Write about what you know. It’s an old adage, but it has stood the test of time. Having spent more than two decades reporting from the frontline of conflict, it was almost inevitable that the books I write would deal with war, and the struggle for freedom in all its forms. Mostly a TV news reporter and cameraman, I filmed nearly all of my stories. As such, my method of storytelling was always intensely visual: I framed the story, the people involved and their epic struggles through the medium of the lens. My reports concentrated on the victims of war: the innocent bystanders–the men, women and children caught in the crossfire, or targeted specifically due to their ethnicity, their religious or other beliefs. Those were the tales that compelled me to the frontline, and often far beyond it, like a moth to the flame.
My books–narrative non-fiction stories, told like thrillers but employing purely the facts and the truth–are intensely visual. There could be no richer, more visual and glittering feast for the senses than the wartime story of superstar Josephine Baker. The most-photographed woman in the world pre-WWII, renowned for her beauty, her voice and her risqué dance routines, Josephine’s tale of wartime intrigue remains little known. Fascinated as to just how she used her stardom as her very cloak and her dagger, to become a stand-out spy for the Allies–for France, for Britain and the USA–I had little idea what a dramatic, daredevil, rollercoaster ride her story would take me on. The war was the making of her. The watershed between superstar and a woman with a passion and a mission. A similar thread runs through my choice of books below.
Rebecca Donner: In many ways there are echoes of Josephine Baker in this powerful, compelling WWII tale. Mildred Harnack was a fellow American, and, like Josephine, she was identified early in the war as an enemy of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Like Josephine, she began her resistance and espionage work before war was declared, and she did so fearlessly and driven by an unbreakable sense of right and wrong. But with Harnack, her cloak and dagger proved insufficient to protect her: on the 16th February 1943 she was caught by the Gestapo, unmasked and beheaded on Hitler’s personal orders. Written by her great-great-niece, Rebecca Donner, the book remains a moving, hugely inspiring and uplifting tale, as is Agent Josephine.
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I have to admit, it was the Twentieth Century Fox movie adaptation of the book, which I watched with my wife and teenage children, that compelled me to buy and read the full story. Superficially, this is a very, very different tale from that told in Agent Josephine, for it concerns the fate of a group of Black female mathematicians, and their struggle for recognition and equality as they play key roles in ensuring that NASA got to win the space race and put the first man on the moon. But the strapline for Hidden Figures–‘Genius has no race. Strength has no gender. Courage has no limit.’–could just as well apply to Agent Josephine. It was in overcoming the horrific prejudice she suffered in her childhood and during her early years on stage, that Josephine gained the strength and resilience to become the unbreakable, fearless, superlative spy that she became in WWII. She was forged in fire, just as the protagonists of Hidden Figures were, and all the stronger for it.
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As with Agent Josephine, the tale of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s wartime resistance opens in Paris, the enchanting City of Light, soon to fall under the dark shadow of Nazi occupation. The majority of French men and women chose la paix honteuse–the shameful peace–opting to make an accommodation with the occupiers. Fourcade did not, and, like Josephine, from the very first she set out to cause as much trouble for the occupiers and as much to benefit the Allies as he possibly could. Fourcade, like Josephine, was pursued by the secret police and intelligence agencies of the enemy, narrowly escaping attempts to entrap and ensnare her. Fourcade, like Josephine, proved utterly unbreakable. But Josephine had an extra pillar of strength that shored her up: her American roots, and her unwavering belief that the USA would join the war and turn its fortunes. It made her a woman of steel and a huge inspiration to all who served alongside her.
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I read this book several years ago and it has stayed with me, indelibly. On many levels this is not a tale like Josephine’s. It’s the story of how the author, a trained ballet dancer, was, at age sixteen, sent to Auschwitz, and of how she survived, overcame and chose to forgive, even though her parents had died in the gas chamber. But having married a Jewish man, Jean Lyon, before the war, Josephine felt a deep affinity with the Jewish faith; in fact, for her religion was a pluralistic spiritual phenomena–she could find God anywhere and everywhere. Loving the words in her tiny Jewish prayer book, she carried it with her throughout the war, even though its discovery could have condemned her to a horrible death. And like Dr. Eger, she chose to forgive. When asked if she would have killed Germans at her own hand, she answered: ‘Nazis, yes’. To make that crucial distinction. And one of her standout comrades during her wartime espionage work was a former Hitler Youth leader turned pacifist and agent for the Allies.
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About the Author
Damien Lewis is an award-winning and internationally bestselling author, historian and reporter. He spent over two decades reporting from war, disaster and conflict zones across Africa, Asia and the Middle East for foremost broadcasters. His WWII classics include Churchill’s Secret Warriors, Hunting The Nazi Bomb and The Nazi Hunters, and he co-wrote with women of colour the multi-award winning memoirs Slave and Tears Of The Desert. His work has been translated into forty languages and several of his books have been made or are being developed as feature films, TV series or plays for the stage. He raises significant funds for the charitable causes connected to his writing.
At the outbreak of WW2 Josephine Baker, the world's most glamorous superstar, was recruited as an Allied spy in France. This is the story of her heroic personal resistance to Nazi Germany and of the cloak-and-dagger band of brothers with whom she served.
Josephine Baker was a music hall diva renowned for her captivating song and dance routines and her movie roles, being one of the most highly-paid female performers in Europe. But when the Nazis seized Paris, her adopted city, she was banned from the stage, along with all 'negroes and Jews'. Yet instead of returning to America, she vowed to stay and to fight.
In The Flame of Resistance best-selling author Damien Lewis uncovers the incredible story of the superstar’s secret life. Teaming up with a cast of the most extraordinary – including Wilfred ‘Biffy’ Dunderdale, the MI6 spymaster and a role-model for James Bond; Jacques Abtey, the daring French secret agent who became her partner in espionage; reformed Hitler Youth die-hard Hans Müssig; plus foremost New York Mafia bosses turned Allied agents – she became a hero of the three nations in whose name she served: America, the land of her birth; France, the county that had embraced her; and Britain, from where she took her orders, as one of London's most prized special agents.
Drawing on a plethora of new historical material, including previously undisclosed letters and journals and first hand interviews, Lewis uncovers a tale of unbounded courage, passion, devotion and sacrifice, as this superstar-spy risked all in freedom’s cause. Upending the conventional story of Josephine Baker’s war, he reveals how she repeatedly cheated death to become a fearless champion of the Allied cause, and of their troops, stamping an indelible mark on history.
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