A new book, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant draws on a previously unpublished trove of Dahl letters and other documents may prove the most comprehensive account of Dahl’s raucous wartime exploits as a charming RAF attaché.
Injured during training as an RAF pilot, Dahl fought in the Middle East before he was declared unfit to fly and was shipped to the Washington embassy in 1942. He immediately cut a swathe as a 6ft 6in battle-scarred pilot who was nonetheless horrified to find himself “in the middle of a cocktail mob in America”.
He struck up a friendship with Charles Marsh, a self-made Texan newspaper magnate who was a fan of Winston Churchill and a ready ally in the British effort to win American support against Adolf Hitler. With Marsh’s help, Dahl became close to prominent American journalists and senior US officials, notably Henry Wallace, the isolationist vice-president. His social-climbing skills attracted the attention of William Stephenson, the Canadian spymaster, who was running a clandestine British effort to draw America into the war (although by 1942 America was already at war with Germany)
Dahl leapt at the chance to join the world of codenames and secret passwords. His job, writes Conant, was “to be as engaging as possible, a bright and breezy presence at table, and encourage confidences from those in the know”. At a British embassy dinner, Dahl was deliberately placed next to Clare Boothe Luce, a right-wing congresswoman and the sexually frisky wife of the publisher of Time magazine - her anticolonial tirades and distaste for Churchill were worrying British officials. It was Dahl’s job to get close to Boothe Luce, which he managed only too easily. She proved such a tigress in bed that Dahl later claimed to have begged his superiors to take him off the assignment (complaining that Boothe Luce, 13 years his senior, had left him “all f***** out” after three nights of bedroom capers). He was ordered back to the bedroom, and told to close his eyes and think of England!
During the course of his kissing and telling career, Dahl managed to pass on several useful intelligence titbits and a couple of purloined documents. He came to believe from his visits to the Roosevelt family home in Hyde Park, New York state, that the crippled president was having an affair with Crown Princess Martha of Norway, who had been granted asylum by the US.
A previous biography of Dahl described him as “one of the biggest cocksmen in America”, and Conant seems to relate how he earned the accolade.
I will have to put this book on my reading list. It sounds as if Dahl’s activities in the US were a case of “They also serve”... or should that be “They also service?”