an extension of her act. Wavering between boas and coats, she decided to wrap herself in her favorite fur.

There, that’s better.

Emerging from her room, she saw Abtey in his traveling disguise: A mustache and glasses and a thick Marseilles accent. He addressed her as “Mademoiselle Baker,” and she couldn’t help giggling. Feeling playful, he continued talking, sending her into hysterics. It felt good to laugh, but soon they remembered themselves and the gravity of the moment and fell silent. Looking again, she realized how utterly convincing he was as her modest secretary. This will work, she told herself.

They had already weathered a close call. The recent visit to her chateau by the uniformed Nazis, which came soon after Abtey arrived, had been a confidence builder, a test of her resolve and skill. She had put the officer in charge at ease, prompting him to see what she wanted him to see, just as she’d been trained to do. As a result, he held back his men from a more thorough ransacking. Even Abtey, spared discovery, had been impressed.

The five-hour wait to leave Toulouse by train was trying. She and Abtey killed time walking down the canal. There wasn’t much food in the station café and they had forgotten their ration tickets at the chateau. It was difficult to get any decent food without them, and they didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention by purchasing a bite on the black market. The warmth of France seemed to be dissipating along with the food.

They boarded the train at last, winding through the majestic Pyrenees mountains towards Spain. She rehearsed the conversations they had practiced and answers to questions she might be asked by the frontier guards. The intelligence packet from Paillole for this first rendezvous with the British included information about the exact whereabouts of the German military divisions in the west of the country, details of German troop numbers and landing fields, and precise descriptions of Nazi parachute divisions. Most important of all was a series of photographs of the landing craft the Germans were proposing to use to invade Britain. All of this information had been gathered by Paillole’s spy network and had to be placed into the hands of the British ambassador to Lisbon, their contact. Their mission hinged on the British accepting the intelligence and agreeing to support the spy network. If they were caught with the intelligence en route they would be tried as traitors to France’s Vichy government or else whisked away by the Nazis, their future uncertain.

As a safeguard against searches, they had transferred the raw intelligence to Baker’s musical scores in invisible ink made with bicarbonate chloride, which could be revealed with lemon juice. Baker pinned the photographs to her undergarments, certain no one would dare search her. Just in case, they also committed much of the intelligence to memory — although if they were caught it was unlikely they’d get the chance to pass it on.

When the train finally jerked to a halt, they climbed off. Once on the platform, Baker looked up and down. They were the only passengers in the station, and she had a moment of panic. But Abtey caught her eye and she remembered his coaching. This was just another trip, a scouting mission to arrange tour dates, which she always took a close hand overseeing.

Abtey began busily gathering up the luggage, as a good secretary should. This was her moment, and she needed to keep her nerves steady. They arrived at passport control at last and she stared at the uniformed officials. They stared back, badges gleaming, and seemed to drill holes through her cover with their scrutinizing eyes. She felt exposed — a feeling not unlike the first moments alone on an unfamiliar stage.

But then she wasn’t alone. There was Abtey right beside her, helping her play this part. Just then she smiled that unmistakable smile, as if those strangers were the very people she’d been traveling hours to see. Even if they didn’t know who she was they would have fallen in love.

But they did know, of course. Once the guards understood they had Josephine Baker in line, pandemonium broke out. The French and Spanish border police, customs agents, and even the stationmaster clustered around her, wide-eyed and disbelieving, keen to soak up a few moments in her presence. Some even ran to fetch their wives and children. As she moved slowly through passport control watching the familiar scene unfold, she was relieved to see no one paying any attention to Abtey, who kept pace unobtrusively beside her, just far enough not to interfere with the countless autograph seekers.

The scene played out again as they transferred to Madrid, and then again as they moved on to Lisbon. There, Baker distracted everyone while Abtey discretely made contact with the British Ambassador. At their meeting, he explained the reasons for their presence and passed on Paillole’s materials. Afterwards, after waiting around for a few anxious days, the pair received the response they had been hoping for: London was thrilled to establish contact with the renegade intelligence network and supported the plan fully, urging an extension of the new network into Casablanca and across North Africa.

