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Posted on 18 May 2023 in Non-Fiction |

DAMIEN LEWIS The Flame of Resistance: The untold story of Josephine Baker’s secret war. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks

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Josephine Baker, the most glamorous and highly paid female entertainer of her time, was also an Allied spy in World War II.

In The Flame of Resistance Damien Lewis has drawn on a profusion of new historical material, including previously undisclosed letters and journals, to show that Josephine Baker’s true mark on history went well beyond the stage,

The picture he paints is of a woman of extraordinary courage, passion, devotion and intelligence, prepared to do whatever it took, regardless of personal risk, to free her beloved France, and ultimately Europe, from the evils of Nazism. She emerged from the war a highly decorated hero of the three countries she served: the United States of America, France, and Britain. She was one of London’s most closely guarded operatives.

Born into poverty in St Louis, Mississippi, of African and Native American descent, at 15 Josephine headed for New York to seek a career on Broadway. Her ambitions were thwarted by entrenched racial segregation. In 1925 she left for Paris, and France embraced her. There she progressed to become the most celebrated female performer in Europe. In 1927 she caused a sensation when she appeared in what would become her iconic costume of a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, which came to symbolise the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.

Inevitably she was to suffer personally from the Nazis’ vile racial ideology. In 1936, when fulfilling an extensive booking in Germany, the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, relentlessly targeted her as racially inferior and unfit to perform before German audiences. Unable to continue her tour, she left after three weeks and returned to Paris. Upon the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940 she was banned from the stage, along with all blacks and Jews. Instead of returning to the safety of the US, she moved south, into the areas of Vichy France the Germans had not yet occupied, and camouflaged her spy activities behind her celebrity as she staged her exotic productions in Marseilles. Her French audiences continued to adore her, welcoming the relief her performances provided from the repressive Vichy government.

Following the Nazi takeover of the Vichy territories, Josephine withdrew to Casablanca, from where she continued her espionage operations, travelling to Portugal and Spain under cover of her shows. Lewis describes how she used her celebrity status to access official functions, where she was able to hobnob with highly placed government, embassy and military personnel – many of whom were among her most ardent fans – and pick up invaluable information. It makes for gobsmacking reading. To preserve the information she acquired through embassy gossip and chitchat, she would withdraw to the women’s toilets, where she made notes on strips of paper she pinned to her underwear. She relied heavily on her celebrity status to protect her, banking on no official daring to search such a famous woman. Had she been caught, she would no doubt have been handed over to the Gestapo who infested the cities of Lisbon, Madrid and Casablanca, where spies from all sides were thick on the ground.

To understand the world in which Josephine waged her secret war, Lewis takes us into the complex intelligence networks in which she operated and shows how critical – and dangerous – her role was in both acquiring vital information and carrying it across borders to reach Allied headquarters. Such intelligence was vital to the success of the Allied landing in North Africa in 1941 that led to the ultimate defeat of the German forces under General Rommel in 1943.

Lewis’s penetrating narrative is riven with suspense and personal insights. He displays a warmth and affection toward Josephine, describing how her closeness to the reality of the horror and brutality of war changed her.

The powdered and pampered Josephine was a stranger to her now, she would declare. With death a constant companion, life had attained a far deeper significance. This closeness to suffering forced her to dig deep to find compassion and tenderness.

In her later years, when Josephine faced financial difficulties Princess Grace (formerly Grace Kelly the Hollywood movie queen), offered her and her family a modest house in Monaco. She remained on stage late into her life, performing for the last time in 1975. The show was sold out and she received a standing ovation. She passed away soon after.

Through his narrative Lewis reveals a woman who was prepared to put her life on the line to defeat a brutal tyrant who sought, through violence and terror, to subjugate free and democratic nations, a situation which, sadly, still resonates powerfully in the world today.

Damien Lewis The Flame of Resistance: The untold story of Josephine Baker’s secret war Quercus 2023 PB 496pp $24.99

Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights, teaching and conflict resolution.

You can buy The Flame of Resistance from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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