They Were Spies: Famous Folks Who Played the Espionage Game

Spy /spī/ noun: A person who secretly collects and reports information about an enemy or competitor.

Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception. – John le Carré, aka David Cornwell

If you should learn one thing from watching the Oscar-touted new film version of John le Carré’s classic of realistic Cold War-era cloak and dagger, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” it’s that people in the espionage business should not be show-offs. If everyone knows you’re a spy, you’re not doing it right.

Nevertheless, documents get released over time, old stories get told, and the end result is that we now know of a surprisingly large number of world-renowned writers, actor, and others who have worked pretty high up, and sometimes rather low down, in the field of intelligence. On the other hand, whether or not some of them were actual spies is a matter of how you define spying. That’s why we like the rather inclusive definition we’ve placed up top. On his website, John le Carré, who worked for several years at England’s MI-6 and whose real name is David Cornwell, at first tells us he was not a spy at all, but then jauntily describes himself as a “spook” four paragraphs later. By any name, spies are cagey.

While a lot of these people were probably mainly bureaucrats, we’d add that the same thing could be said for le Carré’s most famed protagonist. Whether portrayed by Alec Guinness in the 1979 television adaptation or newly embodied for the big screen by Gary Oldman, the seemingly gentle and harmless George Smiley is a man one underestimates at one’s extreme peril.

In any case, some of the notables below were pretty deep in the trenches of the spy game, and some probably even killed people. Some may not really have been involved with intelligence at all, we can’t be sure. That’s one thing about dealing with espionage – it’s like it’s all supposed to be a big secret or something.


MI-6 operative David Cornwell began writing novels under a mandatory pen name partly because he hated — hated, we tell you — James Bond. To young Cornwell, Bond was a “fascist” who might as easily have joined the Soviet SMERSH if only “the girls had been so pretty and the martinis so dry.” His 1963 novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” was a gripping, bitter tragedy and an instant classic, but becoming a famed author and an implicit critic of MI-6 wasn’t the stated reason le Carré/Cornwell finally quit. His espionage career had apparently already been ended by Kim Philby, the Soviet mole whose betrayal inspired “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” As to the rest of Cornwell’s story? To the extent the English gossip press will allow, the ex-spook has had a penchant for secrecy — at least until such time as his authorized biography will be released in 2014. Here’s some of what we’ve gathered in the meantime: Still a sometimes outspoken member of the English left at age 80, Cornwell was first hired to spy on the English far left. He soon graduated to join the spying establishment he later memorialized in his books as “the Circus.” Readers of le Carré’s “A Perfect Spy” will know of his shady father, who in real life mixed with such notorious British gangsters as the Krays. For now, the 1986 novel about a suspected double-agent is still probably your best source for clues about the real career of David Cornwell.


Commander Ian Fleming was no James Bond, but he could have persuaded you he was. A distant but often charming snob with a depressive side and a fervid imagination, 007’s creator was Codename 17F of British Naval Intelligence. Nicholas Rankin’s recent book, “Ian Fleming’s Commandos” describes how a cadre of soldiers under the future author’s command was tasked with pilfering German secrets, essentially spying on a mass level. That was next to nothing in the scheme of things, however. One early project involved Fleming and William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the legendary founder of the OSS, the World War II-era ancestor of the CIA, in the mass reading and censorship of English and American mail. Some of Fleming’s proposed wartime intrigues have more than a hint of 007 about them, though the more imaginative scenarios had a way of not actually being used. One scheme involved a German plane stocked with English soldiers posing as Germans as a ruse to acquire the famed Enigma device. He also conceived of a plan to enlist Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist and self-proclaimed antichrist, in a plot to ensnare ensnare occult obsessed Nazi Party official Rudolf Hess, who inconveniently went and got himself captured. Another plan involved monitoring the forces of Spain in Gibraltar, but then fascist dictator Francisco Franco chose to sit out the war. The plan’s name may sound familiar: “Operation Goldeneye.”