They were thrilled with their early success. Baker was first to return, reluctantly leaving Abtey behind and traveling on a special visa granted by General Franco’s brother. Abtey, though he didn’t betray his thoughts, was sorry to be separated from her as well. Paillole debriefed Baker upon her arrival and was elated to hear of their success. Abtey, she relayed, had stayed behind in Lisbon to conduct further meetings with the British and negotiate their status as agents of the Free French working with de Gaulle. Baker would continue their mainland operations until Abtey’s return, collecting incoming intelligence that would later be relayed through secret channels to London.

Settling into a modest hotel in the center of Marseilles, Baker saw the effects of the war all around her. The city felt sad and shabby. Since rationing had been introduced in October, acquiring food stuffs was time-consuming and difficult. Under the Vichy regime, the Nazis kept the French in a kind of country-wide detention while they turned their attentions to world conquest. There were queues everywhere and barely any cars on the roads. The future seemed dim.

Short on funds — she put on airs, but she was in fact hemorrhaging money in support of the clandestine activities and her lavish lifestyle — Baker decided to put on a show. After a chance meeting with Frederic Rey, a former dance partner, they agreed to work together to organize a revival of La Créole, an operetta she had first performed in 1934 to rave reviews. It had been adapted especially for her, and she was particularly fond of the part as it marked her transition to a more respectable artist.

The curtain went up on Christmas Eve 1940, the coldest night in recent memory. The play was fantasy, a fairy tale of sea captains and musketeers that swept the audience away from the horrors of everyday life under the Vichy regime. Baker played Dora, a beautiful Créole from Jamaica who is taken from her home and then falls in love with René, a man of status. World events conspire to keep the pair apart. Baker, adorned in ruffles, long trains, and a leg of mutton sleeves — more costumes, although this time they were the costumes of a bona fide star, an undeniable talent — screamed to the rafters in a voice that sent chills through the audience. She also brought the house down with laughter at key moments, a gift to her adoptive people in their darkest hour.

Abtey had returned to Marseilles just in time to see Baker triumph on her opening night. Watching her, his feelings of admiration surged. It would perhaps have been difficult for him not to have mentally cast himself in the role of René, who ends up with Dora in the end.

Reunited, Baker and Abtey threw themselves into nurturing the growing spy ring spread across German-occupied Europe and Northern Africa, collating information and prioritizing crucial intelligence. As the covert intelligence service proliferated, the need for a more consistent connection between mainland France and London became apparent.

Abtey and Baker received orders to travel to Casablanca, still the neutral frontier in the escalating war, in order to make all the arrangements for a small cargo vessel sailing under a Portuguese flag to begin navigating a route back and forth between Lisbon and London. The dangerous route was necessary to ensure the absolute secrecy of any intelligence transmitted out of France via Casablanca, and the cargo ship had to travel with legitimate cover to avoid detection. That required careful coordination with several sympathetic bureaucrats. The job fell to Abtey. In the eyes of de Gaulle and the few officials in London who had been briefed about Baker’s involvement, the entertainer’s role was mainly to provide cover for Abtey’s travel. But that was about to change.

Baker hated to cancel shows, but her work for the French Resistance was more important than her career just now. Feigning illness, she got out of her contract with the Marseilles opera and prepared to sail to Algiers with Abtey en route to Casablanca. Fearful that southern France would soon fall to occupation, she was anxious to bring her menagerie of animals. Stepping off a steamship’s gangway at the end of January 1941, everyone in the traveling party, which included a mastiff, a box of mice, two monkeys, and a golden-lion tamarin, was relieved to be on dry land. Baker felt the warmth of the North African sun and felt exulted to be away from Nazi-occupied territory.

