15. Graham Greene served as a spy for British Intelligence
British author Graham Greene was well-known as a novelist and suspense writer before World War II. During the war, he worked for MI6. One suggestion made by Greene to his boss, the notorious Kim Philby, was a brothel on Portugal’s island of Guinea. Greene suggested staffing the brothel with trained spies in order to extract information from the Vichy French and German officers who would frequent the enterprise. Greene later wrote that he made the suggestion as a lark, and was surprised to be summoned to a meeting at which it was discussed seriously among senior intelligence officers. Ultimately, the idea was dropped.
Greene was posted in Freetown, an important port on the coast of Africa. From there he ran a network of agents which monitored the agents of Germany and Vichy France, obtained information on ship movements, and practiced counterintelligence. Greene actively recruited agents for the service, and kept notes from which he created the plots of many of the spy and espionage novels he wrote following the war. MI6 kept his activity classified for decades after the war, finally admitting that the novelist had been a spymaster in 2010. The FBI built a heavy file on Greene due to his suspected communist sympathies. Those suspicions were strengthened when it was revealed that Kim Philby had been a double agent, working for the Soviets during World War II and the Cold War which ensued.
16. Josephine Baker was a spy for the French Resistance during World War II
Josephine Baker was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, a child of an unknown father and a marginally employed mother. She was married and divorced twice before the age of 20. Baker was the name of her second husband, her birth name was recorded as McDonald. By 1921 she was performing as a singer and dancer in St. Louis and later toured in vaudeville shows. In 1925 she performed in Paris, France. There she rapidly rose to fame as an exotic dancer and performer. Silent films followed. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. She interacted with the rich, the politically connected, and the leaders of pre-war France by 1939.
When the French declared war on Germany following the latter’s invasion of Poland in 1939, she was recruited to spy for France. After the French surrender, she continued to use her connections and her notoriety to surreptitiously collect information from German and Vichy officials, which she passed along to the French Resistance. She carried messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music, and in notes pinned in her underwear, to agents in neutral countries such as Portugal and Sweden. She traveled with an entourage disguised as an entertainment troupe, working closely with agents from Britain and later the American OSS. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her services as a spy and agent for the Allies during World War II.
17. Actor Sterling Hayden worked for the OSS during the Second World War
Sterling Hayden is largely forgotten now, though in the 1950s and 1960s he was a prolific actor. He was the performer concerned with the corruption of bodily fluids in Dr. Strangelove, as well as the corrupt police officer shot and killed by Michael Corleone in The Godfather. During World War II, the motion picture star played a different role entirely. He was an agent and operative of the OSS. Hayden enlisted in the army under his own name, broke an ankle during training, and was discharged. Using a false name – John Hamilton – he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and performed well enough in training that he was sent to Officer Candidate School for commissioning. There he caught the attention of OSS Director Bill Donovan.
Hayden, under the name Hamilton, served in Italy and the Balkans, interacting with partisans and providing supplies and support to diverse groups. Donovan also tasked him to monitor and report on the communist leanings of several partisan organizations. Hayden – as Hamilton – established rescue teams for downed Allied airmen and underground safe houses and trails for them to find their way back to safety. He also reported to Donovan on the activities and plans of Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito. At the end of the war, Hayden received awards from the United States, Italy and Yugoslavia for his service, all in the name of John Hamilton.
18. Benjamin Franklin was a double agent while in Paris during the American Revolution
Benjamin Franklin’s status as a Founding Father is unquestioned. So is his standing as a scientist, inventor, writer, diplomat, and philosopher. Less known is his status as a spy. Franklin, while serving as one of America’s representatives to France during the Revolution, was also a spy for the British, though not for the party in power. From his long service in London as Massachusetts’ representative to the Court of St. James, Franklin knew many influential British politicians and businessmen sympathetic to the American cause. He made sure that those men were kept abreast of the events which brought about French and Spanish support of the Revolution, as well as the financial support from the Dutch.
Franklin’s wily use of the British politicians and businessmen to shift public opinion in Britain did not go unnoticed. Frequent complaints were made that the British seemed to be aware of confidential discussions between the American commissioners almost immediately. John Adams confided his suspicions of Franklin to his diary and to his wife, Abigail. But Franklin persisted, giving the British information which shaped not only their war effort, but their position in the negotiations in Paris. It was from Franklin they learned that the United States would never allow a separate state for the occupation of Indian tribes on the Northwestern border, a demand the British dropped in 1781.
