Roald Dahl Was A Spy

Image from rottentomatoes.com
Image from rottentomatoes.com

And a fucking good one too. I’m not being crude. This a simple statement of fact.

The beloved author of children’s books and macabre short stories we all grew up with, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (twice made into popular movies) James and the Giant Peach (which became a Walt Disney – Tim Burton production) and The Witches (which also made it to the big screen), was a major operative in the British spy ring operating in Washington D.C. during World War II. The group included Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. The U.S. was an ally, but there were many isolationists and anti-British groups and personages that needed to be spied upon and, whenever possible, neutralized.

Dahl was a wartime ace with the Royal Air Force, who was wounded fighting in the African theater and was later transferred to Washington as an assistant air attache.

His exploits (sexploits ?) are chronicled in a new book “The Irregulars:Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington” by Jennet Conant. Part of his duties, per Conant, was to gather bedroom intelligence through “pillow talk”, in the quaint terminology of the time. This simply involved sleeping around in the line of duty. According to The Times, his conquests included Millicent Rogers, the glamorous heiress to a Standard Oil fortune and Clare Boothe Luce, a right-wing congresswoman and the sexually frisky wife of the founder and publisher of Time magazine, who was regarded as anti-Brit. Apparently, not as far as bedmates were concerned.

Dahl would later whine to friends that Boothe Luce, 13 years his senior, had left him “all fucked out” after three nights of bedroom capers. Doubtless, it was “hard” duty. Dahl complained to the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax, who reminded him of a scene from a movie about Henry VIII, in which Henry goes into the bedroom with Anne of Cleves, saying: “The things I’ve done for England“. Dahl soldiered on.

And I thought James Bond was tough.

A review from Publisher’s Weekly:

What could be more intriguing than the young writer Roald Dahl – destined to create such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – assigned by His Majesty’s Government to Washington, D.C., as a diplomat in the spring of 1942, charged with a secret mission? Dahl’s brief was to gather intelligence about America’s isolationist circles (indeed, he infiltrated the infatuated Claire Boothe Luce in more ways than one) and propagandize for prompt American entry into the European war. The United States had technically been at war with Germany since December 1941. However, the U.S.’s attention was focused mainly on the Pacific theater – and such pro-German political figures as Luce and Charles Lindbergh meant to keep it that way. Dahl’s most important job was to influence public opinion generally and the opinions of Washington’s powerful specifically. As bestselling author Conant shows in her eloquent narrative, Dahl’s intriguing co-conspirators included future advertising legend David Ogilvy and future spy novelist Ian Fleming. Most fascinating, though, is Dahl’s relationship with the great British spymaster William Stephenson, otherwise known as ‘Intrepid.’ This all boils down to a thoroughly engrossing story, one Conant tells exceptionally well.

Roald Dahl with Ernest Hemingway in 1944. Photo from newsweek.com
Roald Dahl with Ernest Hemingway in 1944. Photo from newsweek.com

2 thoughts on “Roald Dahl Was A Spy”

  1. You are right. His children’s books have an unconventional, even scary and macabre, take on childhood. Which is one the reasons why he’s so popular and why his books have generated a lot of controversy over the years.

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