An unlikely spy in Washington
What more could one wish from a book? Here is a discussion of propaganda and covert actions written with text-book clarity. Salacious gossip about the upper circles of Washington’s political and media community. A writing style that has one racing from page to page, eager to soak in more details.
I thump my desk with glee over Jennet Conant’s “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.” The book’s connective thread is the story of the somewhat caddish English writer Dahl, obscure in the 1940s, but later to achieve fame and wealth with children’s books such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” But Ms. Conant’s scope is far wider.
Severely injured in a crash early in his service in the Royal Air Force, Dahl was assigned to the Washington embassy as a deputy attache. He hated the thought of being a desk-bound warrior. Fortunately, he quickly fell into a hush-hush group called British Security Coordination (BSC). As Ms. Conant observes, BSC was “one of he most controversial, and probably one of he most successful, covert action campaigns in the annals of espionage.” At one level it was a massive “propaganda machine,” tasked with gaining American public support for Britain, and countering isolationists who wanted no part of the European war. Another brief was collecting intelligence on the inner-workings of the Roosevelt Administration.
Ms. Conant’s truly fascinating book can be read on several levels. It is, first of all, a highly readable primer on propaganda operations, and a strong statement as to why intelligence organizations mount operations on the turf of “friendly nations.” Britain literally was fighting for its life in the months before Pearl Harbor, and a strong isolationist segment of the American population wanted no part of the European War. What struck me was the ease with which an unknown 20-ish airman and aspiring writer insinuated himself into the upper ranks of Washington’s political and journalistic society. For instance, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was impressed with a children’s story authored by Dahl. A brief exchange of correspondence later, Dahl was at FDR’s Hyde Park retreat, chatting up the president and advisers and enjoying a bu- colic weekend.
But Dahl’s most valuable ongoing contact was the millionaire newspaper publisher Charles Marsh, who despite awesomely uncouth manners and speech managed to befriend persons such as Henry Wallace, the vice president, and a number of Roosevelt cabinet officers. Wallace was of especial interest to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) because of his leftist politics (“that menace!,” SIS chief Stewart Menzies called him) and fears that he could actually become president should the visibly frail FDR die.
To put it bluntly, Wallace was a blabber-mouth, both to Marsh and to Dahl. His indiscretions meant that British intelligence had staggering access to the inner workings of the Roosevelt Administration. In his latter years, Wallace became a figure of public ridicule, so leftist that he was driven out of politics. But in the early 1940s, James Reston of the New York Times would call him the “Assistant President,” writing, “Henry Wallace is now the administration’s head man on Capital Hill, its defense chief, economic boss, and No. 1 post-war planner.”
Dahl shared his superiors’ view of Wallace as a political nitwit, but made nice with him nonetheless because of the quality of information he provided British intelligence. Because of his contracts, Dahl was able to alert London that FDR would bump Wallace from the 1944 presidential tickets six months before he actually did so.
In writing about Marsh, Ms. Conant scored a major research coup. She obtained, from the publisher’s son, access to his personal papers, and the draft of an unpublished Marsh biography by Ralph Ingersoll, a prominent journalist of the era. Among the fascinating characters who waft through her book is the lithesome Alice Glass, a sleep-around beauty who was Marsh’s mistress, then his wife. (He first spotted her as a teen skinny dipping in a friend’s pool in Austin, Texas, where he owned the local paper. He had her in bed that very night.) Marsh set her up in a mansion in Culpepper County, Virginia, where she entertained a seemingly endless string of bed partners. Included was a strapping young Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, who did not hesitate to cuckold the older Marsh, a friend and campaign contributor. The much-wiser Dahl, not wishing to offend a man who was feeding him high-level political information, wisely resisted Glass’ amorous overtures.
Dahl’s allies were legion. He cultivated the columnist Drew Pearson, who went so far as to permit BSC to write an occasional piece under his byline. Pearson’s sources were good enough to give him who-said-what accounts of cabinet meetings — information that passed quickly to Marsh, thence to Dahl and on to London.
Other BSC officers during the period — “The Irregulars,” they were called — including Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond (Dahl later would write the movie script for “You Only Live Twice”) and the advertising genius David Ogilvy.
One especially unorthodox assignment given the dashing Dahl was to bed Connecticut Republican Rep. Clare Booth Luce, the gorgeous playwright wife of TimeLife publisher Henry Luce, in hopes she — and her husband — would “warm” to the British position on post-war issues such as colonialism and aviation rights. Mrs. Luce was 13 years Dahl’s senior, and she proved more than a physical match for him. His comments about her sexual stamina cannot be repeated here; suffice to quote him as telling Ambassador Lord Halifax after three nights, “You know, it’s a great assignment, but I just can’t go on.” Whereupon Halifax threw back a Shakespearean quote, “the things I’ve done for England [. . . ]” and told Dahl to keep at it. He sighed and did his duty a few more nights.
Joseph Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com