Ian Fleming isn’t the only pop culture legend to have his World War II cloak and dagger activities exposed in a 2011 book. Jennet Conant’s “A Covert Affair” purports to be about the espionage and romantic activities of a certain future TV cooking institution named Julia McWilliams and her eventual husband, Paul Child. By all accounts, however, Conant’s book isn’t quite the tale of thefts of secret documents between kisses and boeuf à la bourguignonne that we might hope for, nor is it some dark tale of violent counter-insurgency. (Imagine a machine gun wielding Julia Child: “Bon appetit, motherfuckers!”) Indeed, the book has been derided by critics for really being more about the adventures of the couple’s friends and associates at the OSS. Among those friends was one Jane Foster, who was indicted as a double agent in 1957 and very briefly got Julia and Paul into unsavory McCarthy-era hot water, but the intrigue ended there. Whatever McWilliams and Child actually did for the OSS was, we imagine, like most spy work in that it was far too dull for anyone to write about. Later, the Childs were assigned to China and some of their labor no doubt involved cables from Mao’s communist forces and Chang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang. That might have been fairly interesting, but the only thing that seems to have got Paul and Julia excited, aside from each other, was the wonders of the local cuisine.


Yes, the German expatriate mega-star and pioneer in the field of sexual liberation was surely an inspiration for the “Inglourious Basterds” character of Bridget von Hammersmarck played by Diane Kruger. And, yes, the great star of cinema and cabaret really did volunteer for the top secret OSS. Even so, it’s stretching things to imply that the woman who aroused a generation in “The Blue Angel” and “Destry Rides Again” was any kind of secret agent. Unlike von Hammersmarck, Dietrich’s profound revulsion with the Nazis was well known and only moderated by the fact that she still had a mother and sister living in Germany; she would not have been much use as an undercover operative. On the other hand, Miss Dietrich really was very much a heroic fighter against fascism in World War II, allowing her German language recordings of American pop tunes to be covertly distributed in Hitler’s Europe, and she entirely deserved her Medal of Freedom. Even so, we’re mainly including her because this list could really use a little sexing up.


It’s easy to forget just how huge a star the slender English thespian was on both sides of the Atlantic. Leslie Howard used his immense power to give his Broadway costar, Humphrey Bogart, his big movie break in “The Petrified Forest.” And when David O. Selznick needed an actor who could romantically overpower ultimate A-lister Clark Gable for the affections of vivacious Vivien Leigh during the early portions of “Gone with the Wind,” Howard was the natural choice. Howard also had played a number of heroic and spy-like roles, so it’s easy to imagine him doing something dangerously top secret. That may be why speculation still persists about the mysterious 1943 plane crash that killed him. No one knows exactly why BOAC 777 from Lisbon was shot down by eight German fighters. One theory goes that Germany believed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was aboard. Or, perhaps, the Germans were trying to prevent a secret meeting that had already happened. Writer José Rey-Ximena asserted in a 2008 book that, through a former girlfriend, Howard had arranged a covert get together with Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, a natural ally to Mussolini and Hitler, and persuaded him to remain neutral in the war. If this is what happened, Howard may very well have shaved years off World War II, but also extended the reign of Spanish fascism for decades and ruined poor Ian Fleming’s Operation Goldeneye. Spying really is a messy business.


The man behind such movie classics as “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” and very arguably the greatest of all American directors, the irascible but occasionally beloved John Ford was a Naval Reserve officer. Ford was busy on several fronts during the war, including making several documentaries and shooting secret footage for the OSS; he was wounded while filming the Battle of Midway and eventually cited for bravery. However, according to biographer Joseph McBride, the director took an active interest in spying for his Navy pals much earlier, including a now famous, seemingly casual 1939 Mexican fishing trip. Accurately or not, Ford was convinced he found evidence of a significant Japanese presence in the coastal areas of Baja as he and cinematographer George Schneiderman filmed and took stills. Meanwhile, buddies like John Wayne and Ward Bond were happily spending the trip fishing and drinking, but not necessarily in that order, and Ford undoubtedly took part in those festivities as well. Nevertheless, Naval Intelligence was impressed with the director’s report, and by the end of the war, Ford was an important advisor to William Donovan.


