cover image Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy

Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy

Damien Lewis. PublicAffairs, $30 (592p) ISBN 978-1-5417-0066-6

After fleeing the poverty and racism of St. Louis, Mo., to seek fame and fortune in Europe, Josephine Baker (1906–1975) gave “the greatest performance of her life” as a WWII spy, according to this scintillating biography. Historian Lewis (Churchill’s Band of Brothers) draws on newly discovered letters and diaries to paint a vivid portrait of Baker as “a chameleon, a rebel, a warrior, and a rule-breaker at heart.” Recruited by French intelligence officials in 1939, Baker’s first assignment was to befriend an attaché at the Italian embassy in Paris and find out if Mussolini planned to form an alliance with Hitler. She also helped determine Japan’s wartime intentions, identified Abwehr agents in Paris, and ferried classified intelligence—written in invisible ink on musical scores—across enemy lines. In addition to her espionage work, Baker flew aid missions to refugees and entertained U.S. troops and dignitaries at the Liberty Club in Casablanca. Lewis stuffs the narrative with intriguing digressions about wartime intelligence activities, including a U.S. plan to help the Mafia smuggle cigarettes into Morocco in exchange for intelligence, and vividly evokes the “intense and tumultuous affair” between Baker and her chief handler, Jacques Abtey. The result is a thrilling espionage story perfect for fans of Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War. (July)