hen Winston Churchill described, in 1946, the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain, he was eliding a few inconvenient details. Much has been written about American isolationism before the warCharles Lindbergh, America Firsters, “Let God Save the King,” and so on. But even after Pearl Harbor, as Jennet Conant describes in her mostly entertaining new book, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, “a certain amount of ambivalence, if not residual anti-British sentiment,” still prevailed. Working avidly to conquer it was the British Security Coordination (BSC), an underground network of British spies and propagandists operating out of Rockefeller Center under the direction of William “Intrepid” Stephenson. The BSCs agents included, famously, Ian Fleming and Nol Coward, and, less famously, Roald Dahl, the author of classic childrens books such as Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The BSC had been formed in 1940 to do all that “could not be done by overt means, to assure sufficient aid for Britain and eventually to bring America into the war,” as the official BSC history puts it. This included intelligence gathering in North America and ploys to garner American popular support, ranging from the subtle to the wildly unorthodox. One famous BSC gambit involved the hiring of Hungarian astrologer Louis de Wohl to predict Hitlers downfall; Stephenson, a valiant and crafty superspy, even arranged for one of de Wohls more minor predictionsthat an ally of Hitlers would go insaneto come true for added verisimilitude. (The implausibility of this trick may have reflected, more than anything, certain assumptions about the American publics gullibility: “It is unlikely,” the BSC history explains, “that any propagandist would seriously attempt to influence politically the people of England, say, or France through the medium of astrological prediction. Yet in the United States this was done with effective if limited results.”) It has been reported that at its peak, the BSC employed three thousand agents within the U.S.
After Pearl Harbor and Americas entrance into the war in 1942, the BSCs role altered. Instead of trying to change Americas direction, the problem now was keeping it on track. In Washington, at least, this primarily meant encouraging Franklin Delano Roosevelts stability as president. It was to this end that Roald Dahls singular assortment of gifts was deployed.
Dahl was born in Wales, the son of Norwegian immigrants, and joined up with the RAF in East Africa almost as soon as the war broke out. Within two years, he had injured himself badly enough to be declared unfit to fly, and was shipped home to England. In 1942, the Foreign Office assigned him to the Washington, D.C., office of the British embassy to serve as “assistant air attach,” a job that mostly involved a dulling round of lectures, luncheons, and banquets. Only twenty-five at the time, and accustomed to the high-glamour, high-risk world of jet fighting, Dahl chafed at the assignment. He sought out more exciting freelance opportunities, first as a writer, selling fictionalized accounts of his wartime adventures to American magazines, and then as a part-time spy for the British government.
Dahl was an extremely useful informant on internal affairs. Upon arriving in Washington, he quickly fell into an elite social network that included the wealthy Texas press baron Charles Marsh and FDRs anti-imperialist vice president, Henry Wallace (a persistent thorn in Churchills side). He began collecting information at all those boring luncheons and cocktail parties and reporting back to his superiors in the BSC. As his social status in Washington grewto the point where he was visiting the Roosevelts at their family retreat in Hyde Parkhe became even more valuable to the Brits.
However, it was Dahls unscrupulousness with women that proved especially handy. At one point Dahl was dispatched to seduce Clare Boothe Luce, the conservative, anti-British congresswoman, in the hope that the affair would soften her position against Churchill. The assignment apparently gave Dahl some trouble: “That goddamn woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to another for three goddamn nights,” Dahl complained to a friend. In Conants telling, Dahl comes across as not merely duplicitous, but also ambitious, reckless, and occasionally cruel. (His fellow BSC operative, the advertiser David Ogilvy, would remark, “When [women] fell in love with him, as a lot did, I dont think he was nice to them.”)
Conant, a former Vanity Fair writer, is especially strong when describing the luxe war-era cocktail parties thrown by eccentric hostesses like the rabidly isolationist Evalyn Walsh McLean, who received guests wearing the magnificent Hope diamond around her neck, “jokingly warning onlookers, Dont touch it, bad luck you know.” A far different scene was to be found at Longlea, Charles Marshs estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Marshs wife, the beautiful but difficult Alice, presided over a cast of characters that included Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnsonher longtime loverand other prominent Democrats.
nfortunately, The Irregulars loses some energy when it turns from Dahls socializing to his actual work. This is understandable, since the work he did doesnt seem to have been all that interesting. For instance, apart from reporting on wild party talk and keeping tabs on Wallaces links to communist groups, Dahl was tangentially involved in some rather numbing discussions over postwar allocations of airspace; Conants descriptions of these negotiations are dutiful at best.
The problem with the airspace sections is the main problem with the book in general: the focus on Dahl is, ultimately, limiting. The BSCs most important work happened before the war started, and Dahl arrived in D.C. in 1942. Conant tries to broaden her scope by including lively sections on Fleming and Ogilvy, which does something to make up for whats lacking in Dahls story. Fleming, for example, was trained at Camp X, Stephensons espionage boot camp outside Toronto, and would later base his James Bond character partly on Stephenson. Ogilvy also went to Camp X: “I was taught to use a revolver, to blow up bridges and power lines with plastic, to cripple police dogs by grabbing their front legs and tearing their chests apart, and to kill a man with my bare hands.” Dahls service to the Crown, unfortunately, doesnt make quite as good reading.
The Irregulars follows its characters into their postwar lives: Dahl became famous for his childrens bookssome, like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Danny the Champion of the World, include wonderfully elaborate subterfugesas well as for many short stories for adults. (His colleague in the BSC, Nol Coward, would say that in all of his adult fiction, there was “an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness, and a curiously adolescent emphasis on sex.”) Dahl married twice and died in 1990; he was most famous in his later years for a series of grouchy anti-Semitic remarks in the press. But his early life as a spy has been largely ignored, until now. Conant has done a fine job of digging through old letters, interviewing the few people still living who remember Dahls BSC days, and trying to fact-check the various boastful memoirs from his fellow spies. If she seems to find the ostentatious, nepotisticand instantly recognizableD.C. social world a bit more interesting than the internal machinations of FDRs wartime government, its hard to fault her for it.
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