Josephine Baker in Africa

A contract signed by Josephine Baker in 1944 with the French government confirming her services to entertain the troops

Amanda A. Ohlke, Adult Education Director

This week marks the anniversary of the death of Josephine Baker, one of history’s most famous female spies. We recently received copies of numerous documents from the files of the French Ministere de la Defense related to Josephine Baker.  Baker was an immensely popular African American entertainer who came to prominence in Paris in the 1920s and used her international stardom as a cover to spy for France and the French Resistance during World War II.  The document included here is an agreement between Baker and the Director of Personnel of the “Femin Militaire” signed in Algiers in 1944.  It’s significant that the paper was signed in Africa as Baker was an active member of the French military intelligence service, the Deuxieme Bureau, there.

She was recruited to work for the Deuxieme Bureau by Jacques Abtey.  Initially she merely used her access to international contacts and diplomats to gather information in France, but after the installation of the German-collaborationist Vichy Government in France, she worked with Abtey to smuggle secrets out of France to the Resistance and the Allies.  Baker and Abtey readied “all the information that had been gathered concerning the German Army in France.” Photos, Abtey says, were pinned under Josephine’s dress, and documents were recreated in a new form: “Using invisible ink, we transcribed all fifty two pieces of information onto Josephine’s sheet music.” After crossing a treacherous border, Baker laughed and told Abtey, “You see what a good cover I am!”

As the war progressed, Baker and Abtey connected with key French Resistance figures and allied intelligence officers.   British Intelligence ultimately put Abtey and Baker in charge of setting up a permanent intelligence liaison and transmission center in Casablanca, Morocco. As they struggled with international red tape to get settled in Northern Africa, Baker’s health landed her in a private clinic in Casablanca.  She was in hospital for 19 months with illness compounded by exhaustion.  Her sickroom served as a perfect cover for American diplomats to meet, at her bedside, Moroccan leaders and share clandestine conversation.  An American vice-consul told Abtey how “happy Washington was with the material [they] had been supplying.”

When she recovered, she began entertaining Allied troops in North Africa.  In the summer of 1943, she covered nine thousand miles, ranging across Tunis, Libya, and Egypt entertaining British troops.  At a grande fête on 13 August of 1943 in Algiers, then the capital of wartime France, the two leaders of the French Resistance were both expected to attend.  De Gaulle led the Free French Forces fighting the Battle of North Africa and General Henri Giraud led the Imperial Council.  While she was performing Baker stopped, unable to go on she said, because, “He is here,” pointing to De Gaulle in his box.  Raymond Boucher, then an officer in the French Navy remembered, “The top-ranking Americans supported Giraud, but when they saw Josephine on the side of de Gaulle, she authenticated, a little bit, the Free French.”   In gratitude, Charles de Gaulle gave her a tiny gold Cross of Lorraine.  On August 24, the U.S. and Britain recognized the French Committee for National Liberation.  Five days later, the Americans, British and Russians, acknowledged De Gaulle as “Chief of the Resistance.”

Baker continued touring and rallying support for De Gaulle. In the words of Abtey, they “were vagabonds of the road in the service of France.” In Beirut she auctioned the cross De Gaulle had given her and raised 300,000 FF for the Resistance.  She spent the rest of the war touring, mixing politics and show business.  Some thought she and Abtey were adventurers; but she was made a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Her grueling schedule landed her back in the hospital in Morocco, and it was there that she received the Medal of the Resistance on October 8, 1946.  The newspapers announced: “Secret Agent of Free France Decorated!

Baker had been a truly effective spy.  Her fame combined with her willingness to take chances had made her a perfect agent. Baker’s celebrity and touring schedule were the perfect cover story allowing her to be an excellent courier, and her fearlessness made it work.  But most of all her commitment to de Gaulle and his demand that the “flame of French resistance must not and shall not die” made her a true heroine of the Resistance.

Baker continued to entertain throughout the rest of her life. In 1961 she was named Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur and presented the Croix de Guerre by the French government for her wartime services.  It was presented to her with attendance from the consuls of Spain, Morocco, the U.S., Italy and Finland.  She died on 12 April 1975 in her sleep after a vigorous and acclaimed nightclub performance.    She was 69 years old.

Our References:

Baker, Jean-Claude and Chase, Chris.  Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Cooper Square Press, 2001

Abtey, Jacques.  La Guerre Secrète de Josephine Baker, La Lauze, 1948., official site of Josephine Baker

This entry was posted in History, In The News. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Josephine Baker in Africa

  1. Pingback: Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition | Nick's Café Canadien

  2. Pingback: Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition | Nick's Café Canadien

Leave a Reply