New book explores the symbiosis of espionage and entertainment


Stars and spies. By Christopher Andrew and Julius Green. Bodley’s head; 512 pages; £ 20

ATHE HEIGHT of his powers at the end of the 18th century, there was no more famous playwright in Europe than Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of the “Barber of Seville” and of the “Marriage of Figaro”. He was also an extraordinarily successful spy, an agent of the King of France’s personal intelligence agency, the King’s Secret. Sent to London in 1775 to negotiate a deal with a rogue French agent, a flamboyant transvestite knight Called d’Eon de Beaumont — Beaumarchais reported to Louis XVI’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Comte de Vergennes, that there was pessimism in the air about war to guard the American colonies.

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To hasten the British defeat, Vergennes authorized Beaumarchais to form a shell company to supply arms to the American rebels. In early 1777, while rehearsing a production in Le Havre, Beaumarchais managed to send nine shipments of arms to George Washington’s army. Remarkably, his fame was no obstacle to his underground activities, and may even have helped him avoid suspicion. The CIAThe Center for the Study of Intelligence concluded that its efforts had helped move “the young United States through the most critical period of its birth.”

The game between show business and espionage was already well established before the exploits of Beaumarchais. Since the stars seek the limelight and the spies hide in the shadows, the symbiosis is not obvious at first glance, acknowledges Christopher Andrew (the official historian of the British Security Service, MID5) and Julius Green (theater historian and producer). But, they argue, both professions require similar skills: deception, role-playing, and the ability to create and stick to scripts. Both attract characters comfortable with the transient lifestyle common to buskers and undercover agents.

Dubbed the second oldest profession, espionage has always found useful cover in entertainment. King Alfred entered a Danish camp pretending to be a harpist; legend has it that the troubadour Blondel used his license to wander through Europe to find Richard I’s place of imprisonment. But this delightful story begins with the extraordinary intelligence network set up by Elizabeth I’s spy master, Sir Francis Walsingham. Catholic sympathizers, such as lutenist John Dowland and exiled adventurer Anthony Standen, were “turned” to work for the Protestant state. Standen was an accomplished actor and, posing as “Pompeo Pellegrini”, provided vital information about plans to invade Spain; Dowland infiltrated the Danish court. Christopher Marlowe, playwright and poet, also spied for Walsingham.

In the 17th century, playwright Aphra Behn became the first British woman to earn a living as a writer and to be officially recruited as a spy by the British government. In 1666, after the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, she was sent to Antwerp to persuade a former Dutch lover and agent to change sides in a classic honey trap operation. The book then moves through the era of revolution and counter-revolution with quick trivia and a huge cast of larger-than-life characters. Among them, the libertine and memorial Giacomo Casanova, who was probably the first professional spy to describe himself as a “secret agent”.

Espionage in the 20th century is the main focus of the book. Before World War I, the authors say, spy dramas were all the rage in novels and on the London stage. The first head of MID5, an engaging and theatrical naval officer named Mansfield Cumming (known as “VS“), employed West End costume designer Willy Clarkson to provide him with a succession of disguises. During the war, the most famous agents were women. Most famous of all, the high-end Dutch stripper Mata Hari, spied, not very effectively, for the Germans, until his capture and execution.

Stage fright

A far more successful spy was Mistinguett, a singer, dancer and movie star who extracted from a Prussian prince, her former lover, the location of the last German offensive in 1918 – in Champagne, not on the Somme as it is. ‘planned. His successor in World War II was the great African-American artist Josephine Baker (pictured), who, after moving to France, carried out numerous assignments for the second office in her adopted country, earning the gratitude of Charles de Gaulle.

During the Second World War, SIGINT, or electromagnetic intelligence, was above all more valuable than HUMINT, the humankind. But the theater has imposed itself even at the British decryption center at Bletchley Park. Before the war, its deputy director, Frank Birch, had a distinguished career as a lady of pantomime, particularly as the acclaimed widow Twankey in “Aladdin”. Initially the principal of Great Britain HUMINT mission was to help persuade America to enter the fight. The head of MID6 (foreign intelligence) in New York, William Stephenson, recruited a galaxy of stars as agents of influence, including Roald Dahl and Noel Coward.

Another of Stephenson’s recruits was Eric Maschwitz, a Hollywood screenwriter and lyricist. He produced a forged map purporting to reveal a Nazi master plan to take over South America. President Franklin Roosevelt was completely fooled. Maschwitz became head of light entertainment at BBC television.

The book has its flaws. Surprisingly, for example, it omits the spies and adventurers who played the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia in the 19th century. Sometimes the stylistic joins between the two authors are a little too visible. But anyone who likes a good spy story will find and enjoy hundreds of them here. â– 

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “Smoke and mirrors”


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