Jonathan Yardley on 'The Irregulars'
The little-known story of Roald Dahl's years as a spy in Washington.
Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster. 391 pp. $27.95
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 attaché. "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 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 entrée 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 Noël 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 Par k 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 dislikeable 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.