Did you know that Josephine Baker and Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, were actually real-life agents? Here are 6 famous people you probably didn’t know were spies and agents during World War II.
After Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance in The Imitation Game (2014), we’ve all heard about Alan Turing by now. And rightly so. The tormented British genius deserves all the fame, praise, and recognition he’s gotten—and more. And though he is arguably one of the most notable and successful World War II spies, he’s not the only one to play the cloak-and-dagger game among the famous. Here are 6 personalities you probably didn’t know were spies or agents during this terrible time.
1. Julia Child
Before becoming the famous chef, author, and TV celebrity we all know, Julia Child sought to help the war efforts by volunteering for the Aircraft Warning Service and attempting to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps and in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She was rejected in both for being too tall, but eventually joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). There, she was tasked with researching, handling, and typing highly classified documents.
2. Roald Dahl
Dahl is best known as the author of best-selling children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. His books have been remarkably successful, selling over 250 million copies around the world. What most people ignore, however, is that Dahl was also a dedicated member of the British military and intelligence efforts during the war. He was initially a fighter pilot who flew several combat missions. His flying career ended following a crash-landing in the North African desert which fractured his skull. He was also involved with gathering intelligence in Washington, where he was part of a notable spy network (the British Security Coordination). For his work as an intelligence agent he gained the attention of the highest operatives and members of the British government, including Winston Churchill.
3. Josephine Baker
While she was a celebrated dancer already in her early career in New York, Josephine Baker skyrocketed to international fame after moving to Paris in 1925. During the Second World War, she participated as a spy for the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation. And was she busy! As a widely famous celebrity, Baker traveled around Europe performing in several high-profile venues and attending important parties at many embassies. This allowed her to gather sensitive military and political information, which she then smuggled to her allies. After the war, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (the highest French order of merit), and awarded the Croix de Guerre. She was also part of the Harlem Renaissance and America’s Civil Rights Movement. Truly, an admirable person.
4. Morris “Moe” Berg
Now, Berg has a peculiarly interesting story. This professional-baseball-player-turned-spy gained a reputation quite early in his career for being particularly smart. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in modern languages as he pursued a career in the major leagues, during which he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, and Boston Red Sox. He also studied at the Sorbonne, earned a law degree from Columbia University, and eventually passed the bar exam. His baseball career ended around the time World War II began. Given his credentials, intellect, and skills (most notably, he was multilingual), as well as a marked interest in intelligence services, he quickly became an officer for the OSS. In Europe, he was in charge of gathering intelligence about the Nazi project to build an atomic bomb, and was even tasked with assassinating prominent German physicist Werner Heisenberg should he determine they were close to succeeding. Fortunately, Berg correctly assessed that Germany was far from producing a nuclear weapon, so Heisenberg was spared. After the war, the former pro player behaved somewhat erratically, rejecting a the Medal of Freedom as well as several job offers. He worked for the CIA for a while but was soon dismissed. He lived the rest of his life from the charity of friends and family.
5. Graham Greene
Greene is, simply put, one of the major and most successful literary figures of the 20th century. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for two consecutive years. He’s one of those rare figures whose work was acclaimed by both the top literary scholars and by the general public, writing serious novels as well as thrillers. And he was also a spy! Recruited by MI6, he was posted to Sierra Leone during World War II, where he was in charge of preventing the smuggling of resources from Africa into Germany, and of monitoring Vichy forces in French Guinea.
6. Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming is best known as the creator of the international super-agent James Bond, 007. But where do you think the inspiration came from to delve into the world of spies and gadgets? The whole character and plot was based on Fleming’s very own experiences during his own time as an intelligence agent during World War II. He started as assistant of the Director of Naval Intelligence of the British Royal Navy, and eventually was in charge of creating and maintaining an intelligence network in Spain, an operation that also involved active sabotage missions against the Nazis. The name of that operation? Goldeneye. Yep, like the James Bond film.
Yes, these people were important celebrities in their own right. I bet you wouldn’t expect them to be proper spies as well. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? They all played a role during the war, for which the world should be thankful. I know I am.
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