Lewis uncovers this little-known history of the famous singer’s life. During the war years, as a member of the French Nurse paratroopers—a cover for her spying work—Baker participated in numerous clandestine activities and emerged as a formidable spy.
Lewis employs careful language to hedge the title’s bold assertion ... Lewis is a verbose writer who can dedicate myriad pages to his own biography...At times, he makes himself sound like the Indiana Jones of archival research, imbuing the process with drama ... Lewis’s assertion — that for Baker, the unconditional love of animals was probably easier than relationships with humans — is both simplistic and probably accurate. Either way, he quickly moves on from this unusual foray into psychological analysis to return to his literary strengths, facts and action ... Sometimes it feels as if Lewis is content to accept the narrative that Baker consciously created for herself ... France is idealized...Lewis unquestioningly accepts the assertion, an overly simplistic and frankly inaccurate view of a country that struggles with race to this day ... A fascinating subject at a pivotal time in her life, Baker still doesn’t come alive on the page and remains unknowable. Maybe her ability to conceal and charm are why she was so good at espionage, but Lewis doesn’t take much time to explore the question of how she conceived of her own story ... What is compelling is the ragtag, oddly posh crew of supporting characters who surround her in her adventures ... Does it really matter if Josephine Baker was a particularly active member of the French Resistance, or an actual spy? Not to the French government. In the end, she earned the Medaille de la Résistance Avec Palme, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur, and was buried in the Pantheon. All the accouterments, in short, of a true French heroine.
Given the value, danger, and sheer flamboyance of Baker’s spying activities, it’s a shame that she hasn’t found a better chronicler of her exploits or her complicated history. For Agent Josephine, Damien Lewis, the British author of several works of military history and biography, dug into hard-to-access archives and the chronicles left by key players to create an account that is long on detail but sadly lacking in psychological insight or storytelling panache ... Despite Baker’s nominal centrality, Lewis is more comfortable with the male characters in her story, whom he’s able to fit into familiar story arcs ... for a writer such as Lewis, apparently steeped in Fleming’s work, there’s a constant hum of astonishment that Josephine Baker would, or could, work as a secret agent ... The specifics of her espionage career are remarkable, and certainly worth the telling—both in this form and in the screen adaptation this book has its eye on throughout. But what’s truly remarkable is that she was so consistently underestimated. Josephine Baker was a spy all along.
... much fresh detail ... 'This is not a book telling Josephine Baker’s life story,' Lewis cautions. His saga, though it stretches across five hundred pages, is mainly concerned with Baker’s service as a secret agent, and mainly confined to the years shadowed by the Second World War. There’s another sense, too, in which it isn’t her life story: the account is largely told by an assemblage of third parties. Lewis’s bibliography and notes make clear how deeply he has drawn on interviews with veterans, memoirs by agents, the private family archives of a British spymaster, and the wartime files of intelligence bureaus, some of which were not made available to the public until 2020.