Her excitement dwindled after checking into the Hotel Aletti during a layover before departing for Casablanca. In the hotel, she was stopped by a policeman. She remained calm, as Abtey had taught her, but something was amiss. The policeman unexpectedly produced a legal demand for damages in the sum of 400,000 French francs — around 70,000 USD — for breaching her contract with the Marseilles theatre company, money she didn’t have at the moment. It didn’t add up. Her theatre managers had been sympathetic to her feigned illness when she left, and now she suspected this was a deliberate roadblock engineered to hold them up en route to Morocco. If true, it would mean their cover was blown.

Rallying Paillole to her aid, the flimsy legal holdup was finally lifted. Because of the delay, Baker set off from Algiers to Casablanca a couple of days after Abtey. Rather than leave her entourage of animals to be cared for in Algiers, and over Abtey’s repeated objections by telephone, Baker insisted on bringing them on the 48-hour journey. “Josephine without her animals would immediately invite suspicion,” she reasoned. Without the help of her “secretary,” and wedged into a packed train, Baker found that Bonzo, a Danish mastiff, Glonglon and Mica, two monkeys, and her golden-lion tamarin, along with several other animals, were impossible for her to manage. In a compartment packed with Arab passengers who didn’t know what to make of the traveling curio, she especially struggled to control her friendly dog, who plopped its massive slobbery jowls down on several laps.

After arranging things in Casablanca, Abtey and Baker would need to travel to Portugal, the country under whose flag the cargo ship would sail. The Consul granted her a visa immediately, but her attempts to secure one for Abtey fell on deaf ears. Not only that, but it seemed he would not be granted a visa to return anywhere in Europe.

It was clear Baker would have to continue on to Lisbon to undertake the mission herself. With Abtey stuck in Casablanca, it seemed increasingly likely she would then have to do much more than that. It would be her first time operating completely alone.

There was a chill in the air in February 1941 as they made their way to Casablanca station. Baker had sensed Abtey’s anxiety as he settled her into a couchette on the 8pm train to Tangiers, where she would catch a flight to Lisbon. It was her first mission abroad without his protection. She checked that she had her music case containing her scores, which as always were covered in invisible scrawl containing countless vital secrets. “God protect you, Josephine,” he whispered in her ear with undeniable intimacy. He exited the car and found her in the window outside. The pair held hands through the window, and as the train moved slowly away, Baker clung tighter to Abtey. He ran along the platform for as long as he could manage to keep up.

Despite her butterflies, the resulting mission was a success. Not only did Baker connect with Abtey’s contacts in Lisbon, crucial links in the intelligence pipeline they had set up, she also mined valuable information from Arab nobles as she reentered Morocco. She typed up a report of her trip, which was forwarded to the U.S. Vice Consul, strengthening Baker’s hope that America would at last join the war — along with her swelling pride that she was being taken seriously by the country she’d left long ago.

In the next few months, with Abtey still confined to Morocco, Baker became accustomed to operating on her own, and she flourished. Abtey, who moved from Casablanca to Marrakech, where he set up a temporary residence for himself and Baker when she was in town, worried about her, but his misgivings were replaced by sheer awe at her talent for intelligence work. Free to travel wherever she pleased, Baker flitted from Casablanca to Lisbon to Seville to Madrid and Barcelona. Posters plastered on city streets in each locale advertised her upcoming shows. She used these performances as cover for her visits, funding her activities from her share of the house take. Between appearances, she collected intelligence, returning regularly to Lisbon to deliver vital information for transfer to London. With secret notes pinned to her bra, she was able to sail through the border controls unsuspected, and she grew remarkably comfortable in her role.

“It’s so practical to be Josephine Baker,” she mused to Abtey. “As soon as I arrive in a city, I’m invited everywhere … I frequent the embassies and the consulates teeming with interesting people. I take careful notes afterwards. These papers would no doubt be compromising if they were found. But who would dare to search Josephine Baker? I go through the frontiers completely relaxed and while the frontier police do ask for papers, these are only for autographs!”

