Maybe it’s the exciting “who done it novels”, Hollywood’s thrilling portrayal of harrowing adventures, perhaps it’s James Bond’s iconic style and swagger, or simply all the cool gadgets; but everyone loves a good spy. Well, at least we’re in love with the idea of the dashing spy saving the world from some grim disaster or thwarting the evil genius of a madman, all while living the high-life, getting the girl, and always ALWAYS coming out on top. But is that how the spy game really goes down, I mean those electrifying plots and suave characters had to be based on some reality, right? Well in this super secretive world of smoke and mirrors, nothing is as it seems, or is it? You decide for yourself, here is our list of the Top 7 Coolest Real Spies.
1. Sir William Samuel Stephenson, Codename Intrepid
No list of spies could ever be complete without the man who inspired the creation of James Bond. Better known as Intrepid, the codename given to him by Winston Churchill, William Stephenson was a fighter pilot, boxing champion, businessman, inventor and the senior representative of British Intelligence for the entire western hemisphere during World War II. More like codename Showoff if you ask us.
In 1941 he founded a secret training camp for spies in Canada called Camp X, but affectionately known as the Ottawa School of Murder and Mayhem by its alumni. The prom must have been quite a party at that school. The student body of this school included other members of this list such as Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Most of the alumni ended joining Sir William’s own group, whose efforts were focused on spying on America.
That’s right; Britain was spying on the U.S. during the war. The British were interested in pushing the U.S. to join the war, since the decision was up in the air until the attack on Pearl Harbor. His group, called the Baker Street Irregulars in honor of Sherlock Holmes’ helpers, spied on important and influential people. What’s a little blackmailing among friends? The group even managed to sneak in a fake map of South America that supposedly detailed Nazi Germany’s plan for the area which included taking control of the Panama Canal from the Americans. President Roosevelt fell for it and even gave a speech citing the fake map as the reason why America should join the war. The U.S. suspected so little about Stephenson’s true mission that he was a close advisor to President Roosevelt and even helped to create the Office of Strategic Services, which years later would change its name to the CIA.
2. Christopher Marlowe
Christopher “Kit” Marlowe is the author of “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” and possibly the second most important English play writer after Shakespeare; brilliant scholar, man of letters and also a part time amateur spy for Queen Elizabeth.
In 1580 he began to study at Cambridge, strangely after his second year Marlowe became absent from classes for long periods of time. Being a college student you’ll be excused to think he was just smoking pot and playing Wii in his dorm room, but it is during this time that people believe he began his side career as a spy. The only proof of Marlowe’s activities is a letter from the Queen’s Council to the university. Due to his long absences, the university was just ready to flunk him. The letter said: “in all his actions Christopher Marlowe had behaved himself orderly and discreetly whereby, he had done her Majesty good service.” This of course can be translated in modern speak as “I am the Queen, he works for me, shut up and give him a diploma.”
The extent of Marlowe’s activities is unknown, but it is known he spied on Catholics for the Queen at the Seminary of Rheims. It is also suspected that he became the tutor of Arbella Stuart, a candidate to the throne of England at the time, just to spy on her for Queen Elizabeth.
His death too leaves a number of questions unanswered. According to the official report he was stabbed in the eye during a dispute over a bill. What is strange is that the three men who were involved in the fight were connected to England’s spying activities, so unless he was murdered in the middle of the annual meeting of the English Spies Union there was something very odd going on then. In fact, Marlowe had been arrested just a few days before for heresy, since despite his religious education and friendship with the Queen he was a vocal atheist, making some people believe that this was the Queen’s way of getting rid of him. We guess it’s a way to save money on his pension.
3. Roald Dahl
For spies it is essential to not stand out, to be forgettable. For whatever reason Dahl decided that bunch of nonsense didn’t apply to him. When he began to work as a spy he was already a celebrity, a dashing, decorated RAF pilot touring the U.S. as a good will ambassador; a job that bored him to death. When given the chance he quickly jumped into the British Secret Service and became one of Sir Stephenson’s Baker Street Irregulars.
