Book Review: WWII spy yarn has local angle

By Jackson Fray
Special to the Rappahannock News

On a bluff overlooking the Hazel River, a couple of miles below its confluence with the Hughes, sits Longlea. In the figurative middle of nowhere, just across the Rappahanock line in Culpeper County, this grand manor house on a large estate is a witness to some of the most tantalizing happenings in 20th-century history.

You can read about some of what happened in a book titled “The Irregulars,” by Jennet Conant. The book is ostensibly about the intelligence networks of World War II, specifically the experiences of the English writer Roald Dahl in Washington, but there’s a fascinating connection to Culpeper and Rappahannock counties and some of the people who lived here.

Longlea, the estate of the Texas newspaper publisher Charles Marsh, provided an important meeting place where much policy was formulated.

Dahl was a brilliant writer probably best remembered for his children’s tale “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” twice made into a movie. But he also penned two of the best “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” – Barbara Bel Geddes and her frozen leg of lamb as well as Keenan Wynn and the ill-fated ocean lottery. His screenplay of “You Only Live Twice” stands out as perhaps the best James Bond film adaptation. Dahl was married to the actress Patricia Neal in a wedding attended by some Rappahannock natives.

Dahl arrived in wartime Washington in 1942 to work for the British Security Coordination (BSC) with the mission to ingratiate himself and advance the cause of war-torn Britain. He soon met the Marshes at a dinner party. As many local readers are aware, Robert Caro in his book “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power” detailed the affair the married future president had with Marsh’s wife Alice. The trysts were often at Longlea.

Marsh later moved to Jessamine Hill in Rappahannock itself.

“The Irregulars” takes nearly as close a look at Marsh’s life as it does at Dahl’s, and it is the former that should truly engage the interest of Rappahannock readers.

Also prominent in the book is former Rappahannock resident Ralph Ingersoll, who had written “Report on England,” a best-selling account of the Battle of Britain and had been editor of the newspaper PM, considered by may to be radically left-wing. But when Ingersoll moved to Rappahannock, he acquired friends such as Jim Bill Fletcher and Ike Parrish as well as my father, Culpeper native Jack Fray — hardly bomb throwers.

I heartily recommend “The Irregulars” as an excellent read, both for its wartime intrigues and its Rappahannock connections.

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