Algeria – France: Joséphine Baker, the spy of the show

By Farid Alilat
Posted on Friday, 3 December 2021 19:13

Second Lieutenant Josephine Baker in Algiers, 1944, with Commander Dumesnil, her superior.
Second Lieutenant Josephine Baker in Algiers, 1944, with Commander Dumesnil, her superior. © Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces

The music-hall singer who was reburied at the Pantheon spent time in Algeria between the 1930s and 1950s as an artist. But Baker was also a spy for French intelligence during the Second World War. She later adopted two orphans of Algerian origin: a Kabyle boy and a 'pied-noirs' girl.

Joséphine Baker, who was moved to the Pantheon on 30 November 2021, was not yet a spy in the service of Free France when she first landed in Algeria.

It was on a cold but sunny Tuesday, 1 December 1931, when the star of the music hall arrived in Algeria with her husband and two of his collaborators for a short tour of the capital’s theatres. On the station platform, she was greeted by a delegation from Racing Universitaire d’Alger, the sports club of which she had become patron a few months earlier.

In the football section of this club where Algerians and Europeans played together, a certain Albert Camus practised his goalkeeping skills in the junior team. Joséphine Baker stayed at the Hôtel Saint-Georges, a Moorish palace which on 10 November 1942 hosted the signing ceremony of the ceasefire between Admiral Darlan, former head of the Vichy government, and the Americans, who had just landed in Algiers.

The day after her arrival, Baker, accompanied by her orchestra of black musicians, gave a concert at the Majestic (now the Atlas Hall) in the Bab el-Oued district. She sang, among other things, ‘J’ai deux amours’, which was a great success in France when it was released in 1930.

Honourable correspondent

Baker had not two loves but three: her country, Paris and Algiers. Her passion for this city was expressed in 1936 in her song ‘Nuit d’Alger’, which she sang while rolling the r’s in her American accent.

Ten years later, she returned, not only as a singer but above all as an “honourable correspondent “ for French counter-espionage. In January 1941, she arrived in Algiers, where she stayed at the Hotel Aletti, just a stone’s throw from the Bay of Algiers. Algeria was then under Vichy control.

The Aletti is already mythical for having received Charlie Chaplin during the inauguration of the establishment in 1931. It maintained its legacy by welcoming the American writer John Steinbeck and the photojournalist Robert Capa, who immortalised the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944.

Baker stayed at the Aletti for a week before heading to Morocco. In Casablanca, she suffered a miscarriage and had a major operation to remove her uterus. She remained in hospital, where her room became a branch of the Second Bureau, the French intelligence service.

Her messages go unnoticed thanks to invisible ink on her musical scores.

After her recovery, she took to the road again in 1943, often in a military jeep, to travel to Algeria, where the Vichy troops had lost the battle. There she gave performances for the allied soldiers. She took advantage of this to pass on messages and information as she travelled across the country, from Oran to Algiers, passing through Mostaganem and Blida.

These messages went unnoticed thanks to invisible ink on her musical scores. She worked under the orders of Jacques Aptey, head of military counter-espionage in Paris, who recruited her in 1939, before joining the resistance in London in 1940.

In October 1943, the woman nicknamed “the black pearl” was doubly fulfilled. She gave a gala performance at the Algiers Opera and met her idol, General de Gaulle, the man she had decided to follow after his appeal on 18 June.

Cross of Lorraine

During the interval, the orderly asked him to go to the General’s box of honour. The leader of Free France gave her his seat and presented her with a small gold cross of Lorraine.

Her partner on stage and in the Folies Bergères, Frédéric Rey, recounts the scene: “When she came backstage, her fist was clenching a small gold cross of Lorraine… I never saw her so touched. It was the General’s gift. She opened her hand and showed us the jewel, her throat so tight that she could not utter a word.”

She left Algiers shortly after this performance, but her car got lost in the mountains of Kabylia. She then made a long journey to Tunisia, from where a tour began: Sfax, Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, Alexandria, Cairo, Tel-Aviv, Beirut, Haifa, Beirut.

Wherever she went, Baker unleashed passions and gathered intelligence. In Beirut, she disposed of the small cross offered by De Gaulle at an auction to raise funds for the resistance.

Baker took in Brahim and Marianne, whose parents were killed during the fighting with the French army

She returned to Algeria in May 1944. This time as a second lieutenant in the Free French Air Force. Gone were the tours and shows, gone were the sexy stage clothes. She was in uniform in the women’s training department of the air force general staff as a propaganda officer.

Her stay in Algeria lasted a little over five months. Then she returned to France sometime after the liberation of Paris in August, to resume her tours during which she did not fail to sing ‘Nuit d’Alger’.

As an adoptive mother of several children, she returned to Algeria once again in 1957, in the midst of the battle for Algiers. This time, her stay was not linked to her life as an artist or her service as an honourable correspondent. She took in two orphans, Brahim and Marianne, whose parents had been killed during the fighting with the French army.

Both were present at their mother’s entrance ceremony at the Pantheon. At the Hotel Saint-Georges in Algiers, Josephine Baker’s photo still hangs at the entrance to the bar, alongside those of Churchill, Che Guevara, Jean Cocteau, Eisenhower and Albert Camus.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options