From baseball player Moe Berg to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl, learn about six famous people who once were wartime secret agents.
Morris “Moe” Berg: The major league baseball player turned secret agent.
Once dubbed “the brainiest man in baseball,” Berg was born in New York City to Ukrainian immigrants and raised in Newark, New Jersey. He played shortstop for Princeton, graduating in 1923 with a degree in modern languages. He signed with the Brooklyn Robins (later the Brooklyn Dodgers) and eventually played for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, before ending his playing career in 1939 with a lifetime batting average of .243. It was said of the erudite Berg, who during his pro-ball days also studied at the Sorbonne and earned a law degree from Columbia University, that he knew a dozen languages but couldn’t hit in any of them.
In early 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II, Berg joined the Office of Inter-American Affairs, an agency formed to combat enemy propaganda in Latin America. In 1943, he became an officer with the OSS, where his work included gathering intelligence in Europe on Nazi efforts to construct an atomic bomb. In December 1944, Berg was sent to Switzerland to potentially assassinate prominent German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who American officials suspected might be supervising production of a bomb for Adolf Hitler. However, Berg determined the Nazis weren’t close to completing a nuclear weapon and opted not to shoot Heisenberg. Following the war, Berg, an enigmatic loner, took on assignments for the CIA in the early 1950s but failed to hold down regular employment after that time and spent the rest of his life living with friends and family.
Graham Greene: The acclaimed novelist who worked for Britain’s MI6
The English-born Greene was already an established novelist (“Brighton Rock,” “The Power and the Glory”) with a taste for adventure when he became a spy for MI6, the British secret intelligence service, in 1941. He was stationed for more than a year in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where his responsibilities included searching ships sailing from Africa to Germany for smuggled diamonds and documents, and monitoring Vichy forces in neighboring French Guinea. (Greene’s experiences in West Africa provided material for his best-selling 1948 novel “The Heart of the Matter.”) In 1943, the author returned to London and worked for MI6 under Harold “Kim” Philby, the high-level British spymaster who in 1963 was exposed as a long-term Soviet mole when he defected to Moscow. Afterward, Greene publicly defended his friend and visited him in the USSR. Greene published more than 25 novels during his career, including a number of espionage thrillers, such as “The Quiet American,” “Our Man in Havana” and “The Human Factor.”
Josephine Baker: The Jazz Age icon who smuggled secrets for the French Resistance.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Baker grew up poor and wed for the first time in her early teens. A dancer, she went on to tour the United States with vaudeville troupes and perform on Broadway before moving to Paris in 1925, where she skyrocketed to fame in the city’s music halls. Baker, whose nicknames included Black Venus and who also sang and acted in movies, became a major celebrity in Europe and a symbol of the 1920s Jazz Age. Her scorn for the Nazis’ racism coupled with her gratitude toward France, where she first experienced stardom, led Baker to serve during the war as an operative for the French Resistance. Her performing career enabled her to travel around Europe without attracting suspicion, and she attended numerous parties at embassies, gleaning whatever military and political information she could that might aid the Resistance, often smuggling intelligence secrets on invisible ink on her sheet music. She also used her chateau in southern France to hide Jewish refugees as well as weapons for the cause.
Following the war, Baker, who received multiple awards from the French for her contributions to the war effort, became active in the American civil rights movement but continued to make her home in France, where she resided with 12 children she adopted from around the globe and whom she referred to as her Rainbow Tribe.
Roald Dahl: The best-selling children’s author who spied on the United States.
Before he became famous for penning such books as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach,” Dahl was part of a British spy ring in Washington, D.C. The Welsh-born Dahl joined the Royal Air Force in 1939 and trained as a fighter pilot. He flew a number of combat missions before injuries he suffered during a crash-landing in the North African desert ended his military flying career. In 1942, Dahl was appointed assistant air attaché at the British embassy in Washington, where he was recruited to join a spy network called the British Security Coordination (BSC). The group, whose members included future James Bond creator Ian Fleming, was tasked with planting propaganda and carrying out other covert activities designed to persuade a reluctant United States to join the war against Germany; after Pearl Harbor and the nation’s entrance into the conflict, BSC operatives continued to clandestinely promote British interests in the U.S. while also working to undermine remaining isolationist attitudes in American politics and society. In his role as an undercover agent, the tall, dashing Dahl gathered intelligence about the U.S. political scene by befriending the capital’s movers and shakers, including politicians, journalists, corporate tycoons, socialites and even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Julia Child: The TV chef who once handled top-secret documents.
The California-born Child, then known by her maiden name, Julia McWilliams, got her first taste of intelligence work in the spring of 1942 as a civilian volunteer in Los Angeles with the Aircraft Warning Service, which tracked shipping along the California coast in an effort to prevent enemy attacks. She soon applied for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), but at 6’3” was rejected for being too tall. Determined to do her part for the war effort and interested in intelligence work, she got a job with the OSS in Washington, D.C., as a research assistant to the agency’s leader, William Donovan. The following year, she moved to a new department, the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, which developed ways for downed pilots to survive in remote locations; while there, she helped create a chemical shark repellent. From 1944 to 1945, Child took assignments in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China, where as head of the OSS registry she was responsible for handling high volumes of top-secret documents. Although Child technically wasn’t spying on other people, the OSS classified her as a senior civilian intelligence officer.
While in Ceylon, Julia met Paul Child, a fellow OSS officer, who she married in 1946. In 1948, Paul Child took a job with the U.S. Information Agency in France, and Julia fell in love with the nation’s cuisine and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. In 1961, she published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the book that launched her career.
Arthur Goldberg: The intelligence operative turned U.S. Supreme Court justice.
During the war, Goldberg, a future Supreme Court justice, worked for the OSS and developed an intelligence network involving anti-Nazi European groups. The Chicago-born son of a Russian immigrant peddler, Goldberg graduated from Northwestern University Law School then took a break from practicing law to join the Army during the war. He eventually became part of the OSS and organized an information-gathering network behind enemy lines across Europe.
The OSS was ordered disbanded by President Harry Truman in 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Goldberg went on to become a leading labor attorney and in 1961 was appointed U.S. secretary of labor by President John Kennedy. The following year, the president named Goldberg to the Supreme Court; however, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson persuaded Goldberg to resign from the court to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Goldberg, who hoped to bring about peace negotiations in the Vietnam War, was one of the few justices to leave the bench for a reason besides retirement. After giving up his UN post in 1968, he made an unsuccessful run for the governorship of New York in 1970 then continued to practice law and advocate for human-rights issues.