An un­likely spy in Wash­ing­ton

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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


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