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.

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