A spy wants to be unknown and unknowable, a transparent, chameleon-like figure who can slip in and out of the shadows without being detected. James Bond might be a fictional character, but the suave Englishman would have never made the grade as a world-class spook; with his dapper tuxedoes and droll catchphrases, he’s simply too identifiable. If that theory were to hold true, then celebrities would make the worst spies. However, people are not always who they seem to be and this is especially true when it comes to celebrities.
The Office of Strategic Services was founded in 1942 and is considered to be the precursor to the CIA. It was formed to collect and analyze intelligence, coordinate espionage activities, perform acts of sabotage, and organize anti-Nazi resistance groups in Europe. During World War II, the OSS is believed to have employed 24,000 people. In 2008, the National Archives published 750,000 documents on the wartime intelligence unit, which included 35,000 top-secret personal files. According to the BBC, the files included “initial applications to join the OSS; preliminary training and subsequent work assignments; pay; leave and travel documents; evaluations; basic medical information; and awards, decorations, and discharge papers.” The declassified documents confirmed that several well-known celebrities and public figures were spies during World War II. From a writer and a chef to a magician and a baseball player, here are 7 celebrities who were also spies.
7. Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl, a British novelist and short story writer, was famous for penning unsentimental and darkly humorous children’s books. Dahl’s work includes classics like James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Dahl received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1983, and the Children’s Author of the Year from the British Book Awards in 1990. He was not only one of the world’s best selling authors, but he is also considered “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century.”
However, before Roald Dahl started writing children’s books, he was a fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force in World War II. After sustaining injuries in a plane crash in 1940, Dahl worked in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. In the 1980s, it was revealed that Dahl had been promoting Britain’s interests in the United States and helping to combat the “America First” movement. Rumor has it Dahl charmed and bedded powerful women, 007-style, in order to rally war support from America.
6. Noel Coward
Noel Coward was a successful playwright. By the start of World War II, the flamboyant scribe had already achieved box office gold with Hay Fever, Easy Virtue, and Private Lives. Coward put his writing career on hold during the war and helped establish a propaganda bureau for the British Secret Intelligence Service. The British used Coward’s celebrity status by sending him to America to drum up support for the Allied cause, as well as to deliver information to important and influential people, including President Franklin Roosevelt.
The following is an entry from Noel Coward’s diary: “I was to go on as an entertainer with an accompanist and sing my songs and on the side doing something rather hush-hush … My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot.” Noel Coward played his espionage role so well that he ended up on the Nazi Black List.
5. Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra’s involvement with the CIA has never been proven, but rumors of his alleged covert activity have circulated for years. However, Old Blue Eyes’ wasn’t a spy in the traditional sense. According to his daughter, Tina, Sinatra acted as a secret courier for the CIA. He wasn’t dropping off intelligence or passing on correspondences in hollowed out bullets; legend has it that Sinatra was secretly transporting people on his private jet.
In her book, My Father’s Daughter, Tina states that the CIA would contact Sinatra when they needed someone to disappear without a paper trail. Sinatra traveled the world on a private charted jet, so it would have been easy for him to transport people in and out of the country. Along with the CIA, Frank Sinatra also has a tenuous connection to the mob. Supposedly, Sinatra told his daughter that he was involved with the Mafia in helping John F. Kennedy win the West Virginia primary in 1960. The FBI has never been able to find any evidence to support the claim.
4. Josephine Baker
“The Nazis were racist,” Josephine Baker told Ebony magazine in 1973. “They were bigots. I despise that sort of thing and was determined that they must be defeated.” Racism was the impetus for the American-born French dancer, singer, and actress to spy for the French Resistance. As a world-famous entertainer, Baker came into contact and had casual conversations with all sorts of people throughout Europe. Any political or military information she heard between German officers at her shows, Baker would pass on to Charles de Gaulle and the Allies. She is even said to have smuggled documents and maps written in invisible ink out of France on her music sheets. Baker was rewarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance in 1945. Due to her service to France during the war, she was the first American woman to receive a full French military funeral.
3. Moe Berg
Baseball is called “the thinking man’s sport,” and Moe Berg, a catcher who played 15 seasons in the major leagues, was often called the “brainiest man in baseball.” Berg graduated from Princeton with a degree in modern languages. Allegedly, Berg spoke 12 languages and read 10 newspapers a day. After signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he pursued a law degree from Columbia University and passed the New York State bar exam. After being traded to the Washington Senators, Berg caught the eye of the U.S. government and was recruited by the OSS.
In 1934, Moe Berg did spy work in Japan as part of an American All-Star team tour with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He brought back film footage that was integral in planning Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942. Later, the baseball player was sent to Yugoslavia to gather intelligence on resistance groups. Berg’s most dangerous espionage mission, however, took place in 1944. He was sent to Germany to gather intelligence on the country’s effort to build an atom bomb; according to one of Berg’s biographers, the catcher had orders to shoot Germany’s lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg, if he discovered Germany was close to developing nuclear weapons.
2. Harry Houdini
Magic and espionage go hand-in-hand, so it’s no surprise that over the years there’s been speculation about the secret life of the world’s most famous magician, Harry Houdini. In the book, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, writers William Kalush and Larry Sloman claim to have had access to the diary of William Melville, former superintendent of Scotland Yard. According to their book, Kalush and Sloman believe that Houdini and Melville had a reciprocal business relationship; Melville gave Houdini exposure in Europe and helped him further his career, and the magician used his abilities to spy on other European countries for the superintendent. Of course, not everyone buys Kalush and Sloman’s theories. Still, it’s not the first espionage story to be attached to Harry Houdini. It’s also been rumored the American Secret Service asked him to infiltrate Russian police stations.
1. Julia Child
Julia Child is widely recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American mainstream and ushering in the age of the celebrity chef. Child’s two-volume cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the subsequent TV show, The French Chef, made her a household name in the 1960s. Nevertheless, before Julia Child moved to the City of Lights and discovered her culinary calling, she worked as an intelligence officer at the Office of Strategic Services. After her rise to culinary fame, Julia Child played down her role in U.S. intelligence, claiming that she was “just a clerk.” However, her husband Paul told a far different cloak and dagger story, saying “that Julia was actually privy to all messages both incoming from the field or Washington, etc., and outgoing to agents and operatives all over China, Burma, and India.” Which story is true remains a mystery.