- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gossip is usually derided as a frivolous and mildly sinful pastime - but it can be the lifeblood of official Washington: gathered, traded and manufactured in parlors, ballrooms, restaurants and saloons around town, before seeping into the mainstream media, thus affecting national events.

Few wielded gossip as effectively and consequentially as British operatives during the 1940s, a time when Washington was “teeming with spies,” says author Jennet Conant. In “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington,” new to paperback this month, she details how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Canadian spy master William Stephenson used the British Security Coordination (BSC), a front for the nation’s espionage services, to infiltrate elite social and political circles in the nation’s capital to convince policymakers and the American public to enter World War II.

One of the BSC’s chief assets in Washington’s rarefied social world was Mr. Dahl, a Washington-based intelligence agent who lived in Georgetown and other affluent Northwest neighborhoods in the early-to-mid-1940s.

Mr. Dahl, later famous for his children’s books such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” landed as an attache in the British Embassy here after being injured as a Royal Air Force pilot. Like many spies in the BSC, he was tapped not merely for his education or foreign service training, but for his entrancing good looks, social deftness and easy way with women, especially grande dame types who usually exerted more power from their drawing rooms than most elected officials did from the halls of Congress.

Long before social networking meant logging on to Facebook to find new well-placed “friends,” influential Washingtonians gathered at homes for social “salons,” usually organized by A-listers like Charles Marsh, Clare Boothe Luce, Cissy Patterson and Evalyn Walsh McLean.

Leading up to the war, there were so many “out of towners and foreigners” in town, says Ms. Conant, that local restaurants were pressed for space. As a result, she explains, there was a high premium placed on dinner parties, and getting on the right invite lists signaled a person’s ranking in the social pecking order, in which Mr. Dahl soon found a prominent place.

“People would stop by for drinks about five, pick up some gossip and then go to dinner elsewhere and pass it on,” says Ms. Conant. “The Democrats tended to go to Marsh’s place, and the Republicans went to Evalyn’s.”

Newspaper tycoon Charles Marsh, who became a surrogate father to the young Mr. Dahl, hosted a “cross between a think tank and a favorite watering hole” at his four-level town house in Dupont Circle, Ms. Conant writes. “It had the added attraction of a side annex that was entered by a single inconspicuous door, which allowed important guests to come and go unseen.”

The effects of gossip trading at Mr. Marsh’s fetes were so far-reaching that Ms. Conant describes Mr. Marsh as having the rare ability to “manipulate people and events from the privacy of his R street study.”

One of the many habitues of this “well-financed political salon” was none other than a scrappy, lanky Texan named Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mr. Dahl became a fixture at the Marsh house parties and, through his host, became cozy with not only Mr. Johnson and other politicos, but the leading columnists of the day, such as Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell and Walter Lippmann.

In addition to acquiring information, Mr. Dahl and his fellow spies did their fair share of spinning and planting pro-British propaganda with these scribes, especially Mr. Pearson, who met Mr. Dahl regularly to compare notes over martinis.

Mr. Dahl’s chumminess with Mr. Pearson and other opinion makers was encouraged by Mr. Marsh, who harbored a pro-British agenda and was well aware of Mr. Dahl’s espionage. According to Ms. Conant, Mr. Dahl leaked damaging information about isolationist lawmakers and public officials - including “their mistresses or homosexual tendencies,” she says - to embarrass and discredit them in the press.

Perhaps Mr. Dahl’s biggest coup was gaining entree to the Roosevelt White House, suavely ingratiating himself with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a son about Mr. Dahl’s age. He was soon invited to Roosevelt family functions and reported back his findings on the president’s feeble health, always of grave concern to Mr. Churchill, whose close alliance with President Franklin D. Roosevelt was crucial to the Allied war effort.

Mr. Dahl took extensive pains to woo Cissy Patterson, the publisher of the right-leaning Washington Times-Herald, who so enjoyed “her favorite indoor sport” of gossip that she hired refined and elegant people “at high salaries” to rove around reporting on the dinner parties of the “cave dwellers,” Patterson’s term of choice for Washington’s scenesters.

Like Ms. McLean, Ms. Patterson had a passionate loathing forMr. Roosevelt and was vehemently opposed to America’s entrance into the war, making her perfect prey for Mr. Dahl’s charming persuasion. Through Ms. McLean’s home, aptly named “Friendship,” Mr. Dahl gained access to her more conservative circle, which included Supreme Court justices and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

In the book, Ms. Conant describes how Mr. Dahl would scribble notes on cocktail napkins and then report his party circuit findings the following morning to his BSC bosses.

America eventually entered the war, of course, bringing Mr. Dahl’s assignment in Washington to a close, but he continued his close friendship with Mr. Marsh, to whom he wrote bitter letters bemoaning what he saw as America’s postwar isolationism.

When asked what lessons for today’s Washington can be gleaned from this golden era of gossip, Ms. Conant, who is married to “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft, replied, “Be careful who you’re talking to, and that everyone has agendas and relationships.”

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