Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
By Jennet Conant
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780743294584, 416pp.)
Publication Date: September 9, 2008
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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 entrée 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.
Jennet Conant is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington and 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.