By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Buttoned, sealed lips, under cape. The secret is safe with you.
No matter how others beg you, tease you, or try to trick you into saying it, you can keep something on the QT until the day you die. You are trustworthy, reliable, discreet and you don’t gossip. People admire that and seek you out. And like in the new book “Agent Josephine” by Damien Lewis, they might kill you for it.
When Josephine Macdonald was a small child in St. Louis, Missouri, she learned to understand that her mother resented her for just being born. Although Carrie Carson worked hard to support the family, there was never enough money, so little that Josephine proudly contributed to the family by working as a maid and dancing and performing in the streets to some coins. It made her happier.
Later, after realizing she could make a living acting, she found work on stage, but Jim Crow laws were a constant in her life. Believing that leaving America was her best option, she headed for Europe in the 1920s, where she knew racism was not as entrenched.
Alas, most European countries were not welcoming either. Everywhere except in France, she was looked at with disgust. And so, says Lewis, Josephine married a Frenchman, took his last name, renounced her American citizenship and gave her heart to France.
In the late 1930s, when it became apparent that Hitler and the Nazis were becoming dangerous to the rest of Europe and to the world, authorities began to seek out what they called “honorary correspondents” to help collect secret information and deliver messages. . The “HC” possessed an intelligence. They were calm and patriotic people.
With her star power and interpersonal skills, Josephine Baker was considered immediately; officials were surprised when they questioned her to find out that she was “natural”.
And so Josephine became a spy, fighting the Nazis until danger caused her to flee temporarily to a small village in France. In a castle there, awaiting word from her associates, was “the most famous colored woman in the world, who was hungry for a fight.”
The very first thing you’ll notice about “Agent Josephine” is that it’s a brick. That should immediately alert you to what lies ahead: author Damien Lewis takes a deep dive.
In his introduction, he explains what prompted him to write this book and the turns his research has taken, from America to Europe and into the darkest recesses of an almost century-old history. There are droppers in what he found and questions that still remain filed. Readers may also take this as a wake-up call: there’s a lot of European history to unpack to access the biography you grabbed this book for. Baker’s story is there, but it’s set amidst a long and complicated history of World War II espionage, and a far more than basic knowledge of Europe, 1933-1945, is a must.
Without it, you might struggle – though a love of a good spy story might redeem this book for thriller fans. If that’s you, there’s no need to keep “Agent Josephine” a secret.