There is an obvious affinity between writing and spying — not just in the attention to detail and emphasis on studying those around you, but in the integral shifting of roles, from insider to outsider and back again. Also, as British espionage writer and ex-spy John le Carre puts it, “Both professions are perhaps rather lonely.”
The tradition of writers working in espionage goes back at least as far as Christopher Marlowe in the Elizabethan age, but Cold War proliferation and the lionisation of spies led to a boom during the 20th century, and many of the era’s most celebrated authors have revealed themselves to be former spooks. Here are some of the best-known writers who dabbled or excelled in the shadowy world of code names, double agents and martinis shaken, not stirred:
1. Ernest Hemingway Worked for the KGB
No list of authorial “Did You Knows?” seems complete without Hemingway making an appearance, and spying is no exception. In the recent book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB, co-written by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev, it’s alleged that Hemingway was a budding KGB source from 1941 on. Vassiliev’s study of KGB files states that Hemingway was given the codename “Argo” and tasked with collecting political information — however, he provided nothing useful and was dropped as an agent by 1950. As such, it’s questionable how serious he was about working for the Russians or what his real motives were.
2. Roald Dahl Worked for the BSC (British Security Coordination)
Dahl is best known as a beloved children’s author of books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — hell, he even produced a child-friendly account of his service in World War II as a fighter pilot. But funny enough, Dahl skipped over the details of what came next. In The Irregulars, American journalist Jennet Conant describes Dahl's life after his infamous head injury, when he was sent to Washington to work in the PR department of the British Embassy. There he met Canadian spymaster William Stevenson and was soon recruited into the BSC, a front for counter-propaganda and espionage in North America. Dahl’s role was to investigate the political leanings of important women in the United States. He used his charm and good looks to these ends, and his friend Antoinette Haskell claims that Dahl “slept with everybody on the east and west coasts that had more than $50,000 a year.” At one point, Dahl supposedly asked to be transferred to another assignment due to fatigue, but was ordered back to work.
3. Peter Matthiessen Worked for the CIA
Three-time National Book Award-winner Matthiessen worked for the CIA during the 1950s, but even more surprising than being an intelligence agent is his co-founding of The Paris Review as a deliberate cover. Harold L. Humes, his cofounder, was unaware of this fact and was actually hospitalized later in life while suffering from paranoia about spies. By this point Matthiessen had come clean about his espionage to his friends and to the subsequent editors of The Paris Review, who were equally unaware of its intelligence roots. Humes felt that Matthiessen was “properly ashamed” of his actions, and Matthiessen himself stressed that the magazine’s content was never used as a tool of the CIA and that he had never received money to that effect.
4. Graham Greene Worked for MI6
Greene’s long and varied intelligence career took place alongside his successful one as a writer. He had murky connections with possible pre-war intelligence groups in Ireland and Europe, and in 1941, his sister Elizabeth, station head for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Cairo, decided to bring Graham into the fold. During this tipping point in the North African conflict, he was sent to work counter-intelligence in Sierra Leone, where the Nazi-aligned Vichy French had a strong presence.
Afterward, Greene was sent to England to operate in the Iberian section of MI6, where the head of his department was Kim Philby, who achieved notoriety later as the most successful Soviet mole in the Cold War. Greene worked closely with Philby and they became friends, but when Philby suppressed reports from Greene’s agents in Germany that suggested Hitler could be removed without the necessity for a full-scale Soviet invasion, their friendship soured and he requested a transfer. Greene’s suspicions about Philby’s KGB involvement are unclear, but it has been suggested that Philby’s betrayal was a source of inspiration for Harry Lime in The Third Man. After leaving the offices of MI6, Greene continued to carry out intelligence work for the organization in Europe, the USSR and China, often using research for his latest novel as his cover.
5. Ian Fleming Worked for British Naval Intelligence
The creator of British super-spy James Bond took much of his inspiration from his time in World War II. In May 1939, Fleming joined the Admiralty as an assistant to the director of intelligence and quickly became an armchair planner and overseer for some of its most audacious special operations. He drew up suggestions which included a plan to drop a dead body disguised as an airman into Nazi-occupied Europe carrying fake intelligence papers — an idea that later became the grim but successful Operation Mincemeat.
Fleming also served as head of a special operations group tasked with retrieving the German enigma cipher machine. Despite elaborate plans to board ships with commandos disguised as German airman and a desperate raid under the cover of the Dieppe landings, the unit never captured the machine and eventually its command was transferred away from Fleming. He was consigned to desk duty throughout the war, which may have had more than a bit to do with his creation of the fictional field agent with the action-packed, go-anywhere, do-anything lifestyle.
Spying and writing seem inextricably intertwined, and given the extent of authors turned spooks in the 20th century, it’s likely that there are plenty of writer-spies out there today. The only question is which of our current literary figures will turn out to be part of the other “lonely profession.” (Agent Double-O Franzen?) We encourage you to bandy about your guesses in the comments below.
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
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