There is something sexy and mysterious about the concept of espionage. Most of the Western world, at least, certainly seems to think so: the notoriety of James Bond is probably on a worldwide par with that of Jesus Christ or even Ronald McDonald, and at any point in time Hollywood is bound to have at least one television show about spies actively in production—and anyone who claims never to have invented a secret code or two with their friends in the halcyon days of their youth is unquestionably lying. From the Spy Kids franchise to the Spy Museum in D.C., we live to lionize the illustrious alumni of covert intelligence, and that’s why they’re our tbt for the week.
Our collective fascination with people whose jobs are way cooler than those of most Americans is nothing new, but there is something unique about secret agent frenzy. Ask someone to list off a famous spy or two and, with the exception of Mr. Bond, you’re bound to be treated to a litany of female names; from television’s Sydney Bristow to notorious WWI-era vixen Mata Hari, there’s just something about an international woman of mystery that leaves an unshakable impression. Do women inherently make better spies, or they simply get caught more often? It’s hard to say. A look through the history of espionage, however, would suggest this to be classic case of “Anything boys can do, girls can do better”—especially when it comes to the roster of fabulous femme fatales from the Allied Forces of World War Two alone.
Noor Inayat Khan didn’t need to pursue a career as a spy in order to earn the reputation of historical role model. Khan, who grew up first in London and then in Paris, was born in 1914 to a scion of Indian Muslim nobility and his pretty American wife; after her blue-blooded father died in 1927, she took on responsibility for her family while simultaneously embarking upon a career as a poet and children’s author. By age 25, she had already published a book called Twenty Jataka Tales. Within the year her family had fled to England to escape the fledgling Second World War, and almost immediately thereafter she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was trained as a wireless reporter. Her fluency in French and her competency with wireless communication made her so sought-after that the Special Operations Executive, a British covert ops organization, recruited her before she had even finished her training, and in June 1943 she was flown into Nazi-occupied France to join the Physician network of wireless operators—all of whom except for Khan were arrested within the following month. Somehow, Khan (now going by the code names “Madeleine” and “Nora Baker”) managed to evade capture for months, transmitting essential information to allied forces until she was betrayed to the Germans and arrested in October of that year. Even capture by enemy forces couldn’t keep Khan down: she managed to escape a month later before being recaptured and sent to Dachau to be executed in 1944 at age 30.
Khan was no withered crone, but fellow SOE operative Violette Szabo got an even earlier start. Born in France in 1921, the famously beautiful Szabo was a perfume counter girl at the start of WWII—an occupation she left after entering into a whirlwind romance at age 19 with 31-year-old officer Etienne Szabo, whom she married after only 42 days. After he died in battle in 1942—before ever getting to meet their only daughter Tania—his young widow joined the SOE, where she worked under rumored Miss Moneypenny muse Vera Atkins, an acclaimed spymaster who presided over young female operatives. In 1944, after intensive training, Szabo was parachuted into German-occupied France, where she reorganized a Resistance network that had been previously broken up by the Germans—a feat which proved to be a pivotal boon for the Allied forces. Szabo’s promising career in espionage was cut short, however, when she was captured in a gun battle on her second mission; the Germans tortured and interrogated her before eventually shipping her off to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she was executed 1945 at age 23.
Even with the likes of Khan and Szabo among their ranks, however, no WWII-era spy can quite measure up to the legend of celebrated entertainer Josephine Baker, born in 1906 in St. Louis. By 1925, Baker had already moved to Paris; between her infamous erotic dancing, the lead roles she took on in several silent films, and her status as muse for the authors, artists, and designers who had set up shop in the City of Lights during the inter-war years, she quickly established a reputation for herself as the toast of the town. Nevertheless, she didn’t become a French citizen until she married Jewish Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937. Two years later, Baker was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau as an honorable correspondent; in this capacity, Baker managed to collect all kinds of intelligence at parties and through the café society circuit simply working her reputation as a socialite. After the Germans invaded, she used her status as an entertainer to travel around Europe without suspicion—all the while transmitting classified information written in invisible ink on her sheet music. In 1941, after a particularly bad bout of pneumonia, Baker and her entourage retired to the French colonies for her health—and for the sake of continuing to aid the French resistance, though she wisely left that part off the border control paperwork. She would frequently travel to Spain with notes pinned to her underwear, counting on her celebrity to avoid strip searches; the rest of the time, she toured to entertain allied soldiers in North Africa, for whom she gave tremendous free performances that veterans in attendance recalled for the rest of their lives. Let’s face it: 007 has nothing on these real-life ladies of espionage.