The Chatter Podcast: Josephine Baker, Singer and Spy, with Damien Lewis

By David Priess
Thursday, September 22, 2022, 10:10 AM

In her day, Josephine Baker was one of the most famous women in the world. Fans recognized the superstar singer, actress, and dancer everywhere she went, particularly on the streets of Paris, where she walked a pet cheetah on a diamond leash. Why would anyone think such a conspicuous person might make the perfect spy? 

Author Damien Lewis sets out to answer that question in his latest book, “Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy.” It chronicles Baker’s remarkable career as an agent for French counterintelligence during WWII. Baker participated in numerous clandestine missions, and her work informed British and U.S. intelligence, as well. 

Baker left the United States in the Jim Crow era and was embraced by French audiences. But she became a target of Nazi propagandists. When Germany invaded France, Baker devoted herself to the Resistance and the Allies’ cause. 

It turned out that her performing talents were well suited to work as an intelligence agent. Baker used her connections to get close to Axis VIPs, including in the Italian government, who didn’t know she was passing valuable details from their conversations back to her French compatriots. She used her extraordinary fame as a cover, at times hiding secret documents practically in plain sight while on tour. 

Lewis and Shane Harris discussed Baker’s remarkable and little known espionage career, which reveals much about the inner life of one of the 20th Century’s biggest stars. 

Chatter is a production of Lawfare and Goat Rodeo. This episode was produced and edited by Cara Shillenn of Goat Rodeo. Podcast theme by David Priess, featuring music created using Groovepad.

Useful links:

Damien Lewis’ book, Agent Josephine 

Lewis’ other books

Lewis on Twitter

Baker and Lewis in The New Yorker 

Baker inducted into the Pantheon