originally published September 17, 2013
I’m going to slip a little swoosh into my gait today and alter my stride somewhat. Instead of simply telling the story of today’s subject, I’m going to bury the lead about as deep as I can, relating the story of this man’s life while leaving his name behind the final curtain. Why do I do this? Well, sometimes you start with dessert and eat your way backwards. Sometimes you take the long way back home, either because you want to check out the scenery or else allow the long version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to play out. Sometimes it’s just fun.
This man is a famous person, one with whom most people in the English-speaking western world be familiar. The hero of this story has commanded a far more interesting life than one might expect, given the sliver of it which we have seen.
So dip your brain-bacon into your thinking-eggs and see if you can’t deduce our mystery guest’s identity. If you’re up on your obscure trivia, or maybe if you’re simply a big enough fan to have this knowledge padlocked to the front table of your readily-available mental hors d’oeuvres, then you’ll pick this up right away. For the rest of us, let’s peel through this guy’s backstory and see where it takes us.
Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, our story’s hero had a rough childhood. When he was three, his older sister died from appendicitis, and a few weeks later his distraught father perished from pneumonia on a fishing trip in the Antarctic. I don’t know why anyone would travel from the UK to the Antarctic just to go fishing. There weren’t any good seafood restaurants in his little corner of the island, I guess.
Our hero was a devious little shit of a child, at least according to the stories he himself has shared from that time in his life. He once replaced his sister’s fiancé’s pipe tobacco with goat droppings. Another time, he and some friends dropped a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers at the local candy shop, only because the lady who ran the shop was a grumpy old hag. This backfired when the boys were caught and caned by their headmaster while the hag stood there and cackled.
In November of 1939, our hero joined up with the Royal Air Force. He entered flight training in a class of seventeen young men, only three of whom would live to see the end of the war. One day in September of 1940, he was ordered to fly from his base in Egypt to Amiriya, then to Libya to refuel before landing at his squadron’s airstrip, 30 miles south of Mersa Matruh, near the Egypt/Libya border. Only problem was, the strip wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Our hero needed to land on the desert, where a boulder struck the underside of his plane and he crashed, fracturing his skull and temporarily blinding him. Turns out he’d accidentally been given orders that plopped him right in no-man’s-land, between the Allied and Italian forces. Whoops.
Our hero was taken to a first-aid post and nursed back to health. Before long he was back in the pilot’s seat, participating in the Battle of Athens. It’s hard to say how many bad guys our hero flicked from the sky, but he received credit for five aerial victories, enough to secure the chick-magnet title of ‘flying ace’. He was promoted to the rank of ‘flight lieutenant’ in August 1942. That’s when the really fun war-time assignment began.
That’s right – espionage. Our hero began working for Canadian super-spy William Stephenson, promoting Britain’s interests in the allied effort. It wasn’t an anti-American crusade so much as an effort to ensure that Britain remained a focal point of the Allies’ mission. Around this time our hero began running with some high society folks, and according to a recent biography about our subject, he began cavorting openly with an impressive roster of wealthy American women.
Sure, he was gathering intelligence for his cause, but he evidently had a stable of women and even a Bond-esque license to kill. Coincidentally, he was working right alongside author and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, as well as David Ogilvy, who would go on to become a top-tier advertising guru – the British Don Draper.
Once the war was over, our hero settled down and got married.
Actress Patricia Neal, whom you might remember as the wealthy matron in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, had a tumultuous affair with Gary Cooper, beginning in 1949. This resulted in some juicy tabloid fare, as Cooper’s wife found out and sent Patricia a cease-and-desist telegram. His daughter even spat at Patricia in public. She met our hero a couple years later and together the pair had five children. Despite losing one child to measles at age seven and nearly another when a taxi collided with their four-month-old son’s stroller, Patricia still put in an Oscar-winning performance as a housekeeper in the Paul Newman film Hud.
When Theo, the couple’s young son, was struck by the taxi, he suffered from hydrocephalus, or a dangerous amount of cerebrospinal fluid building up in the brain. Our hero helped to create a valve which is still used today in similar cases. His son made a full recovery.
Our hero gained a bit of notoriety when he published a memoir of his dangerous crash in Libya in 1942. From there he went on to make a living slapping words onto paper. His short stories were often macabre and spooky in nature, being cited by Alfred Hitchcock as some of his favorite bed-time reads. A number of these were turned into short teleplays, appearing on the original run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also wrote some risqué prose, publishing them in Esquire and Playboy.
He’d wind up writing a Broadway play called The Honeys, hosting a horror series on TV called Way Out in 1961, and penning scripts for films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Oh, did I mention his granddaughter became a model?
Have you figured it out yet? What if I told you when he was a kid, the Cadbury chocolate company used to test out new flavors on the kids in his school, leading to a lifetime of loving chocolate? Perhaps a list of his most beloved work might ring a bell: James And The Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, The Twits, The Witches, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Yes, Roald Dahl. An author who gave a rainbow palette to children’s imaginations and sparked a pocketful of magnificent film adaptations (and a sub-par Tim Burton remake). It’s hard to envision the chef behind some of our most beloved literary characters as a WWII-era Sterling Archer, leaving a heap of trembling (yet satisfied) women in his wake and wearing his bad-assness front and center on his immaculate lapel.
I suppose everyone conceals their own breathtaking bevy of surprises.