Recently, I read a few books about three famous women who also took part in spy activities during World War II. What I discovered surprised me: We could use significantly more serious scholarship about these particular women (and probably others like them). These books weren't bad, but they really weren’t what I was looking for.
The subjects were definitely not the problem—the women were bright lights in show-business or sports with unique timelines and personalities:
· Josephine Baker, the American-born French singer, dancer and civil rights activist;
· Alice Marble, the American tennis champion; and
· Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American Hollywood actress and inventor.
While they grew up in wildly different circumstances, they ended up with much in common: They experienced emotional or physical abuse, or both. They suffered from being reduced to the “pretty face” or the “party girl.” Baker, who was Black, and Lamarr, who was Jewish, had to contend with racism and anti-Semitism, respectively, as well. Anti-fascist, all three used their fame, talent, international contacts and/or travel to mask their covert activities. The stereotypes meant they didn’t get the credit they deserved, but as spies they could hide in plain sight. With so much brains and talent on the table, I was looking forward to all the books.
I had started down this famous-women-who-were-also-spies path, when my daughter told me about the extraordinary signal-hopping technology developed by Hedy Lamarr, whom I had only known as a Hollywood goddess. My daughter had discovered Lamarr’s amazing work while doing a report for her 8th grade technology class. Anxious to learn more about Lamarr’s math/science background, her inventions, and what she did to fight the Nazis, I purchased “The Only Woman in The Room: A Novel,” by Marie Benedict. I realized the book, which was specifically billed as a novel, would likely take some liberties, but I was still expecting more meaty historical fiction. For me, it focused too much on Lamarr’s early years and included too much envisioning of what her life was like with her abusive first husband, as if it were really a profile of Hedy Lamarr, abused wife. Unfortunately it didn’t illuminate enough about the scientific mind that the woman clearly had.
Similarly, “Josephine Baker’s Last Dance” by Sherry Jones, contained significant, inexplicable gaps in coverage. Like Benedict’s book about Lamarr, Jones’ version of Baker’s life is in the form of a novel. Its portrayal of Baker’s difficult childhood seems compelling and plausible. But major sections of Baker’s life were oddly missing. In particular, the historically and personally significant period from 1935-1939, which included not only major events of World War II, but also the period when Baker decided to take French citizenship (1937), was covered only superficially—the book jumps from 1935 in New York in Chapter 20 and 21, to 1939 in Paris in Chapter 22, basically skipping four years in the chronology. Also, Jones’ descriptions of what ran through Baker’s head with respect to her sexual encounters didn’t ring true to me; I was not convinced that the author understood Baker’s mindset, even if it is a historical fact that Baker had many sexual partners, both male and female.
In contrast, “The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy,” is a traditional biography in the young adult genre, written by Peggy Caravantes, a former teacher and school administrator. Part of the “Women of Action” series geared toward students, it offers a straightforward account that hits all the major events in Baker’s life. To lend perspective, Caravantes includes side-bar descriptions of major historical events and people that affected Baker. She provides a solid overview of Baker’s childhood, rise to fame, and her marriages and children, as well as her experiences with racism and increasing activism on civil rights throughout the course of her entire life. It also notes specific actions she took to fight the Nazi regime and subsequently receive the Medal of the Resistance from Charles de Gaulle of France for this work—an all-too-rare public acknowledgement of her sacrifice and risk. If you’re looking for a strict outline of the events of Baker’s life with a decent author’s note about the challenges of research, this is your resource.
Tennis champion Alice Marble tells her own story (with co-author Dale Leatherman) in “Courting Danger: My Adventures in World-Class Tennis, Golden-Age Hollywood and High-Stakes Spying,” published in 1991, the year after her death (perhaps so no one could question her about it?). It starts off as you’d expect with her childhood and moves into her start in tennis, her manipulative coach, and ultimately the key role she played in women’s tennis. For example, in 1939, she was the top-ranking woman tennis player in the world. In my view, she described too many details of jet-setting and hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and not enough about her challenges and tragedies, including being raped at age 15, experiencing debilitating illness early in her career, having a miscarriage, and facing her husband’s premature death. These latter incidents all came across devoid of emotion.
Those interested in the piece of Marble’s puzzle that relates to spying must wait until the final fifth of the book. Here Marble finally illuminates what seems to be a remarkable experience, one very risky and important mission: spying on Hans Steinmetz, an old flame who turned out to be a Swiss banker assisting Nazis in smuggling money, gold and other valuables stolen from wealthy Jewish families during the Holocaust. The story was so spectacular, the role Marble played so heroic, it felt worth the wait, but then, that turned into a problem. Was it possible? So many doubts seeped in that I researched Marble’s life elsewhere, and found that in his new biography, “The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame and Mystery,” published in 2020, author Robert Weintraub could not confirm many of the non-tennis-related events she describes. So much for autobiographies as “true.” Weintraub’s book, however, might just offer me the research and sourcing I desire—time to add that one to my list.
Feeling unusually sour about these books, I had to ask myself: What was going on here? Was it actually me? Perhaps I had a problem with the genres. Two of them were fictional accounts—officially self-described as “novels,” which also fall into the category of “fictionalized biography.” It’s probably safe to say that’s not my thing. One was officially an autobiography, but as noted, it struck me more as “fictionalized autobiography” (OK, that genre doesn’t officially exist, but I guess it should). The one that I found okay was geared toward middle schoolers—and no problem with that, except I wanted a more sophisticated take for an adult. In the end, I’d say these books prove something I have suspected all along: famous women, particularly ones deemed “beautiful,” haven’t been given the depth and analysis they deserve, and while that’s a shame, it also provides an opportunity—a lot of research begging to be conducted for the generations to come.
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