When you think about spies, you think about people who can blend into any situation like a chameleon, and can go unnoticed while collecting invaluable information. What you probably don’t think of is a celebrity, considering a famous face is not exactly going to drop into the background. At the same time, it kind of makes sense to enlist the services of the famous and powerful in order to take advantage of their connections, along with the desire of other powerful people to hobnob with them. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite celebrity spies.
10. Frank Sinatra
We should make one thing clear before we dive into the sort of espionage Frank Sinatra allegedly partook in: nothing has ever been officially confirmed. However, rumors have persisted for years about Old Blue Eyes’ involvement with both the mafia and, believe it or not, the CIA. While the mafia rumors are pretty much “truth” and not rumors, his involvement with the CIA is something that’s just kind of percolated in the background.
According to his daughter, Tina, Sinatra often did favors for the CIA. He was not a spy in the traditional sense, but he did act as a secret courier for them. What was he delivering? People. That’s right, Frank Sinatra was allegedly a human trafficker for the Central Intelligence Agency. Because Sinatra flew around the world on private chartered jets, his daughter says, the CIA would contact him and have him covertly transport someone when they did not wish to leave a paper trail.
9. Cary Grant
If you were going to come up with the ideal real life person to play the part of the dashing and debonair spy you see in movies, you could not do much better than Cary Grant. The actor was a suave charmer, and actually appeared in some movies revolving around espionage. He was even reportedly offered the role of James Bond, but turned it down. What you probably did not realize was that while Cary Grant was hanging around Hollywood, he was working as an operative for the British government. No, he wasn’t trying to steal American secrets or anything. The US and UK were and remain allies, after all.
So what was he doing? He was keeping tabs on suspected Nazi sympathizers during World War II, including fellow actors like Errol Flynn, keeping his eyes and ears open for any sign of trouble in the inner circles of Hollywood. Grant was long a supporter of the British cause during the war effort, and actually donated his salaries for two films to the British forces. In 1947, Grant received the Kings Medal for Services in the Cause of Freedom.
8. Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich was one of Germany’s most famous actresses, but by all accounts was firmly against Hitler and the Nazi regime during World War II. The actress performed in USO shows to help support the Allied forces, but was still suspected to be a German spy early in the war, according to the FBI. However, many believe her role was much closer to the one played by Diane Kruger’s character in Inglourious Basterds. That is to say, she was a “traitor” to her homeland and wanted desperately to help defeat the Third Reich.
Dietrich reportedly volunteered for espionage work for the Office of Strategic Services, though much of her contributions during the war effort involved keeping the spirits of the troops high in their fight against the Nazis. After all, she still had family living in Germany and would be no good as an undercover operative. Still, she’s one of the most famous starlets believed to have been working for the government during World War II, and is the only person on this list to have been suspected of spying for both sides.
7. Harry Houdini
If you were ever going to recruit someone to become a spy, wouldn’t it make sense to recruit the greatest escape artist in history? Harry Houdini was, according to a recent biography, an operative for Allied forces, Scotland Yard, and the US Secret Service. Reportedly, Houdini would travel the world monitoring Russian anarchists and collecting valuable information for the US and British governments, using his regularly scheduled tours as cover.
Allegedly, some of what Houdini did for the authorities involved going into police stations around the world, insisting on being locked up, and using his escape artistry to wow the local law enforcement. At the same time, he was collecting valuable information. One of the connections the biography makes is to William Melville, a British spy who frequently mentioned Houdini in his journal, and who was working for Scotland Yard when Houdini allegedly got his start as a covert agent for that agency.
6. Sterling Hayden
You may not immediately recognize the name Sterling Hayden, but if you’ve ever watched any classic movies you’ve certainly seen him. The actor has appeared in films such as Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather, in which he played the corrupt cop Michael Corleone shoots in the restaurant. Oops, should have said spoiler alert. But on top of being a well regarded actor, Hayden was a covert operative for the United States government.
This one is absolutely confirmed by no less than the US government, as well. Hayden reportedly parachuted into Croatia – what is it with spies and parachuting into places, anyway? – in order to spy on growing fascist movements in the area. This was while he worked for the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, and just a few years before he went on to star in the film Asphalt Jungle.