Baker used her fame to consort with elites in every city, flattering diplomats, sweet talking Axis agents, and extracting information about upcoming Nazi meetings, local palace intrigue, gasoline supplies, troop positions, and war plans without attracting suspicion.

Between missions, she returned to Abtey and their shared home in Marrakech. Still playing the role of her live-in secretary, the residence was part of their official cover. All the time, no one suspected that the extraordinary star could possibly be an agent working for the French Resistance. It was, as Baker herself put it, “the perfect way to fight my war.”

Abtey was beside himself as he sat at her bedside. He couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Baker had been absolutely fine after returning to Marrakech on her latest mission. On a lark, as if to comment on how mutable their public identities had become, he’d decided to shave his head that day. He had never heard Baker laugh as loudly as she did when he met her in the Souk, the local market. She would often disguise herself as a servant to shop there, dressed in the traditional Moroccan djellah with a long cloak and hood so no one would recognize her. But her laughter and Abtey’s newly bald head caused a hopeless stir, and they had rushed off like children fleeing capture. It was a happy day.

Baker’s stomach pains began that evening. For a career intelligence man such as Abtey, the threat of poison was never far from mind. She was now a full-fledged spy, after all, and it was a common fate in the shadow game of spycraft. Abtey rushed her to the doctor, and he would never forget the look on the man’s face as he emerged from her room after examining her. Gravely, he instructed Abtey not to leave her side.

Baker moaned and sobbed through that first night, suffering terribly. Abtey was terrified when the doctor announced after two more days that she needed to be admitted to a clinic in Casablanca as a matter of urgency. But how could she be transported? Unable to find an ambulance, Abtey procured a car that was just large enough for her lie down in during the long journey. Four servants carried her to the car using a blanket as a stretcher, and she cried out in pain the whole time. Abtey had to drive cautiously on the terrible Moroccan roads to avoid making her even more uncomfortable. The 200-mile drive took them all night. When they finally reached Casablanca and settled her into a pleasant, clean room, the medical staff supplied Abtey with a camp bed. He couldn’t sleep, fearing the worst.

Baker entered the clinic in June 1941. There is some uncertainty about the exact cause of her health crisis. According to her own account, which she knew would likely make its way to the press, she somehow caught peritonitis, an inflammation of the tissue lining the inner wall of the abdomen. Others have strongly suggested that the death of a stillborn child had triggered a chain reaction of severe health issues.

Whatever the origins, a raging infection eventually became sepsis, a life-threatening infection sometimes called blood poisoning. Most people who contracted the condition at that time died quickly, but somehow Baker clung on through the tense first days. Throughout the ordeal, made a point of sitting near her as she drifted between life and death. “I knew that my presence at her side helped her fight the illness so it was my duty to stay with her and return her to France so she could continue the unique role she had to play.”

On November 21, 1942, the front-page headline in the Baltimore African-American read: “Josephine Baker Reported Dead in Morocco Following Long Illness.” Baker’s younger sister saw the story and wailed. As more and more papers carried the news, spurred along on the wires via the United Press International, so, too, did fans of her music and shows from all over the United States. A country that had not embraced the young Black girl from St. Louis seemed finally to reel at the loss of a treasure.

Baker, however, was not dead, and the reporting error prompted her to fight harder. In December, a reporter from the New York Times who was camped out in her hotel covering her death was shocked to see the star herself — physically diminished by the illness but radiating an unmistakable aura — float into the lobby. The Times corrected the record with a December 6 headline: “Josephine Baker is safe!”

Amazingly, the root of the false story was Baker’s long-time rival, Maurice Chevalier. Unlike Baker, the crooner had gladly performed to audiences of Nazi soldiers. A survivor more than an outright political traitor, he did not believe the war should slow down his career and never liked to see Baker, who had eclipsed him in popularity, succeed. He had learned of her illness while passing through Casablanca on tour and contacted the press, informing reporters that she was dying penniless in a small hospital room. The story spiraled out of control from there.

