Top Ten Literary Spies
Movies depict spies and writers idling around disreputable gin joints in disheveled trench coats or sporting tuxedos and tossing quips between martinis. Implausibly, practitioners of writing and espionage not only share many of the same occupational clichés, they are frequently intertwined in a secret world.
“I won’t say I’m interested in spies, but they do turn up in my life in quite funny ways,” Rebecca West told the Paris Review, a publication created with CIA start-up money to provide cover for intelligence officer and author Peter Matthiessen. From Spy Sites of Washington D.C. (Georgetown University Press, 2017) the authors reveal their Top 10 writer-spies who lived or worked in Washington D.C.
- Edith Wharton, author of Pulitzer Prize winning Age of Innocence and House of Mirth, had a hand in creating one of the world’s largest intelligence organizations. Reportedly, Wharton pressured government officials to authorize a formal military intelligence service in 1917. Under the command of Major Ralph Van Deman, an initial four-person staff in the Old Executive Office Building, 639 17th Street NW, eventually grew into today’s Defense Intelligence Service with over 16,000 employees.
- Thomas Attwood Digges, largely forgotten as the author of Adventures of Alonso, and first American novelist, spied for Benjamin Franklin and the Patriot cause while living in England during the Revolutionary War. His family home, now Fort Washington National Park in Maryland, lies across the Potomac from George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, an intelligence officer in the British Security Coordination (BSC) during the run-up to WWII, lived in Washington at 1610 34th Street NW. Dahl operated as an “agent of influence” among Washington’s elite with writings such as the largely fictional depiction of his wartime exploits Shot Down Over Libya for the Saturday Evening Post (August 1, 1942). The piece described cool-headed, stiff upper lip British heroism intended to gain U.S. public support for the Allied cause. In fact, Dahl was not shot down over Libya; his plane ran out of fuel. Neither was he recovering from wounds in the U.S., as the Saturday Evening Post accompanying bio explained.
- Ian Fleming, first a spy and then a writer, worked from the British embassy, 3100 Massachusetts Avenue NW (today the UK ambassador’s residence). The future James Bond author coordinated British and American operations with the Office of Strategic Services, America’s wartime spy agency.
- Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and television’s first celebrity chef, was first a strategic researcher the OSS, then assigned to operations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Among her Washington residences were the Brighton Hotel, 2123 California Street NW and the Gralyn Hotel, 1745 N Street NW. Artifacts from the spy-turned-chef’s cooking show are now part of the Smithsonian Museum.
- Tom Braden, first an OSS officer and then a manager of CIA’s covert action programs, gained fame for his book and television show, Eight is Enough, and co-hosting the news show Crossfire. At the CIA Braden promoted the concept of personal and artistic freedom through modern art by secretly funding shows for avant–garde abstract artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Braden and his large family lived at 101 East Melrose Street, Chevy Chase, Maryland.
- James Jesus Angleton connection to the arts is rarely suspected. However, the CIA’s legendary counterintelligence chief had an affection for poetry, first evidenced in his work with the Yale literary magazine His light-hearted, wise-cracking, and sometimes angry correspondence with e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams belied his humorless public visage. Angleton, who lived modestly at 4814 North 33rd Street, Arlington, Virginia, is credited with applying the phrase “wilderness of mirrors” to describe counterintelligence. He apparently borrowed the term from T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion.
- Joseph Alsop, an anti-Soviet conservative columnist and author on politics and art, became the target of an aggressive blackmail operation by Soviet intelligence. During the 1950s, Alsop, a closeted gay man, was seduced and photographed while visiting the Soviet Union. After he returned to his home at 2720 Dumbarton Street NW, he informed a friend and senior CIA officer, Richard Helms, who confronted KGB counterparts to quietly resolve the matter.
- Walter Lippmann, newspaper columnist and prolific author, lived well at 1527 35th Street NW (the former home of Alexander Graham Bell) and then at 3525 Woodley Road NW. However, Lippmann seemed surrounded by spies. His brother-in-law, John “Ivar” Bryce, a friend of Ian Fleming, was a British operative, while his assistant Mary Price, was on the payroll of Soviet intelligence.
- Jack Anderson’s muckraking Washington Merry-Go-Round columns revealed some of America’s most sensitive operations, but, as a journalist, was never charged with a crime. Working from his home at 7810 Kachina Lane, Bethesda, Maryland, Anderson’s exposed the CIA’s Glomar Explorer program that attempted to recover the Soviet submarine K-129 in the Pacific and GAMMA GUPY, an operation that intercepted car-phone calls high-ranking Soviet officials made from their ZiL limos.