Who knew that the creator of Willy Wonka, “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and the famous episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” involving murder with a frozen leg of lamb was also “one of the biggest cocksmen in America”? It might seem odder still if you know of author Roald Dahl’s problematic marriage to actress Patricia Neal and his generally unpleasant reputation in middle age. However, the surprisingly handsome young Dahl was a genuine war hero in the Royal Air Force and apparently blessed with immense savoir faire and a knack for bedding wealthy women traveling in key political circles. So it was that Canadian spy William Stephenson, who was working with English intelligence to lure the U.S. into the ongoing world war before Pearl Harbor, noted that Dahl had an amazing ability to gain entry to the corridors of power, as it were. Among Dahl’s lambs to the slaughter was one Clare Boothe Luce, a conservative Republican writer and politician opposed to FDR’s strongly anti-Nazi foreign policy who also happened to be married to Henry Luce, the powerful publisher of Time and Life magazines. We can’t claim any direct connection and we’re sure patriotism and Pearl Harbor played a huge part, but her support of FDR’s war effort became pretty strong when she was elected to Congress in 1942. We’re not sure if any of this background informed Roald Dahl’s amusing work on the screenplay for the fifth James Bond adventure, “You Only Live Twice,” but it couldn’t have hurt.


You’ve very likely never heard of cool and collected playwright-spy John Ashenden. Audiences disregarded 1936’s “Secret Agent,” an underrated Alfred Hitchcock-directed film version of the agent’s exploits, and there’s been only one BBC television adaptation since. Nevertheless, the Ashenden stories were big enough to launch the modern spy genre, and they were apparently all based on the personal experiences of Somerset Maugham, quite likely one of your English teacher’s favorite writers. With a medical degree in his background and a very dramatic love life involving both men and women, Maugham finished his 1915 novel, “Of Human Bondage,” while working as an ambulance driver alongside fellow World War I literati including Ernest Hemingway and e.e. cummings. The very busy Mr. Maugham was then recruited to travel to Switzerland to aide in efforts against a leftist pre-Gandhi Indian independence movement that espoused violence against the British imperialists. In return, the King’s government tried to kill many of the movement’s leaders in Europe, and Maugham was involved to some extent. Maugham was later asked to undertake a secret mission to Moscow to keep Russia in the war and Nicolai Lenin’s Bolsheviks out of power. No luck there, but after writing up the experiences with his usual flair for melodrama, Maugham racked up one more career success. Still, a spy’s lot is rarely a happy one. Winston Churchill had been deeply involved in the attempted Russian intervention. He used England’s severe Official Secrets Act to persuade Maugham to burn 14 of the 30 Ashenden stories.


If any actor ever earned his onscreen macho cred honestly, it was the magnetic, eccentric star of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” and “Dr. Strangelove,” not to mention such outstanding classic-era productions as “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Johnny Guitar.” You probably also remember Sterling Hayden as the bad cop whose good Italian meal comes to a downright nasty end in “The Godfather.” Ironically, early in his career, the future tough guy’s tough guy was sold as something of a pretty boy and had even pleased the gossip hounds by marrying his first co-star, Madeleine Carroll — the female lead of Alfred Hitchcock’s early spy entries, “The 39 Steps” and the aforementioned “Secret Agent.” After Pearl Harbor, however, all bets were off. Hayden, an experienced seaman, found himself using an assumed name and shipping supplies to leftist anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia on behalf of William Donovan’s OSS. At one point, Wikipedia tells us, the strapping actor parachuted himself into Nazi-controlled Croatia and did…well, something very heroic, we’re sure. Hayden was, for his part, so impressed by the bravery of the partisans that some of their socialism rubbed off. For his troubles, the future General Jack Ripper received medals, a commendation from Yugoslavian strongman Marshall Tito and a 1951 summons from the hated House Un-American Activities Committee. That part of the story, Sterling Hayden would surely agree, was less heroic.


A passionate leftist, devout Catholic, and world class writer plagued with bipolar disorder, Graham Greene was probably the chief literary inspiration for the young John le Carré, Much of his most popular work was in the espionage genre and, even if you’re not sure who Greene is, if you watch a lot of movies, you may be familiar with “The Quiet American,” “The Human Factor,” “Our Man in Havana,” “This Gun for Hire” and “The Third Man.” He also famously worked for MI-6 during the Cold War despite political sympathies that have often been described as radical. Regardless, his books brilliantly explored the moral tensions that too often put the West on the side of the oppressors in places like Vietnam, Cuba and Africa. As to exactly what Greene did for MI-6, perhaps the reason we don’t know is that he worked underneath, and was good friends with, none other than MI-6 mole Kim Philby. Lest readers form any dark suspicions about Greene being a turncoat himself, it seems clear that he was probably ignorant of Philby’s duplicity. In any case, he remained free to bash U.S. and English foreign policy in very strong terms. If there were anything to prosecute him over, an excuse might have been found.