In her more lucid moments in the clinic, Baker had been distraught at the thought that her mystery ailment and complications would bring their missions to an end. But during one of her periods of recovery, when Baker was fit enough to receive visitors, Abtey suggested that her hospital bedroom would make an ideal place for secret meetings. What could be more natural than the biggest personalities and diplomats in the hemisphere coming to visit the convalescing star and taking the opportunity to exchange important information? No idea could have stirred Baker more, and that rekindled flame, along with the erroneous news of her death, may have saved her.

Baker began sending out invitations to her convalescence, the kind of all-hands call only a woman brimming with charisma could have pulled off. And the diplomats, officers, and socialites came, all of them with gossip to share, tidbits of information they never expected would leave the confines of the dying star’s room. Among the news, she gathered information on the German intelligence services, including the identity of some of their agents, the locations of German fortifications on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and other information that would be essential to the Allies. Before long, Abtey, his visa problems now worked out, was on his way back to Algeria with reams of information concealed in invisible ink.

The Allies, led by the Americans, who finally joined the war at the end of 1941, debarked in Morocco in November 1942. The battle for Casablanca lasted three days and three nights. Baker, excitedly followed events from the roof of her clinic. When the Americans declared victory, she wept. This was the moment all her work as a star and a spy had been leading to, and she was determined not to miss out. On December 1, 1942, after fighting a private battle and winning a massive personal victory, she finally left the clinic in Casablanca, where she had been based for nineteen months.

The entire country of Morocco was gradually transformed into a military base with the arrival of thousands of American troops. The presence of the soldiers felt like the arrival of long-lost family to her. American audiences who had once rejected her now provided her a reason to reignite her career and lust for life. Against the advice of her entourage and her doctor, she accepted an invitation to perform at the inauguration of the Liberty Club, a social club in Casablanca where Black and white troops could freely mingle. Baker was to be the highlight of a program, and all the American high command would be in attendance. She was especially keen to perform for Black troops and liked the idea of inaugurating a club that brought soldiers from diverse backgrounds together.

As she prepared for her entrance that night, she once again stared at herself in the mirror. Her cheekbones jutted from her thin face and her skin looked opaque. Gone were the furs and boas, the costumes, even her animals, which were being safely looked after by friends. She wore a simple blue polka-dot dress, and in the mirror, she saw the girl from St. Louis as clear as day. There, too, was the indomitable woman she had become — a star, yes, but so much more than that.

On stage, to those familiar with her performances, she seemed to hesitate uncharacteristically, looking out at the crowd in a long, appraising sweep. Then she began to sing in a way no one had heard her sing before. She chose to open with a traditional lullaby from African American culture. The troops in the audience, separated from family and some of them crying at memories of home, erupted into thunderous applause that shook the venue. Baker moved stirringly through her set, closing with “J’ai Deux Amours,” the song that had helped make her famous. “I have two loves,” she sang, “My country and Paris.” There was not a dry eye in the house.

Immediately after the performance, exhausted and still weak, Baker retreated backstage and collapsed. She summoned her strength, however, and emerged to greet her fans and face reporters. The war, now that the Americans were involved, had entered a new chapter, and Josephine had more work to do. And new fights waited further out — including a return to the United States to help propel the Civil Rights movement. For the moment, in front of the flashbulbs, she felt at peace simply being a star.

“That night Josephine was reborn to life,” recalls Abtey. He was watching it all from the audience, thinking of their next mission together.

Hanna Diamond is a professor of French history at Cardiff University. Her focus is the Second World War.

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Hanna Diamond

Hanna Diamond

I research the social and cultural history of France during the Second World War and have a particular interest in gender. I use oral history and ego-sources.

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