Hidden Identities: 12 Famous Figures Unveiled as Secret Agents

Marlene Dietrich

Celebrities often look for a second career and a lucrative side hustle in the modern world. Actors may attempt to release records, while those on the slide can always aim for an appearance in a reality TV show.

In years gone by, stars of the past didn’t have those opportunities, so some enjoyed a less obvious second career in the world of espionage. Here are 12 celebrities who secretly worked as spies.

1. Cary Grant

Cary Grant 1943
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Actor Cary Grant once turned down the role of James Bond. In many ways, he was a perfect fit for the part, but perhaps he’d experienced enough of a spy’s life in the real world. The British government tasked Grant to monitor German sympathizers in Hollywood, and one of the men on his radar was fellow actor Errol Flynn.

2. Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl
Image Credit: Carl Van Vechten – United States Library of Congress, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Before starting his writing career, Roald Dahl had a vital role in the Second World War. As a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force, his flying days were halted abruptly due to a horrific accident. After his transfer to the British Embassy in Washington, Dahl’s popularity with the ladies led to British intelligence assigning him the fascinating task of seducing high society women to promote the nation’s interests in America.

3. Julia Child

Julia Child
Image Credit: Lynn Gilbert – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Julia Child, one of the most unlikely celebrity spies, would later enjoy a career as one of the first TV chefs. Before that breakthrough, she worked undercover for the Office of Strategic Services in Ceylon and China. Child also helped develop a shark repellent, an innovation for which Batman would later become grateful.

4. Moe Berg

Moe Berg in The Spy Behind Home Plate (2019)
Image Credit: The Ciesla Foundation.

A catcher for five MLB teams, including the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox, Moe Berg wasn’t your average baseball player. He held a Princeton degree and spoke eight languages — qualities that made him a perfect fit to work behind enemy lines in World War II. His efforts led to one of the best book titles ever when Nicholas Dawidoff named his 1994 biography The Catcher Was a Spy.

5. Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini
Image Credit: Unknown author – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

The master escapologist Harry Houdini was an expert in getting himself out of tight situations. Perhaps that was why he was targeted by both the British and the U.S. Secret Services in World War I. Houdini’s primary role was to spy on Russian anarchists, and it’s also alleged that he volunteered to perform some of his tricks in appreciative police stations around the world while secretly collecting data.

6. Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra
Image Credit: Photograph by Capitol Records, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Could the song “Strangers in the Night” have a secondary meeting? Was “Ol' Blue Eyes” liaising with contacts after dark? The role of Frank Sinatra, the spy, is widely acknowledged, although his exact role is debated. He was undoubtedly a courier for the CIA, who were interested in his extensive list of Mafia contacts.

7. Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

German-born performer Marlene Dietrich famously ignored Hitler’s orders to return to Germany after the outbreak of World War II. Instead, she became a U.S. citizen and undertook many vital roles. She entertained United States troops and became the Allies’ answer to Germany’s Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting songs to German troops that were intended to reduce morale and encourage defection.

8. John Ford

John Ford
Image Credit: Allan warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wiki Commons.

Film Director John Ford’s move into espionage also began in World War II. Having joined the naval field photography unit, his excellence attracted the attention of OSS Director William Donovan. Ford produced training films, but his most significant work was the documentary The Battle of Midway. Risking his life to go behind enemy lines, Ford was wounded and subsequently received the Purple Heart.

9. Harpo Marx

Harpo Marx in Duck Soup (1933)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

A member of the famous Marx brothers, Harpo played a silent clown, but there was nothing dumb about his secondary line of work. The United States began diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, but there was little trust between the two sides. Harpo Marx embarked on a goodwill tour of Moscow but was doubling as a courier, carrying an envelope containing secret messages taped to his leg.

10. Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee
Image Credit: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock.

If you haven’t previously been aware of Christopher Lee’s spying activities, look out for the 2024 film release entitled The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. This was the nickname of Lee’s British unit responsible for espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance. Christopher Lee featured in The Lord of the Rings films and was a giant of the horror genre, and he also experienced a fascinating past.

11. Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker
Image Credit: Studio Harcourt – RMN, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Singer and actress Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis but emigrated to France in the 1930s. She became a success in Paris, where her fame became of interest to French military intelligence. The Deuxieme Bureau recruited Baker, and she began to report on German, Japanese, and Italian persons of interest. Ingeniously, she smuggled messages back to the Allies in invisible ink on sheet music.

12. Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming
Image Credit: Florianfilm GmbH.

The creator of the most famous spy novels must have taken his inspiration from the real world of espionage. Author Ian Fleming gave us James Bond after beginning his British Naval Intelligence Division career. During the tense standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy reportedly wished he could call on James Bond.