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The Irregulars

Roald Dahl's days as a savvy British spy in wartime Washington.

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Dahl hobnobbed effortlessly with characters as disparate as influential journalist Drew Pearson, Roosevelt’s leftist vice president Henry Wallace, and Wallace’s nemesis Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time owner Henry Luce, who became a Republican congresswoman from Connecticut in 1942 (and bedded Dahl on her way up the political ladder).

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When he arrived in the spring of 1942 as an attaché to the British Embassy, Dahl found “Washington brimming with wealthy dowagers and their bored, unmarried daughters,” Conant writes. “Capital society was the American court, complete with its own courtiers, pretenders to the throne, and inevitable hangers-on.”

Washington was a city “where position mattered more than personality,” where Dahl not only fitted in, he rose to the top – particularly after Walt Disney bought “The Gremlins,” an early Dahl story, for a movie that never saw production.

“The Irregulars” focuses on 1943 and 1944, when British espionage in Washington was at its height. In addition to her colorful evocation of a complex city in a singularly tense time, Conant conjures a glamorous, fashionable world in which fidelity took a back seat to power.

Her anecdotes about Lyndon Johnson’s affair with Alice Glass,Marsh’s gorgeous, problematic wife, speak to the darkness at the heart of political career building.

Dahl’s fluency, meanwhile, helped buttress the common war effort, kept Roosevelt on course to a fourth term (despite the president’s jettisoning of the controversial Wallace for the safer, less experienced Harry Truman) and advanced Dahl’s own literary career.

While Dahl is best known for such children’s classics as “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”  his political work has remained obscure until now. Credit the determined Conant for bringing it to light.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

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