“My notes would have been very compromising if they had been discovered, but who would have dared to search Josephine Baker to the skin?”. In her autobiography published in 1976, Joséphine Baker spoke bluntly about her double life during the war: that of a cabaret star who, when the spotlight went out, became a spy in the service of the Resistance.
A Resistance whose cause she immediately embraced: from the first months of the conflict, she volunteered to entertain the French soldiers deployed on the Maginot Line. Naturalized French in 1937 after her marriage to Jean Lion, a Jewish industrialist, the one who arrived in Paris in 1925 at the age of 19 considers that this is a fair turn of events. And very quickly, she offered her services: “It is France which made me what I am, I will keep it an eternal gratitude. You can dispose of me as you wish”, she affirms in the fall of 1939 to Jacques Abtey, head of the military counter-espionage in Paris in the Free French Forces service.
It serves as a cover for the head of counter-espionage
The cabaret star will therefore take advantage of the receptions to which she is invited in the embassies to gather intelligence for counter-espionage. And does not hesitate to take risks: after the Appeal of June 18 of General de Gaulle, it serves as a cover for Jacques Abtey. Became his “impresario“, he moves with her, under the false identity of Jacques Hébert, with other undercover agents.
One of his first missions? Learn about the intentions of the Mussolini regime. This will be done with the military attaché of the Italian Embassy, who provides him with confidential information on Italian forces in the Balkans.
“It’s very convenient to be Josephine Baker”
Faced with the advance of German troops in May 1940, it was time to flee. Head first to its Milandes castle, perched above the waters of the Dordogne, then to Portugal. In her luggage, she takes musical scores… and takes the opportunity to correspond with London. The information collected is in fact written in friendly ink, invisible on these documents. The artist sometimes carries these compromising notes herself in her bra.
“It is very practical to be Josephine Baker. As soon as I am announced in a city, the invitations rain. In Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, the scenario is the same. I like the embassies and consulates which swarm interesting people. I take careful notes on my way back (…). My customs passages are always relaxed. The customs officers give me big smiles and actually ask me for papers, but they are autographs! “, the dancer will later have fun in the autobiographical work “Joséphine” (ed. Robert Laffont).
Intelligence gathered for de Gaulle’s staff
Installed in North Africa from 1941, it will collaborate with the French Resistance and use its connections to obtain passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis in Eastern Europe. But the star, exhausted by this double life, fell seriously ill. But in 1943 she resumed her artistic activity in the service of the Allied troops while gathering intelligence for General de Gaulle’s staff. In June 1944, she nearly died in a plane crash off Corsica. “The castaways (…) saw a detachment of Senegalese (sharpshooters) arrive swimming “, relates the journal of the ministerial air liaison group, colored drawings in support, signed in 1946 by the hand of the artist.
Engaged in the female forces of the Air Force with the rank of second lieutenant, she landed in Marseille in October 1944. The singer gave concerts near the front for soldiers as well as for civilians. After May 8, 1945, she will perform in Germany in front of deportees released from the camps. In 1946, she received the Medal of the Resistance. Then she was offered the Legion of Honor in a civilian capacity, but she wanted it in a military capacity. His request is supported by several personalities from Free France. A France which, decades later, is preparing to pay homage to him by inducting him into the Pantheon. “Our mother served the country, she is an example of republican and humanist values” most “she always said: ‘I only did what was normal'”, told his eldest son, Akio Bouillon.
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