THE world of entertainment relies on publicity and the world of espionage relies on secrecy.
Stars live in the spotlight and spies in the shadows and that might seem to rule out the two professions working together. A famous entertainer is generally a successful entertainer, while a famous spy is most often either a failed spy or an ex-spy.
Yet many of the skills required are very similar, and both espionage and entertainment often involve pretending to be someone you’re not. Deception, improvisation, and role play are central to the work of both stars and spies, so it’s not surprising that both professions attract highly creative and eccentric personalities with similar skill sets.
Intelligence agencies throughout history have engaged performers on secret missions. Entertainers regularly travel internationally, enjoying “access all areas” privileges which allow them to network with politicians and royalty. If they keep their ear to the ground, they can be in a good position to gather and report back vital information.
Medieval jesters and Elizabethan strolling players were employed as intelligence gatherers and as couriers transporting secret documents. Nobody suspects an attention-seeking star performer is actually an undercover agent, and a clown in the court is unlikely to raise suspicion. A chapter in Harpo Marx’s entertaining memoirs tells of an occasion when, if he is to be believed, he was enlisted for one such secret mission.
Harpo was the first American artiste to perform in the Soviet Union, and his non-verbal comedy went down a storm with audiences in Moscow, Leningrad, and several provincial cities, playing to full houses and standing ovations.
Russian border officials were less welcoming when they opened his luggage to discover his theatrical props – according to Harpo, “Four hundred knives, two revolvers, three stilettos, half a dozen bottles marked POISON, and a collection of red wigs and false beards, moustaches, and hands.”
Harpo was touched by the response of Soviet theatregoers: “I got a tremendous satisfaction out of going into the hinterlands of the Soviet Union, where no one had heard of any non- Russian Marx – except Karl – and scoring a hit.”
At his final performance in Moscow, Stalin’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov (later ambassador to the USA) came on stage personally to thank the comedian for the pleasure he had brought to Russian audiences and, to the huge. “Brinkwire Summary News”.