5 Celebrities You Never Knew Were Real-Life Spies
Julia Child: just one secret agent among the stars.
1. Julia Child: The Chef with a Taste for Adventure
Julia Child wasn’t always into French cooking. As she famously recounted in her autobiography, My Life in France, it wasn’t until she lived in Paris in her mid-30s that she learned what good food tasted like.
How did Child keep busy before that? By performing equally inventive work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. government’s precursor to the CIA. Child joined the spy outfit in 1942 after discovering that the Women’s Army Corps had a height limit; at six feet two inches, she was too tall to serve. Luckily, the OSS was a perfect fit. One of Child’s first assignments was to help cook up a shark repellent to protect underwater explosives from being set off by curious creatures. By all accounts, she excelled at her work. Following a stint in the OSS lab, Child went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then to China, where she worked as chief of the OSS Registry. As such, she enjoyed top security clearance and even a little danger. (The CIA remains mum about exactly what she did.)
[pullquote]One of Child’s first assignments was to help cook up a shark repellent to protect underwater explosives from being set off by curious creatures.[/pullquote]
Working at the OSS also turned out to be a recipe for love. Julia fell for another OSS officer, Paul Cushing Child. After the two got hitched in 1946, Julia quit her job, while Paul continued to work for the government. Within two years, he was transferred to the U.S. Information Agency in France, where Julia took up cooking to occupy her time. The rest is culinary history.
2. Harry Houdini: The Magician Who Spied His Way to Stardom
At the start of his career in the late 19th century, Harry Houdini gained notoriety by waltzing into police stations and demanding that officers lock him up. It was a great publicity stunt. Every time he ditched the cuffs, he made headlines—and eventually caught the eye of American and British intelligence agencies. According to a 2006 biography, both the Secret Service and Scotland Yard used Houdini to gather sensitive information for them during his tours across Europe and Russia.
In return for his services, the book claims, Houdini asked for one thing: publicity. Scotland Yard superintendent William Melville, who notes Houdini’s cooperation in his diary, helped him set up escape stunts in front of London theater managers.
3. Roald Dahl: The Ladies’ Man Who Fell in Love with Writing
Long before he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force during World War II. But after sustaining several injuries in a 1940 crash, Dahl was transferred to a desk job at the British embassy in Washington, DC. He quickly charmed his way into high society and became so popular among DC ladies that British intelligence came up with a new role for him: seducing powerful women and using them to promote Britain’s interests in America.
It wasn’t all fun and games. Clare Booth Luce, a prominent U.S. representative married to Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was so frisky in the bedroom that Dahl begged to be let off the case. In the end, however, his work with the ladies paid off. Dahl not only rallied support for Britain at a time when many Americans didn’t want the country to enter the war, but he also managed to pass valuable stolen documents to the British government.
[pullquote] British intelligence came up with a new role for him: seducing powerful women. [/pullquote]
While penning propaganda and war stories in American papers, Dahl discovered something else: his own talent for writing.
4. Robert Baden-Powell: The Boy Scout with a Merit Badge in Sneakiness
“Be Prepared” figures into the codes of both spies and Boy Scouts, so you may not be surprised to learn that the Scouts were founded by an illustrious British agent, Lord Robert Baden-Powell.
In 1899, Baden-Powell made a name for himself during the Second Boer War in South Africa when he faced a 217-day siege by a Boer army of 8,000 men. Wholly outnumbered, he used props, cunning, and deception to defend the territory of Mafeking. He ordered his men to plant fake mines on the edge of town and pretend to avoid barbed wire to throw off the enemy. Because he was short on troops, he enlisted all the young boys in town as guards. Somehow, he managed to protect the territory until reinforcements finally arrived.
The story made Baden-Powell a hero in England, and in 1907, he used his new fame to kick-start the scouting movement. Soon he was helping set up Boy Scout troops across the globe. All the while, it’s rumored that Baden-Powell remained active in the military, spying wherever he toured.
5. Lucky Luciano: The Mobster with the Heart of a Patriot
As head of the Genovese crime family, Charles “Lucky” Luciano smoothed out the Mafia’s rough edges and turned families of thugs into well-oiled organized-crime machines. He also ended up working for U.S. intelligence.
In 1936, Luciano was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. But in 1942, the government discovered it needed his help. A French ocean liner, the Normandie, was being converted into a troop ship when it suddenly caught fire and sank. Officials suspected sabotage, since many of the dockworkers were under the Mafia’s thumb, but they needed an in, and Luciano was the key.
Soon any supposed sabotage on the docks ended. In exchange, Luciano enjoyed preferential treatment for the rest of his time in prison.
Luciano continued to help American forces for the remainder of World War II, using his Mafia contacts in Sicily to expose Nazi battle plans. After he served only ten years in prison, his sentence was commuted, and he was deported to his birthplace of Italy. Before he died there in 1962, he told two biographers that he’d had his own men set fire to the Normandie in a plot to force his release. But as the New York Times noted, Luciano was “known to exaggerate his own cleverness.”