Saturday, June 3, 2017

Josephine Baker - World War II Spy

Most people are familiar with the photos of Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) in one of her iconic dance costumes, but how many have seen this photo of her in her Free France Air Force uniform? How did a child living in poverty in St. Louis become a spy for the French Resistance?

She left home in her early teens after years of dancing on street corners and digging in trash cans for food, working in Vaudeville for a few years before she found a home in the Harlem as a chorus line dancer -- one of the best dancers, actually. That earned her a spot in a European tour in 1925, which changed the course of her life. When the tour ended, she dropped out and returned to France to star in her own show at the Folies Bergère. Thus began her life-long love of Paris. She spent a decade dancing and performing, celebrated as the first person of African descent to become a world-famous entertainer, known as the "Black Pearl", the "Bronze Venus", and the "Creole Goddess."

But she was so much more than simply a dancer. Later in her life she would become a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences in the US, and writing articles about discrimination. But before this period of public acts of resistance, though, she had an even more exciting but covert period -- she was a spy.

When the Germans invaded Poland, she refused to leave France for safer areas, and instead joined French Resistance when she was recruited by the French military intelligence to serve as a "honorable correspondent." Her role was to use her celebrity to mix with high-ranking officials at embassy parties, and gather information about troop locations. She moved freely all around Europe, Northern Africa, and even South America as an entertainer, carrying info about airfields, harbors, and troop concentrations back to officials in France or Britain written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

After a long period of recovery from a dangerous infection resulting from a miscarriage, she focused her energies on performing for troops stationed in North Africa. There was no organized entertainment for the troops there, so she and her friends created their own. As part of her efforts to promote the Free France movement, when she was invited to perform for King Farouk in Egypt, she refused because of his refusal to recognize the resistance, but instead preferred to stay neutral. Instead, she offered to perform at a separate Free France celebration in Cairo, and invited him to preside over the event. That was her way of encouraging him to at least subtly reveal which side he supported.

For her efforts, she was awarded the honorary rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, and after the war she received both the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, an honor usually reserved for French citizens.

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