If the TV show “Jeopardy!” presented the clue, “author who wrote about a giant peach and a chocolate factory,” just about everybody could come up with, “Who is Roald Dahl?” The English writer of offbeat children’s books is known worldwide. In 2007, some ten million copies of his books were sold in a multitude of languages. But few know that this popular author had another, secret life in espionage during World War II.
Now a Sag Harbor author with a penchant for turning up little known facts, Jennet Conant, has unearthed Mr. Dahl’s double life and details it in her new book, “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.”
Interviewed recently in the media room at her home in Sag Harbor, Ms. Conant recalled how she got started on the project. “In the summer of 2005, I had a ‘eureka’ moment,” she said. “I was browsing through a book on the famous British spy, Sir William Stephenson, when I read a tiny clause that placed Dahl and David Ogilvy as spies for the British Security Coordination agency. Many of us knew of the controversies surrounding Stephenson, aka Intrepid, but had never seen or heard mention of Dahl or Ogilvy.”
Light bulbs went off, and Ms. Conant had the topic for her next book. She started by reading all the papers, letters, and documents she could get her hands on covering British espionage in the U.S. She ran into many dead ends and stone walls. Spies, after all, do not keep diaries and were bound by the Official Secrets Act for decades. And the entire British spy network during that period was cloaked in secrecy.
But Ms. Conant was not to be deterred. “I like a challenge,” she said. “Tracking down the information was like a treasure hunt, something I love to do. One clue would lead to another. And then I had some lucky breaks, which opened up huge untapped resources.”
While digging for relevant information, Ms. Conant encountered an invaluable resource in the personal papers of Texas newspaper tycoon Charles Marsh, who had been a friend and mentor to Mr. Dahl in wartime Washington. Mr. Marsh preserved reams of Mr. Dahl’s letters and typed transcripts of his spy reports, memos, and conversations. Eventually, Mr. Marsh’s heirs turned over all the espionage material to Ms. Conant, along with the freedom to use it as she saw fit.
Because of her authorship of two well-regarded modern histories, Ms. Conant was given access to several locked archives: one from William Stevenson (no relation), author of “The Man Called Intrepid,” and another from Ian Fleming’s biographer, William Pearson. These archives contained unpublished filmed interviews of Mr. Dahl’s reminisces and reports, and were instrumental in helping Ms. Conant add context to this episode of history.
The “Irregulars” in the book’s title refers to the group of young, debonair Englishmen sent to Washington by Winston Churchill to pressure the U.S. to support England in the war effort. Under the aegis of spymaster William Stephenson, amateurs Roald Dahl, David Ogilvy, Ian Fleming, and Noel Coward employed intrigue, social skills, and a few dirty tricks.
In her book, Ms. Conant details their efforts for British Security Coordination: “They planted propaganda in American newspapers, radio stations, wire services; co-opted leading columnists from Drew Pearson to Walter Lippmann and Walter Winchell; harassed prominent isolationists and anti-New Dealers; exposed Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists; and plotted against corporations that were working against British interests.”
Told with vigor and intelligence, the tale of Mr. Dahl and his sophisticated colleagues is fascinating. As in her previous book, “109 East Palace” (reviewed in The Southampton Press June 23, 2005), Ms. Conant employs an intentionally novelistic style, putting her primary focus on Mr. Dahl, an Englishman in his 20s, badly wounded in an RAF maneuver in Libya, and coming of age in the United States.
“I like to make history intimate by staying close to an individual’s emotions during a limited period of time,” Ms. Conant said. “Dahl was bright, good looking, and charming. But he could be arrogant, had a mean streak, and constantly got into trouble.”
From the beginning of September 2005 until its completion the following spring, Ms.Conant wrote “The Irregulars” in her Manhattan apartment weekdays from 9 a.m. until late afternoon. During her Sag Harbor weekends, to immerse herself in the period, she read diaries about life in London during the blitz and factual espionage stories. She listened to audio tapes of Mr. Dahl’s voice.
When “The Irregulars” was published on September 9, 2008, the book received huge press coverage in the United Kingdom. The public image of Mr. Dahl across the pond had transmuted into a British Mr. Rogers, complete with cardigan sweater, diligently writing in the garden shed. The British were shocked to think of their beloved children’s author as having been a spy, actively involved in chicanery.