Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
A native of Missouri, Josephine Baker is remembered for her sultry and comedic stage routines that captivated audiences across the European continent as the Jazz Age unfolded in the United States. During World War II, however, the dancer and singer known as “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl,” or “Creole Goddess” performed a much more important role for her adopted country of France: that of undercover operative in the French Resistance.
In addition to serving as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force, Baker maintained an exhaustive performance schedule throughout the war, entertaining both French and American troops. These appearances in many of Europe’s wartime cities provided an excellent cover for the different covert activities she undertook on behalf of the Allied cause.
On at least occasion, Baker smuggled secret military intelligence reports into Portugal from France that had been written in disappearing or invisible ink on her sheet music. (As an element of tradecraft, invisible ink has proved to be a valuable operational tool throughout history. Part of its longevity can be traced to some of the simple and readily available sources for the ink: milk, vinegar, lemon juice, and even urine. In the 20th century, more sophisticated inks resulted from the discovery and introduction of different chemical ingredients.)
Her traveling revue also provided an effective cover for other intelligence agents. To help secure the visas these men and women needed, Baker often relied on her considerable wiles and charm. More than one foreign service officer was sufficiently seduced by what Picasso called the entertainer’s “smile to end all smiles,” wistfully issuing or validating the documents her touring companions required.
Only a serious illness that required a six-month hospital stay succeeded in curtailing Baker ’s daring and impressive intelligence activities. For her many wartime contributions to her beloved France, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the French Resistance with Rosette. In 1961, President Charles de Gaulle named the former operative and Folies Bergère star Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
In the U.S., she supported civil rights, refusing to perform for segregated audiences. During her life she married five times and adopted twelve children from around the world whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe.”
In early April 1975 at age 69, the still alluring and captivating performer appeared on stage for the last time. One week later, she died peacefully in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage. As her funeral procession made its way through Paris, an estimated 20,000 admirers lined the streets to bid “Black Venus” au revoir. In an official gesture of respect and gratitude, the French government authorized a 21-gun salute at her service, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried on French soil with military honors.
- Article is e xcerpted from "Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage" Exhibition, produced by the National Women's History Museum, Annandale, VA, 2002.
- PHOTO: PBS