19. George Washington practiced a technique later known as disinformation
George Washington is reputed to have been unable to tell a lie. In reality, he was one of the greatest deceivers in history. He practiced all of the arts which later became known as espionage. Washington created, and directly supervised, intelligence networks throughout the thirteen rebellious colonies, using devices with which James Bond would later be familiar. These included invisible inks, patch codes, wheel codes, information dead drops, personal ads in newspapers, messages hidden in Bible verses, and many other techniques. Washington took a personal interest in all of them, intended to not only keep him updated on British activity, but also to deceive the enemy regarding his own intentions.
Washington was particularly enamored with the technique which another George – George Orwell – would in a later day name disinformation. His agents were given information to provide the British in the shops and taverns of Philadelphia and New York which described his troops’ strength and dispositions in terms advantageous to the Americans, causing the British to respond accordingly. Washington’s deceptions caused the British in New York to continue preparations to defend against an assault on the city even as the French and American armies were on the march to Yorktown in 1781. Spying and counterespionage were major tools of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War, applied directly by its Commander in Chief.
20. Julia Child worked for the OSS during the Second World War
Strictly speaking, Julia Child was not a spy, but an intelligence officer. When the United States entered World War II she attempted to join the Army. Rejected because of her height (6’2″) she volunteered for service with the newly formed OSS. William Donovan accepted the graduate of Smith College, and she worked for him directly as a research assistant. Initially, her duties were strictly clerical, creating and maintaining files which contained the identities and whereabouts of OSS employees. Gradually she became more involved with the agency’s many activities, including the development of a shark repellent for which she was largely responsible.
In 1944 she was sent to Ceylon, and later to Kunming. It was there she became exposed to French cooking for which she later became famous. She worked as an office administrator, supervising the activities of dozens of agents and operatives. Her posting exposed her to highly classified communications and activities which preceded the invasion of the Malay Peninsula, and required her to coordinate the activities and reports of other Allied intelligence services, including Army and Navy Intelligence and the British activities in the area. Following the war her husband Paul, also an OSS member, was stationed in France, and Julia went with him, studying French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu, and discovering her life’s calling.
21. Margaretha Zelle – Mata Hari – was likely not a spy at all
Mata Hari was a dancer and entertainer who falsely claimed an exotic background as part of her stage persona. She claimed to be of Javanese background in pre-World War I Paris, danced in Javanese costume when she didn’t dance naked, and became celebrated throughout Europe. In truth, she was Dutch-born, sexually promiscuous, and of no particular political orientation. Known internationally for her wide range of lovers, she was regarded as both scandalous and a sex symbol. During World War I, she was approached by the French, Belgian, British, and German governments with requests for her to obtain military information from her various consorts to serve their respective interests.
When she was finally charged with spying for the Germans by the French, who claimed her actions had led to the deaths of “50,000 soldiers”, there was little evidence to support the action. Neither the French nor the British, who had previously detained and strenuously interrogated her, could offer evidence of her spying for the Germans, beyond receiving money from a German embassy. She claimed the money was payment for sexual services. No evidence of any military secrets being exchanged was presented, and none has ever been discovered. She was convicted by a French court and executed by a French firing squad. Later research revealed that the prosecutor presented falsified information at her trial. In all likelihood, the most famous female spy in history was not a spy at all.
22. Chuck Barris falsely claimed to be a spy and assassin for the CIA
Before he found fame and fortune creating game shows for television, Chuck Barris wrote the song Palisades Park, which became a major hit for Freddy Cannon. Barris then created television shows such as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. Barris’s television productions and investments made him a wealthy man, though he was seldom seen on camera before the creation of The Gong Show in 1976. In 1984 Barris published an autobiography which explained why he was seldom on camera. According to his story, he worked throughout the 1960s and early 1970s as a spy and assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency. A movie based on the book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was released in 2002.
Barris’s claims to have been employed by the CIA as an assassin were believed by many, though they were immediately refuted by the agency. To some, the refutation is in itself not a denial, given the mission and reputation of the agency. Barris recanted the claim in 1984, saying that he had applied to work for the agency and was denied. He told an interviewer that the tales of his working as an assassin in the book were simply a fantasy of what he would likely have done for the agency. There are those who still believe that he worked for the CIA during the 1960s, and that the actions are being covered up by the government. Such is the nature of espionage. Truth and lies are often indistinguishable.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: