At noon this Thursday at the International Spy Museum, Jennet Conant will discuss the exploits of one of Britain’s key agents of the “Baker Street Irregulars,” a group of agents formed under the British Security Coordination. The BSC was created by Winston Churchill as the British mounted a massive, secret campaign of propaganda and political subversion to weaken isolationist sentiment in America and manipulate Washington into entering the war against Germany.
Conant will discuss at this special author’s discussion the exploits of Roald Dahl from his book The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington. Beloved now for his books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, in WWII Dahl used his dazzling imagination for espionage purposes. His dashing good looks and easy charm won him access to the ballrooms and bedrooms of America’s rich and powerful, and to the most important prize of all—intelligence.
Your title “Irregulars” refers to a fascinating group of British agents in Washington during World War II? These agents run by William Stephenson included figures such as David Ogilvy, Ian Fleming, and Ivar Bryce. Why choose to focus on Roald Dahl?
I chose Dahl because unlike Ogilvy and Fleming he never wrote about his years as a spy and I believe very few people knew about this fascinating chapter of his life until my book out. Also, he was tall, handsome, and charming, exceptionally witty and bright, at times bitingly sarcastic, as well as being a very badly-behaved bachelor in his day. In short, just about perfect from a writer’s point of view.
Why did the British intentionally recruit authors for espionage?
The BSC didn’t just recruit authors for espionage—they tapped actors (such as Leslie Howard and Marlene Dietrich), directors and producers (Alexander and Zoltan Korda), singers (Noel Coward), even magicians (Oskar Maskelyne)–anyone skilled in the art of seduction, deception and manipulation. As it happens, authors—from the likes of C.S. Forester and A.A. Milne to Dahl–were a cut above the average copy writer and could churn out particularly good propaganda. Authors were also naturally good agents, born with a beguiling manner that invited confidences, an eye for telling detail, an ear for juicy gossip. Also, having a famous byline provided natural cover, and allowed the authors to discreetly gather and pass on information without revealing their true agenda. With their country’s survival at stake, the British brought out their big guns, literally and figuratively.
How effective was Dahl as a British agent in DC?
Dahl’s effectiveness as an agent might be debatable, but there is no denying that he was a real operator. One has to admire the speed with which he managed to ingratiate himself with the highest levels of Washington political and society, from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Vice President Henry Wallace, and political up-and-comers from Lyndon Johnson to Harry Truman, who became his regular poker buddy. He had access to very high level political chit chat, all of which he piped straight back to his bosses in London. Dahl’s intelligence was just one of hundreds of sources that flowed into the BSC, but it added up to a tidal wave of information.
The debate continues to rage over who was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Who was the inspiration for Dahl’s Willy Wonka?
I think Dahl himself is the wide-eyed Willy, but there is a school of thought that the character of the fantastically rich, powerful owner of the Chocolate Factory is based on Charles Marsh, the Texas newspaper tycoon who befriends Dahl during the war and becomes his lifelong friend and patron.
Join Jennet Conant from noon to 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept 23 at the International Spy Museum. Tickets are free.