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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washingtonby Jennet Conant
Synopses & Reviews
When Roald Dahl, a dashing young wounded RAF pilot, took up his post at the British Embassy in Washington in 1942, his assignment was to use his good looks, wit, and considerable charm to gain access to the most powerful figures in American political life. A patriot eager to do his part to save his country from a Nazi invasion, he invaded the upper reaches of the U.S. government and Georgetown society, winning over First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin; befriending wartime leaders from Henry Wallace to Henry Morgenthau; and seducing the glamorous freshman congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce.
Dahl would soon be caught up in a complex web of deception masterminded by William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, Churchill's legendary spy chief, who, with President Roosevelt's tacit permission, mounted a secret campaign of propaganda and political subversion to weaken American isolationist forces, bring the country into the war against Germany, and influence U.S. policy in favor of England. Known as the British Security Coordination (BSC) — though the initiated preferred to think of themselves as the Baker Street Irregulars in honor of the amateurs who aided Sherlock Holmes — these audacious agents planted British propaganda in American newspapers and radio programs, covertly influenced leading journalists — including Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell, and Walter Lippmann — harassed prominent isolationists and anti-New Dealers, and plotted against American corporations that did business with the Third Reich.
In an account better than spy fiction, Jennet Conant shows Dahl progressing from reluctant diplomat to sly man-about-town, parlaying his morale-boosting wartime propaganda work into a successful career as an author, which leads to his entree into the Roosevelt White House and Hyde Park and initiation into British intelligence's elite dirty tricks squad, all in less than three years. He and his colorful coconspirators — David Ogilvy, Ian Fleming, and Ivar Bryce, recruited more for their imagination and dramatic flair than any experience in the spy business — gossiped, bugged, and often hilariously bungled their way across Washington, doing their best to carry out their cloak-and-dagger assignments, support the fledgling American intelligence agency (the OSS), and see that Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term.
It is an extraordinary tale of deceit, double-dealing, and moral ambiguity — all in the name of victory. Richly detailed and meticulously researched, Conant's compelling narrative draws on never-before-seen wartime letters, diaries, and interviews and provides a rare, and remarkably candid, insider's view of the counterintelligence game during the tumultuous days of World War II.
"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 (Tuxedo Park) shows in her eloquent narrative, Dahl's intriguing coconspirators 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. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In March 1942 Roald Dahl, a British airman who had been severely wounded in battle, was informed that he had been posted to the British Embassy in Washington as an assistant air attache. "When he heard the news," Jennet Conant writes, "Dahl protested, 'Oh no, sir, please, sir — anything but that, sir!" He was 26 years old and wanted to be in the thick of things, not shoved aside in a desk job an ocean... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) away from the battlefront. Not long after reaching Washington, though, Dahl was "caught up in the complex web of intrigue masterminded by (William) Stephenson, the legendary Canadian spymaster, who outmaneuvered the FBI and State Department and managed to create an elaborate clandestine organization whose purpose was to weaken the isolationist forces in America and influence U.S. policy in favor of Britain." Conant continues: "Tall, handsome, and intelligent, Dahl had all the makings of an ideal operative. A courageous officer wounded in battle, smashing looking in his dress uniform, he was everything England could have asked for as a romantic representative of their imperiled island. He was also arrogant, idiosyncratic, and incorrigible, and probably the last person anyone would have considered reliable enough to be trusted with anything secret. Above all, however, Dahl was a survivor. When he got into trouble, he was shrewd enough to make himself useful to British intelligence, providing them with gossipy items that proved he had a nose for scandal and the writer's ear for damning detail. Already attached to the British air mission in Washington, he came equipped with the perfect cover story, and his easy wit and conspicuous charm guaranteed him entree to the drawing rooms — and bedrooms — of the rich and powerful." This is a part of Dahl's life that is not generally known. His two lovely memoirs, "Boy" and "Going Solo," describe his childhood and his flying experiences. His short stories, especially those collected in "Someone Like You" (1953), are internationally famous, and his children's books are even more so, most notably "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach." The story of his marriage to the actress Patricia Neal is similarly well known, including his dedication to her rehabilitation after she suffered several cerebral hemorrhages, and the couple's eventual divorce. Dahl was a wonderfully gifted writer but not a very nice man, and he "could be incredibly insensitive where women were concerned, to the point of being utterly heartless." But heartlessness can be a useful character trait in the intelligence business, and Dahl proved good at it. He worked in conjunction with, and eventually became a member of, the British Security Coordination (BSC), organized by Stephenson and staffed by "colorful co-conspirators — including Noel Coward, Ian Fleming, David Ogilvy, and Ivar Bryce — (who) were all rank amateurs, recruited for their clever minds and connections rather than any real experience in the trade of spying." They were known as the Baker Street Irregulars, after "the mischievous street urchins who aided the famous literary sleuth Sherlock Holmes." They were "the BSC's blue-eyed social butterflies, meant to use their charm and guile to feel out what the other side was thinking, convey messages between principals without creating any unnecessary awkwardness, and in general help smooth the way." It is important to emphasize that in this context "the other side" was not the Axis — Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan — but the