10 Famous People Who Moonlighted As Spies

Harry Houdini in shackles

Photo: Wikimedia/Lasky Corporation

For some of these big-name personalities, spying taught them the skills that made them famous; for others, being famous made them the perfect spies.

Roald Dahl

Long before he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force during World War II. But after sustaining several injuries in a horrific crash in 1940--including a fractured skull and temporary blindness--Dahl was rendered unable to fly. In 1942, he was transferred to a desk job at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Dahl quickly charmed his way into high society and became so popular among D.C. ladies that British intelligence came up with a whole new role for him: seducing powerful women and using them to promote Britain's interests in America.

It wasn't all fun and games, though. Clare Booth Luce, a prominent U.S. Representative and isolationist who was married to Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was so frisky in the bedroom that Dahl begged to be let off the assignment. In the end, however, his work with the ladies paid off. Dahl managed to not only rally support for Britain at a time when many prominent Americans didn't want the country to enter the war, but he also managed to pass valuable stolen documents to the British government. Dahl's stint in D.C. also helped him realise his talent for writing; it was a skill he discovered while penning propaganda for American newspapers.

Ian Fleming

By trade, author Ian Fleming was a journalist with a sharp memory and a keen eye for detail. In fact, he created James Bond, his famed international man of mystery, by plundering his own experiences as a spy.

During World War II, Fleming put his writing talents to use as part of British Naval Intelligence. Although he looked the part of Bond--tall, blue-eyed, and dapper--Fleming worked a desk job. He managed communications between the British Admiralty and the branch of intelligence tasked with sabotage behind enemy lines. Fleming was good at what he did. Not surprisingly, he proved particularly adept at conceiving outlandish spy schemes familiar to Bond fans.

Fleming's work eventually extended to the United States. He was responsible for helping to create an American organisation focused on international intelligence gathering. In 1941, he drew up a detailed chart for the chief of the OSS, showing how the new organisation should be run. For his efforts, he was awarded an engraved .38 Colt Police Positive revolver.

Despite being a desk jockey, Fleming did get to witness one active operation--a break-in at the Japanese Consul General's office at Rockefeller centre. As Fleming watched, British operatives sneaked into the office, cracked a safe, and made copies of the Japanese codebooks. Fleming later used the incident for Bond's assignment in his first 007 book, Casino Royale.

Lucky Luciano

Julia Child

Noël Coward

Robert Baden-Powell

James Hart Dyke

Harry Houdini

Marcel Petiot

During World War II, the United States operated a second spy agency known as the Pond. Unlike the OSS, the Pond made contact with all sorts of dark characters--including serial killers, apparently.

One of the organisation's most prolific sources for Nazi intelligence was a Parisian doctor named Marcel Petiot, who used his position to gather information and gossip about German military operations. But Petiot wasn't who he claimed to be. A former mental patient, Petiot used his doctor's office as a kind of fake Underground Railroad. In exchange for 25,000 francs, he promised patients safe passage to Argentina. Petiot's victims would come to the basement of his Paris townhouse, where he would give them an injection, ostensibly of vaccines. Instead, Petiot dosed his victims with cyanide. He would then incinerate the bodies in an old water-boiler or let them decompose in a pit of quicklime.

Ironically, Petiot's killing spree ended in 1943, when the Gestapo picked him up on suspicion that he was running an actual escape route. He was held for seven months before being released without charges. Two months later, Paris police got wind of the bodies in Petiot's basement and arrested him again. The remains of 26 victims were found in his apartment, although he's suspected of murdering as many as 63. When the war ended, Petiot was convicted and guillotined.

Moe Berg

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