Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Ridiculous History: Beloved Author Roald Dahl Was Also a Suave British Spy


Acclaimed children's author Roald Dahl, pictured here in 1971, lived a double life as a British intelligence officer. Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/GettyImages
Acclaimed children's author Roald Dahl, pictured here in 1971, lived a double life as a British intelligence officer. Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/GettyImages

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places." Roald Dahl penned these words for "The Minpins," the final of 34 children's books he wrote between 1943 and his death in 1990.

But unlike in this excerpt, there was nothing fictional about Dahl's search for secrets. During World War II, the soon-to-be-beloved author of books including "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Danny, the Champion of the World" and "The Witches" served as a fighter pilot and an officer in the British Royal Air Force. Following that, he assumed lifestyle reminiscent of superspy James Bond, joining a secret organization based in the United States known as the British Security Coordination.

That spy network's primary goals were to offset Nazi propaganda while protecting the interests of the United Kingdom. So, while Dahl dreamed up imaginative children's stories, he also lived as a secret intelligence officer under the cover of working a public relations job at the British embassy in Washington, D.C.

By all reports, he was both very good and very bad at it. Dahl was especially talented at being a ladies' man, a skill that came in handy when convincing both politicians and heiresses alike to part with closely guarded secrets. One biography described his romantic skill with particularly colorful language, following reports that Dahl reportedly had affairs with, among others, Millicent Rogers, heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, and Clare Boothe Luce, an influential congresswoman who later became an ambassador and foreign affairs advisor to presidents Nixon and Ford.

But as good as he was at the "sleeping" part, Dahl came up short at keeping secrets. According to his daughter Lucy, Dahl was a prolific gossip. "Dad never could keep his mouth shut," she's quoted saying in Donald Sturrock's 2010 biography "Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl."

Despite his penchant for spilling the beans, Dahl did manage to come across some interesting intelligence at cocktail parties — or perhaps it was thanks to his bedside manner. As early as 1944, he'd uncovered early U.S. talk of landing a man on the moon. He also reportedly believed rumors that Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Norwegian crown princess Martha were having an illicit affair (a claim most historians discount), passing that information along with other intelligence directly to Winston Churchill.

Despite his Bond-style role in world affairs, Dahl will probably always be best remembered as one of the greatest children's storytellers of all time. Many of his children's books have been turned into movies, including "The BFG," the tale of a friendly giant who befriends a young girl, then races against time to protect her from danger. It's just the sort of story Dahl could truly appreciate.

Roald Dahl was married to American actress Patricia Neal, pictured here with their three children, from 1953 to 1983.
Roald Dahl was married to American actress Patricia Neal, pictured here with their three children, from 1953 to 1983.
Keystone/Getty Images


More to Explore