Blithe spirits in wartime Washington
Jennet Conant's 109 East Palace told the story of how the atomic bomb was constructed in the "secret city" of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Now in The Irregulars, she uncovers another World War II episode: the invasion of Washington, D.C., by a corps of dashing, well-spoken British spies whose job was to turn the country from isolationism to full-throated support of England's fight against fascism.
Among this gifted phalanx were the playwright and actor Noël Coward, future James Bond creator Ian Fleming, future advertising genius David Ogilvy, classical scholar Gilbert Highet, the ridiculously rich and handsome Ivar Bryce (of whom it was said, "It's terrible the advantages he's had to overcome") and, towering above them all, budding writer and Royal Air Force veteran Roald Dahl. Dahl is the focus of Conant's breezy (but well-documented) narrative.
Organized under the British Security Coordination by Canadian-born spymaster William Stephenson, these agents planted news stories, sowed suspicion toward England's perceived enemies, whispered into influential ears at cocktail parties and summer outings, and flattered and romanced America's most powerful women, from liberal first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to conservative U.S. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce (wife of Time and Life publisher Henry Luce). Through the patronage and close friendship of American newspaper and oil tycoon Charles Marsh, Dahl quickly became a fixture in the Washington social scene. He became a trusted companion of Vice President Henry Wallace, played poker with Missouri Sen. Harry Truman and swapped stories with rising political star Lyndon Johnson. Dahl's was hardly a furtive cloak-and-dagger operation.
Even after America committed itself wholeheartedly to the war, the "Irregulars" stayed on, monitoring and nudging internal politics and gathering information about the country's plans for its postwar global dominance. Dahl would go on, of course, to become internationally famous as the writer of adult and children's fiction (most notably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and husband of the actress Patricia Neal.
Edward Morris writes from Nashville.