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 Whitehall?
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 England?
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. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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