Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jennet Conant: The Irregulars

Last month's revelation that famous figures like chef Julia Child and actor Sterling Hayden were part of FDR's proto-CIA spy network proved that there's nothing like a little clandestine activity to liven up a biography. (One of Child's assignments involved cooking up a repellent to keep sharks away from underground mines. Delicious!) Many of them probably had more influence than Charlie And The Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, but if Jennet Conant's The Irregulars: Roald Dahl And The British Spy Ring In Wartime Washington is any indication, it's doubtful that any of them had as much fun passing on Washington's secrets.


Removed from active duty after injuries sustained when he was shot down over Libya in 1940, Dahl initially dreaded being assigned to the British ambassador in Washington, and he told anyone who would listen how much he resented being trotted out as a war hero while his friends were still serving. But an unattached, dashing†pilot with a tony accent was in high demand both at Washington dinner parties and to William Stephenson, whom Winston Churchill tapped to create a clandestine British intelligence network to encourage U.S. intervention. Stephenson affectionately called his network "The Irregulars" after the orphans who assisted Sherlock Holmes; charter members like David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming (who fictionalized many of Stephenson's exploits for his Bond novels) would never have passed a service exam, but they threw themselves into drawing out their targets, whose information could be used for falsified German documents, defamatory pamphlets, and leaks to political columnists sympathetic to Britain.

While clinging to his job as "assistant air attaché" (which largely consisted of pulling elaborate pranks on the British ambassador), Dahl threw himself into professional socializing, even charming First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with stories of the "gremlins" that plagued RAF planes (which became the basis for his first children's book). He wasn't above creating salacious gossip as he went about collecting it, including seducing The Women playwright Clare Boothe Luce to make her more sympathetic to the interventionists. (Dahl complained in his notes, "That goddam woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to another for three goddam nights.") Conant brilliantly captures the disorganization of the BSC and its eccentric agents, who cultivated an administration whose support for the British military was far more precarious than usually depicted. Dahl was uniquely qualified for wartime espionage, she writes, because "no one so badly behaved would ever be suspected of working for British intelligence"; his tightrope walk between bureaucratic cog and promiscuous raconteur will delight fans of his black-humored books.