We considered leaving out this swing-era trumpeter turned CIA spook since he is far better known as a spy than for his youthful sojourn with the Harry James and Glen Miller orchestras. However, as the father of drummer-composer Stewart Copeland of the Police and Miles Copeland III, Sting’s manager and the founder of now defunct I.R.S. records, Miles Copeland, Jr.’s connection to show business and his involvement in some of the nastiest chapters in Cold War history surely rates a mention. Joining the OSS after Pearl Harbor, Copeland eventually became one of the CIA’s main Middle East specialists and seems to have been neck deep in a number of ill-conceived and immoral undertakings. By far the lousiest and most aggressively stupid of these was “Operation Ajax,” a 1953 CIA/MI6-sponsored coup which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed the brutal regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi. The Shah, of course, was in turn overthrown in the 1970s by radical Islamists who remain in power to this day. It appears that Copeland might also have been involved with operations protecting and giving arms to neighboring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, as well as the notorious MK-Ultra program, which explored the use of LSD and other drugs as possible chemical warfare agents. Copeland, who died in 1991, later retired to write. His first book was entitled “The Game of Nations: The Amorality of Power Politics.”


Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but not many Jews have become famous playing baseball. Moreover, the clubby World War II OSS didn’t exactly make it easy for “ethnic types” to make their mark in the spy game. Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg did both. As described in the 1995 bestseller, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” Berg was a highly eccentric radio quiz show winner, amateur film cameraman, and Asiaphile who was recruited by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to shoot 16mm footage used in planning the post-Pearl Harbor “Doolittle Raid.” He later joined the OSS Balkans desk and, this might sound familiar, at one point parachuted into Yugoslavia to aid partisans. After that, Berg’s raw brain power led him to scientific espionage. At one point, he was sent to Switzerland to attend a lecture by quantum mechanics pioneer Werner Heisenberg. If the physicist had said anything to make Berg believe the Germans were close to developing an atom bomb, his orders were, we gather, “Shoot to kill.” Sadly, things went awry for Berg after the war. His requests to be assigned to the Israel desk were ignored. Berg was let go by the CIA during the mid-1950s and seems to have spent the rest of his life sponging off relatives. Nevertheless, he was a major league ball player, a spy and a Jew. A number of people have been one of those things, but he’s the only one we know who was all three.


He’s easily the least famous person on this list, but Oscar-winning screenwriter, film critic, and poet Paul Dehn co-wrote two of the greatest spy movies ever, and those movies could not have been more different from each other. 1964’s “Goldfinger” turned the increasingly successful, and increasingly tongue-in-cheek, James Bond series into an enormous worldwide craze. Martin Ritt’s classic 1965 film of John le Carré ‘s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” presented spying as a grimy, sad and morally bankrupt endeavor. (It also features the first ever film appearance of George Smiley.) Dehn, it turns out, was an ex-operative personally acquainted with both Ian Fleming and John le Carré. Moreover, on the DVD extras of the outstanding 2008 Criterion reissue of “Spy,” le Carré outs Dehn as a paid assassin during World War II. Since Quentin Tarantino clearly knows everything relating to movies — and knows it before we do — we can’t stop wondering if the courageous, highly intelligent, and apparently deadly former film critic Dehn might have been the inspiration for Archie Hickox of “Inglorious Basterds.” True, Dehn was gay — actually, we don’t really know that Archie isn’t — and he had the luck to survive the war. Dehn also went on to script 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and all of the 70s sequels to the original “Planet of the Apes,” and we’re not sure if Archie would do that. Even so, until we hear directly from Tarantino that Paul Dehn wasn’t the inspiration for one of our favorite recent supporting characters, we’re going to assume he was.


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