Roald Dahl, social butterfly that he was, got tasked with the horrible job of going to rich people’s parties, socializing and flirting and bedding anything with a pulse all in the name of gathering information for the British Empire. As previously explained, the British were worried that America would not help them win World War II. How successful was he at that? According to Antoinette Marsh, daughter of a Texas newspaper publisher, “I think he slept with everybody on the East and West Coasts who had more than $50,000 a year.” We are quite sure he didn’t say no to hot poor people either, mind you. Basically he was James Bond, if you take away the gun fights, car chases, death traps and the like and leave only the sex and the British accent.
Roald’s most famous conquest was Clare Booth Luce, wife of the owner of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. Her husband was openly anti-British and his magazines always published articles about how bad the English treated their colonies. Roald’s mission was to find any information they could use to blackmail him, and what better way to get this information than by sharing some pillow talk with the guy’s wife. Despite Dahl’s legendary sexual prowess, Ms. Luce proved to be too much for him and Dahl begged his bosses to let him run away before she broke him in two. The bosses’ advice was just to “think of England.”
And if you are wondering why you know this guy’s name it is perhaps that you remember him as the author of several children’s stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James and the Giant Peach and others. So not only was he James Bond, he was also Dr. Seuss if Dr. Seuss had also been Wilt Chamberlain but without playing basketball. Ok, the similes are getting out of hand so let’s move on.
4. Mata Hari
As a citizen of neutral Holland during World War I, Mata Hari could travel around Europe without much problems; this advantage was not ignored by both the German and French military who both hired her services. Unlike previous celebrity spies, Mata Hari didn’t enjoy the same good luck, especially since she was not really putting much effort into spying and more into promoting her striptease show. Nobody ever said she was famous for knowing how to prioritize.
The German consul at Holland was recruiting spies and Mata Hari caught his eye. It’s not hard to see why, as a famous performer she could tour around Europe by herself without arousing much suspicion. He gave her money and the code name H21. It seems the fact that she was not German or probably couldn’t care less about the Kaiser or had any loyalty whatsoever to them didn’t seem to carry any weight back then.
Despite the fact that authorities had yet no reason to be suspicious of her, British intelligence kept an eye on her simply because she was a smart, well-travelled and well educated woman who spoke many languages. Basically, they had no reason to believe she was a spy except for the fact that if she had been a spy, she would have been a really good one. Let this be a lesson to you all, sometimes looking smart is not a good idea. While in Paris, British Intelligence tailed her and opened her mail in search of proof, which they never found. Mata Hari’s story becomes even stranger when she is in turn approached by French intelligence and she is asked to spy for them too, even though they most probably had heard from the British that they suspected she was working for the Germans already. Honestly, janitor jobs today have more background checks than spy jobs back then. Mata Hari accepted the job because it meant she would be able to visit the town of Vittel where her lover, or at least one of them, was stationed.
Her first mission for the French proved to be her last despite being a success. She travelled to Spain and seduced a German officer until he told her secret information about troop movements and tactics; because we guess that’s the kind of thing German officers always tell their mistresses. Seriously, if they weren’t all spies the conversation would be really boring. When she returned to France with this information she was arrested for –get this – fraternizing with a German officer, which is pretty much what the French sent her out to do. Mata Hari had fallen into a trap and she ended up in front of a firing squad. It is suspected by some historians that the trap was set by the head of French counterespionage who needed an escape goat to blame for the information he sold to the Germans himself. Seriously, who would have thought spies were such a shady untrustworthy bunch? He was arrested for being a double agent himself afterwards, and this we call Karma.
5. Tony Mendez
Although his official position was CIA Technical Operations Officer he was better known as the CIA’s master of disguise, which we have to admit looks much better on a resume. His job involved forging documents, creating disguises and sometimes creating entire personas with enough evidence of their existence to fool people.
In Laos he used his skills to disguise an Asian man and a Black CIA agent to look like two plain white businessmen so they could openly meet and talk in a hotel. Our guess is that the Laos counterintelligence was so racist that anything else would have aroused their suspicion.
