A Conversation with Jennet Conant, author of The Irregulars
The Irregulars is your third book dealing with historical
aspects of World War II. Did you come across Roald Dahl, William Stephenson and
the rest of the colorful British Security Coordination (BSC) crew, in your past
research, or did you happen upon this subject more recently? What brought them
to your attention?
I had to do quite a bit of research involving the bomb
spies for my second book and became interested in the idea of pursuing the
subject for my next project. I was reading through a great many old,
out-of-print books on WWII espionage when I saw a brief mention that Dahl had
worked as a spy in Washington and that piqued my interest. When I discovered a
young David Ogilvy was his Georgetown roommate and fellow spy, I knew there was
a story to be told.
The late Stephen Ambrose used to say that, for him, the best
part of historical research was the surprises he discovered in the process. How
much of the material included in The Irregulars came as a surprise to you? Were
there any moments when you found yourself shaking your head in amazement?
I couldn't agree with Ambrose more. Almost everything
about Dahl's escapades in Washington came as a surprise to me because none of it
had ever been written about in any detail. When I was fortunate enough to
unearth a cache of his wartime correspondence that had been lost for years it
was like opening a hidden door to the past, all sorts of secrets spilled out,
which in turn led to other documents and diaries and still more revelations.
Doing the historical research is both the most frustrating and fun part of the
book. It's like a very, very long and tiring treasure huntthen, just when you
think there is nothing more to be found, you stumble across a tiny nugget of
information, a new anecdote or story that has never been told before, and it is
absolutely the most thrilling, wonderful feeling of discovery.
You seem to have mixed feelings regarding Roald Dahl,
complimenting his ingratiating social gifts and quick intellect, while
frequently noting his penchant for disdain and even rudeness. He performed
crucial services on behalf of his country, but overall do you find his character
as questionable as the acts of espionage he committed? Was he, in your
estimation, a hero or simply a useful tool for his masters in the BSC and
Well, I don't know any perfect people, but I have to
admit I generally prefer sinners to saints. Dahl was certainly a complicated
character, blessed with tremendous charisma and talent, but he had an undeniable
cruel streak. He was a bit of a cad where women were concerned, but then so were
many of his peers, including Ian Fleming. Whatever you may think of Dahl's
personality, however, he served his country very bravely as a pilot during the
war, and then, despite terrible injuries, dedicated himself to espionage work in
Washington when he could have settled into a safe desk job at home. War makes
heroes of young men, and I think Dahl more than deserves his laurels.
Your descriptions of the Washington social scene during World
War II are especially detailed and glittering. Had the city's bluebloods
curtailed their party circuitas was the case in Londondo you think Dahl and
the rest of The Irregulars would have been as effective?
While it's true London was very hard hit during the war,
and suffered terrible damage from the nightly bombings and severe shortages,
they still managed to party late into the night there as well. Alcohol and
camaraderie are time-tested ways to combat the fear, hardship, loneliness and
loss of war. Dahl and his fellow Irregulars were extremely intelligent and
appealing young men, and I expect they would have adapted to whatever
environment they found themselves in, endeared themselves to the locals, and
made the most of there time there. Wartime Washington boasted a particularly
wealthy and powerful mix of society and politics, but by no means had the market
cornered on espionage. London, Paris, and Warsaw, to name just three other
cities, were also full of intrigue, and key fields of operation.
In some ways, Charles Marsh is the most memorable character
in this book. How much did you know about Marsh before you began your research?
Without his influence, would Roald Dahl have failed in his fact-gathering
mission, or would he simply have sought out another well-connected patron?
I can honestly say I had never heard of Charles Marsh
before I began work on the book, though he was not an unknown figure by any
means, and appears in any number of political biographies, including Robert Caro's wonderful trilogy on Lyndon Johnson. I believe Charles Marsh was the
making of Dahl, and not just as a spy, but also as a man and then later as a
writer. It is almost impossible to understand how much death Dahl had seen as a
very young man, how very badly injured he was in the crash, and how fragile his
combat experience had left him. Marsh picked him up and propped him up over and
over again, gave him money and moral support, and the confidence that comes with
friendship, family, wealth and connections. Marsh was Dahl's surrogate father,
mentor and guiding light for all the years of their association.
The isolationists came close to turning public opinion
against Britain. Do you think most readers will be surprised to discover just
how widespread the influence of the isolationists became prior to the U.S.
entering the war? Without the efforts of the BSC, could they have conceivably
blocked the Lend-Lease Act and otherwise prevented FDR from finding ways to aid
I think most Americans have forgotten how unpopular the
war was in this country prior to Pearl Harbor. The overwhelming public opinion
was that the Europeans had gone and gotten themselves into another mess, that
they still had not paid their debts from the First World War, and that America
should not bail them out again. Public sentiment was so opposed to American
intervention that President Roosevelt's hands were tied, and he could not be
seen as actively involving this country in aiding Britain without risk losing
the next election. I think there is no doubt that without the extremely
aggressive propaganda campaign mounted by the BSC in America FDR's efforts would
have been stymied, and England would have suffered the terrible consequences. As
it was, the Lend-Lease Act barely passed after months and months of bitter
debate, and it was still only a drop in the bucket in terms of the aid Britain
needed, but it was of great importance symbolically. It was America's first step
toward intervention and war.
In researching and writing The Irregulars, what participants
did you know little about previously and come to admire?
I had read about Stephenson's activities years ago, so I
was already acquainted with Ian Fleming's mission regarding General Donovan and
what would become the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), as well as the secret
role played by the likes of Noel Coward, Leslie Howard and a few of the other
high-profile Irregulars. I had no idea, however, that the advertising mogul
David Ogilvy was among the rank and file. I found his whole story fascinating:
the way he was first recruited at Gallup to leak public opinion and political
polling data to British intelligence, and then brought into the BSC to use his
expertise in counter espionage work, and later used the same techniques to make
a fortune on Madison Avenue. He was a born operatorbrilliant, charming, and
single-mindedand a splendid character from start to finish.
With this book following the highly successful Tuxedo Park
and 109 East Palace, you've established yourself as an acknowledged
master storyteller regarding World War II. Do you think you will stay in that
general historical time frame for your next book? Can you share a bit about your
next book or subject with us?
I never talk about my books in the formative stages, it
takes all the mystery out of the process. I expect in the years to come I will
return to World War II again and again, there are still so many stories to be
told. That said, however, I am equally intrigued by the 1930s and the events
leading up to war, as I am by the post-war years and the social and political
upheaval that followed. So that is as much as a clue as I am going to give.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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