The espionage game is a thankless racket – the sign of being good at your job is that nobody can ever know. That’s what makes the people in this list so surprising. They were well-known in other walks of life but managed to fit in some undercover work for the military on the side. So let’s blow the cover of 10 people you didn’t know were spies.
The U.S. government has made deals with some pretty shady characters over the years, but the head of a Mafia family? You bet. Charles “Lucky” Luciano was the capo of the Genovese family when the FBI put him behind bars in 1936 for running a prostitution ring. Six years later, the U.S. navy began to have problems with sabotage at the New York docks.
The dockworkers were totally under the Mafia’s thumb, though, so they wouldn’t give any information to the authorities. The Navy came to Luciano and recruited him as an informant so he would use his leverage and help them get information. It worked – sabotage stopped – and Luciano was rewarded with his sentence being cut from 50 years to just 10.
Ol’ Blue Eyes was one of the most famous singers of his era, and his connections to the Mafia have been well-documented. But it was exactly those connections that made him an irresistible inside operative for the CIA.
Sinatra’s daughter Tina alleges that even though J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was constantly trying to bring Sinatra in, the CIA often paid him to work as a courier. Because Frank flew on private jets, he could be depended on to transport valuable information and individuals around the world without too much trouble. As usual, he did espionage his way.
The legendary creator of America’s animation industry was a seriously patriotic man, so it’s not surprising that when the FBI came calling, Walt Disney answered. In the late 1940s, the threat of global Communism rose to the forefront of our consciousness, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the aegis of J. Edgar Hoover, rose to fight it.
Hoover immediately started ferretting out Communists and sympathizers all over America, most notably in the form of the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s. Disney, a staunch right-winger who had trouble with unions, was all too happy to give the FBI information on suspected Commies to get them out of the business.
The work of the spy is the work of illusion, and no human has been as expert in those arts as Harry Houdini. The Budapest-born escape artist was a fearless explorer of the unknown, and a recently-published book alleges that Houdini worked in the espionage game on both sides of the fence.
In the early 1900s, he traveled to England for the first time and allegedly worked for Scotland Yard spying on troop buildups in Germany before the start of World War I. He also worked closely with police departments in the United States, who could have used him to gather information on the underworld. Since he’s dead, there’s no way to confirm these tales, but they’re quite plausible.
The cheery face of Americanized French cooking may seem like someone who would be out of place in a spy agency, but that’s kind of the point, right? Child wanted to enroll in the U.S. Army Corps in World War II but was turned down for being too tall.
The Office of Strategic Services was happy to take her, though, and she quickly rose through the ranks, working on an assignment to develop a shark repellent for divers as well as taking listening posts in Ceylon and China. In Ceylon, she met Paul Child, another agent who would become her husband.
The author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” isn’t really a person you’d cast as an insatiable sexual dynamo, but Roald Dahl used what God gave him during World War II to gather information for the Office of Strategic Services.
At the start of the war, Dahl was a celebrated fighter pilot, but after a brutal crash in Egypt was reassigned to a desk job. From there, he was recruited by Britain’s spy agency and transferred to Washington, D.C. where he bedded influential women to win support for the British government, as well as purloining classified documents.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr
Historian and critic Arthur Schlesinger Jr definitely doesn’t fit the physical profile of a spy with his trademark bow tie and coke bottle glasses, but it takes all kinds. During World War II, Schlesinger tried to join the Army only to fail the medical admission test.
With a burning desire to serve his country, he hooked up with the Office of Strategic Services, who took advantage of his keen intelligence. He served on multiple committees during the conflict, including working with psychological warfare programs designed to disorient the enemy into surrendering.
One of the biggest sex symbols of the 1930s, the Bronze Venus became a worldwide star on the basis of her exotic good looks and dance ability. Josephine Baker would perform African dances with her pet cheetah and became the first African-American woman to star in a major movie.
In 1940, Baker was recruited by the French Chief of Counterespionage to become an informant. When the Axis took France during World War II, Baker performed for the occupiers, but kept her ears open for sensitive information, which she would pass to the Resistance in invisible ink on her sheet music.
One of the most legendary horror actors of all time, Christopher Lee is famous for his ability to take on some seriously dark roles. It’s fair to say that some of those skills were fostered during World War II. Initially enlisting with the Finnish army during the Winter War, Lee was transferred to the Royal Air Force and found a home in the intelligence division.
Lee was then recruited into the ultra-secret Special Operations Executive, which keeps all operational details under lock and key. After the war, Lee then worked to track down escaped Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.
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English playwright Noel Coward was well-known for his flamboyant nature, which you wouldn’t think would be good for someone in the espionage game. But at his core, Coward was a dedicated patriot who devoted his life to fighting the spread of Fascism.
After training with the Office of Secret Services, Coward used his celebrity lifestyle to travel the globe carrying out a number of missions. He couriered documents and wrote reports on possible German sympathizers, all the while publicly mocking the very idea of intelligence. It was a great cover that was never penetrated in his lifetime.