United States. Britain and the United States were allies, but not always easy ones. Before Pearl Harbor, American opinion was strongly opposed to entering the war, and even afterward isolationist sentiment remained high. In choosing to build her narrative around Dahl, Conant is forced to concentrate on BSC activities after 1942, but a case can be made that the agency's most important work was done before America entered the war in Europe at the beginning of 1942, a period when "Churchill — with the tacit permission of President Roosevelt, who was privately in favor of intervention despite the overwhelming public opposition — instructed the BSC to do everything possible 'to drag' their reluctant ally into the war against Germany." The BSC played useful roles in persuading Roosevelt to propose and Congress to authorize Lend-Lease, a program that enabled the United States to give the Allies vitally needed war materiel, and in other pre-Pearl Harbor efforts. Still, if the part of the story Conant tells is comparatively minor, it is interesting all the same — especially for its high Washington gossip quotient — and Conant tells it well. As was true of her excellent first book, "Tuxedo Park" (2002), in "The Irregulars" she removes the dust of history from a forgotten but important figure to be reckoned with before and during the war. In "Tuxedo Park" that figure was Alfred Lee Loomis, a visionary Wall Street lawyer who had a passion for science and underwrote a vital secret program that led to the development of radar. In "The Irregulars" it is Charles Marsh, a Texas newspaper tycoon who befriended important and/or influential people in Washington and frequently played go-between, consigliore or sugar daddy depending on the situation. Not long after reaching Washington, Dahl "met Marsh at a party and immediately hit it off with the colorful millionaire, who was an exemplary host and an amusing and informative guide to Washington's stratified society, where new and old money, the congressional set and the diplomatic corps, all jostled for recognition." Marsh "was an active voice in American politics and an influential behind-the-scenes figure in Washington, but unlike most of the players Dahl had encountered in the nation's capital, he eschewed publicity in print, preferring to manipulate people and events from the privacy of his R Street study." In particular, Marsh was close to the vice president, Henry Wallace, who frequently came by his house in the late afternoon for a drink, occasions at which Dahl was usually present. In time, Marsh learned of Dahl's intelligence work, but that suited him just fine. He was an ardent internationalist and Anglophile, and he welcomed the opportunity to use Dahl as a conduit to London for useful information about American politics and policy. This was not so much "top-secret" information as it was information about such matters as who was in favor at the White House and who was not, what were American plans for the postwar assignment of international airline routes, and the private peccadilloes of powerful Washingtonians. Willing to smile his way through endless parties, receptions and formal dinners, Dahl made high-placed friends and capitalized on these friendships. He was chummy with leading journalists, especially the columnists Walter Lippmann and Drew Pearson, with Henry Wallace and Eleanor Roosevelt (who invited him to the White House and Hyde Park on a number of occasions, thus permitting him a friendly acquaintanceship with FDR), and with the glamorous if bombastic congresswoman from Connecticut, Clare Booth Luce, who became his friend and lover. When he protested to the British ambassador that he wanted to end the relationship, in which she had become constantly ardent and demanding, he was dissuaded and told, in effect, to do it for England. Dahl also had run-ins, though of a different sort, with another of the more dislikable people of the day, Ernest Hemingway. In 1944 Dahl was assigned to be a Royal Air Force escort for Hemingway on a trip to London; Papa, ever the macho man, wanted a front-row seat for the invasion of Normandy, though he ended up getting not much more than a glimpse. Dahl managed to get through this without incident and assumed that he and the author were friends. In 1946 Dahl published his first book, "Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying," and gave a copy to Hemingway, who "kept it two days, and then handed it back. When Dahl asked if he liked the stories, Hemingway replied, 'I didn't understand them,' and then strode down the corridor without looking back." By then, Dahl's war was over. He had mustered out of the RAF and was trying to support himself with his writing, a difficult task because he wrote very slowly, and short stories paid poorly. Not until he began writing children's books did he begin to achieve the fame that he still enjoys, 18 years after his death. Over the span of a 74-year life, Dahl's World War II service was merely an extended episode, but Jennet Conant has made an entertaining and instructive story out of it. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] wonderfully rendered history of British spy jinks in Washington....Conant captures the grace, humor and high spirits of the Roosevelt White House." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Part gossip, part history, Conant's book...is fitfully amusing in a Vanity Fair sort of way." Booklist
"With this excellent history of personalities and politics during World War II, Conant adds successfully to her previous books that have made vivid the war's background players. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"A fascinating glimpse of the intrigue and spying inside the British-American alliance in wartime Washington." Ben Bradlee
"Jennet Conant's new book is pure pleasure. Immensely intelligent and entertaining, with a narrative so strongly fashioned it reads, and compels, like the best fiction. All the complexities of friends spying on friends, yet as good a weekend companion as you'll find this year." Alan Furst, author of The Spies of Warsaw
Following her bestselling accounts of the most guarded secrets of the Second World War, Conant offers a rollicking true story of spies, politicians, journalists, and intrigue in the highest circles of Washington during the tumultuous days of World War II. 16 pages of b&w photographs.
About the Author
Jennet Conant is the author of the 2002 New York Times bestseller Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. A former journalist, she has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.
Table of Contents
THE USUAL DRILL
PIECE OF CAKE
ONE LONG LOAF
THE WAR IN WASHINGTON
THE GLAMOUR SET
What Our Readers Are Saying
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