5. Lucky Luciano
Probably the least “celebrity” of all of the people on this list, Lucky Luciano is arguably the most infamous person we’re going to be talking about. Luciano, if you are unfamiliar, is one of the most famous American mobsters of all-time. During World War II, Naval Intelligence suspected that the Nazis were receiving information on Atlantic Ocean ship movements, and also knew that organized crime families controlled the docks in New York City. Enter Lucky Luciano.
Luciano was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, along with fellow infamous mob boss Meyer Lansky to find informants on the docks. The duo supplied thousands of informants to the government’s side under the codename “Operation Underworld.” Luciano was not done aiding the US, however, as the OSS once again approached him to use his contacts in Sicily to find information about Nazi troop movements in Italy. Luciano’s connections paid off, as the Sicilian mafia stepped in and helped pave the way for an invasion by Patton by taking out snipers along the roads in Italy
4. Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo was one of the original bombshells in Hollywood. The Swedish born actress wasn’t just a pretty face, either. She was nominated for four Academy Awards before retiring from acting at the age of 35, in 1941. According to some, her retirement at that time may not have been a coincidence, as many believe she worked as a British spy during World War II.
Garbo, according to author Charles Higham, was recruited by British intelligence and, according to the many veterans he claims to have interviewed, carried out several highly classified missions for the Allies during the war effort. One of her missions, reportedly, was to help covertly transport a man from Copenhagen to Britain, which she accomplished successfully at the side of Winston Churchill’s special envoy and Canadian spy Sir William Stephenson. Oh, and if you were wondering who the man was she was asked to help smuggle into the UK? It was only Niels Bohr, who went on to help develop the atomic bomb.
3. Moe Berg
Born in 1902, Moe Berg was a professional baseball player, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he was an exceptionally well educated man as well. Berg spent his undergraduate years at Princeton before receiving his law degree from Columbia, and played in the big leagues in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Oh, and then he went and became a spy.
Berg had spent some time in Japan prior to the US becoming involved in World War II, and provided some footage he shot there to the government, and later became a member of the Secret Intelligence branch of the OSS. In this capacity, he was a full on spy, parachuting into Yugoslavia to feel out the resistance groups in the area, with his evaluations serving to determine how much the United States would support each of the groups in their efforts. In 1944 he traveled around Europe recruiting physicists to America. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom, but actually rejected it. His sister later accepted it after he died in 1972.
2. Roald Dahl
If you were ever a kid, and we have to imagine you were at some point in your life, chances are you’ve read at least one book by legendary children’s writer Roald Dahl. After all, this is the guy who wrote The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Of course you might not have realized that at the same time he was churning out classics, he was spying for British Intelligence. And who was he spying on? The United States of America. Hey, even friends can get nosy and look at someone else’s text messages from time to time, right?
Anyway, the most entertaining aspect of how Dahl accomplished his undercover tasks was, well, the fact that it involved getting under actual covers. Dahl was sent to America to sex his way into information from the wives of oil tycoons and even a congresswoman named Clare Boothe Luce, whose husband was the publisher of Time Magazine. And the story gets even better from here, since Dahl was so worn out by Boothe Luce’s sexual appetite that he actually pleaded with British Intelligence to let him abandon the mission only to be told to, basically, take some horny goat weed and get back to boning.
1. Julia Child
We know what you’re thinking and the answer is yes, that Julia Child. The same Julia Child who became a famous chef and often seemed a little – or a lot – tipsy on her very famous cooking show, worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Child worked as an intelligence officer during the war, organizing and funneling information to the Allies from places like China and Ceylon.
Child was originally a typist in the Office of War Information before putting in for a transfer to the OSS, where she actually met her husband, Paul. If you’ve ever watched her cooking show you know that she came off as a bit of a klutz and a mess in the kitchen, which is what makes it a little surprising that she had such attention to detail that she actually earned awards for her efforts with the OSS, along with being recognized for her resourcefulness. Heck, after working as a spy during WWII, we think she deserved every sip of alcohol she took during all of those cooking shows.