Mendez’ most famous adventure involves the rescue of Americans citizens from Iran during the hostage crisis. Six embassy employees had managed to avoid capture and were hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Mendez disguised himself as an Irish film producer and with the help of real Hollywood producer John Chambers he set up a fake production company. Mendez himself then visited Iran on the pretense of looking for good places to shoot the movie. He contacted the embassy employees on the run and explained them the plan: they were all going to pretend to be movie people just wandering around Iran and then get on a plane with fake documents and fly the heck outta there.
Their “movie people” disguises included unbuttoned shirts and big silver medallions, making this the first time in Iranian history that dressing like the Bee Gees was considered inconspicuous. The plan was a success; the group boarded the plane, flew to freedom all while staying alive, staying alive ah ah ah!!
6. Ian Fleming
Action packed novels are usually written by sedentary nerds, usually the last kind of person you would expect to see involved in any sort of adventure more dangerous than unwrapping a sandwich. Ian Fleming who created James Bond, on the other hand, was a bona fide member of British Intelligence. During World War II Fleming was the Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, trained at the Ottawa School of Murder and Mayhem, and he was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars.
Exact details of his exploits are very hard to find, but we do know of one plan in which he was involved. Operation Mincemeat may not have the greatest name for a clandestine operation and in fact sounds more like a mission about making hamburgers, but its importance in the Allies’ victory more than makes up for it. In July of 1943 Allied forces were about to storm the coasts of Sicily, but for this attack to succeed they needed to trick the Germans into thinking they were going to strike elsewhere.
The Allies dropped a corpse near the coast of Spain, with fake documents, a fake identity and of course fake papers detailing the Allied plan to attack Greece instead of Sicily. The plan was a success and quickly General Patton and General Montgomery’s armies were marching through Italy thanks to the oddball ideas of Intelligence officers like Fleming. Meanwhile there was probably a family in Manchester wondering what had happened to grandpa’s body right before the funeral.
7. Harold “Kim” Philby
Never underestimate the importance of sheer dumb luck, just ask Harold Philby who was easily one of the most important spies for Russia during the Cold War. During his college years at Cambridge he was a member of Marxist organizations, which gained him the attention of Russian spy recruiters in 1934. His spying didn’t amount to much until the late 30s; while waiting for his big break in his spying career he developed the disguise of a man disillusioned with communism who had turned instead into a fascist. We are not sure how looking like a Nazi spy is a good disguise but we are not KGB agents so what do we know? He worked as a reporter and while covering the Spanish Civil War a car he and four other reporters were riding in got hit by artillery, killing two of the passengers. Due to his favorable articles and because he didn’t blow up, General Franco of Spain himself gave Philby a medal and unknowingly completed his “Hey guys, I am really not a communist, just a fascist” disguise.
In the 1940s Philby found himself a job in British Intelligence. This was in the middle of WWII and yes a guy with the background of a Nazi sympathizer who was really a communist spy got a job at MI6. When you think that these are the people who work to keep western civilization safe, try not to cry too much. He informed the Russians of what the British and Americans were doing like, for instance, how they had broken the Nazis’ Enigma code. He also helped the KGB identify British spies working in Russia; most of these spies had been trained by Philby himself. Sending the KGB after them is one hell of a final exam, Prof. Philby.
After WWII he was appointed the liaison between the CIA and MI6 so now he could also spy on the Americans and helped provide information during the Korean war. By this time, due to the reports given to them by soviet defectors and their own spies, MI6 and the CIA suspected they had a mole in their midst, which they never found because the first guy to run in and take charge of the investigation was, you guessed it, Philby himself. Once, a Soviet defector agreed to identify the mole, and of course Philby was the agent selected to meet with him. The defector mysteriously disappeared. Gee, we wonder what could have happened. But nothing lasts forever so Philby is forced to resign from MI6 just on suspicions alone. Although he was not found guilty of being a spy, he decided to play it safe and in 1963 Philby escapes to Russia where he lived until his death in 1988.