Thirty years ago, as a newcomer to The Sunday Times, I interviewed P G Wodehouse at his American home in Long Island. I still feel the glow of having met the greatest as well as most unpretentious of all British comic novelists. Now again come allegations that Wodehouse betrayed his country in the second world war and may have been a Nazi secret agent.
In 1941, a Britain in the worst throes of Hitler's blitz heard the creator of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth make a series of lighthearted radio broadcasts from Germany. Wodehouse's "treachery" was compared with that of William Joyce, the infamous Lord Haw-Haw. Wodehouse was publicly vilified in Britain and never returned here.
Newly opened wartime MI5 files reportedly go further, claiming that, when Wodehouse subsequently made his way to Paris, he received preferential treatment from the German embassy and payments amounting to "a regular salary". One Nazi official allegedly confirmed that Wodehouse was "working for the German authorities".
Alas for the conspiracy theorists, nothing about Wodehouse or his behaviour adds up to anything remotely like Haw-Haw or the superspy granny, Melita Norwood. He was captured by the Germans in 1940, a year after the war's outbreak, while living in France with his wife, Ethel. As an enemy national, he was interned and sent to a succession of camps, ending up in a converted mental asylum in Upper Silesia, now Poland.
Conditions were harsh. Wodehouse was transported with other internees in cattle trucks, without food or water, was made to scrub out latrines and lost 42lb. Far from collaborating, he met his 11-month ordeal with fortitude and courage. In 1941 he turned 60, the age at which Germany released foreign national internees.
He made his way to Berlin, where Ethel joined him. There they put up at the luxurious Hotel Adlon, but on orders from the Germans and in the care of two minders. According to Wodehouse, their stay was largely financed by German royalties from his books. Ethel also sold her jewellery.
America was not then at war with Germany and influential figures from among Wodehouse's huge American readership petitioned the Nazis to release him. He was interviewed while in internment by an American reporter and wrote a humorous account of his experience for the Saturday Evening Post, which was afterwards reprinted in the Daily Mail. Nobody raised a murmur.
In Berlin, the admittedly gullible Wodehouse met various German foreign ministry officials whom he had known in their previous careers in Hollywood. One of them suggested that he make a broadcast to his many American fans to reassure them that he was safe and well. The four talks went out to the United States in July and August, 1941. Wodehouse had no idea that they would also be transmitted in Britain.
The broadcasts certainly aroused public outrage. But it was fanned to unreal heights by Duff Cooper, Churchill's information minister. At a time when the country felt on its knees, there was huge propaganda value in so wealthy an expatriate author sleeping with the enemy. William Connor, the Daily Mirror's Cassandra columnist, was recruited to denounce Wodehouse on BBC radio for having "pawned his honour for the price of a soft bed". Connor admitted that he had been
forced to make the broadcast, just as the BBC was forced to put it out.
After the liberation of Paris, Wodehouse was interviewed by British intelligence officers, including Malcolm Muggeridge, who concluded that he had been guilty of nothing worse than stupidity. Even so, his bank accounts in London were frozen. If Wodehouse had returned to Britain at the war's end, according to MI5's files, he would have been put on trial for treason.
Many British writers rallied to his defence, including Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, who lamented the immediate post-war climate of hounding small wartime offenders "while the big rats go free". His exoneration seemed complete with his knighthood under the Wilson Labour government in 1975.
As for the talks, nothing less like collaboration could be imagined. Wodehouse's books had already derided fascism in the person of Roderick Spode ("Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"). His broadcasts were a subtly ruthless send-up of his captors' mania for efficiency and underlying farcical confusion. British intelligence officials who read them later marvelled that they had ever got past the German censors. Indeed, they have since been quoted in espionage and political warfare training as models of how to put the boot in without your enemy realising.
The notion of Wodehouse as a Nazi agent is as implausible as that of Bertie Wooster as a member of Mensa. The truth is that he cared for nothing but writing, a form of total selfishness that many find hard to accept. He kept on typing throughout the war and, by the end, had four novels and numerous short stories ready for publication.
When I asked Wodehouse how he had felt about his vilification 28 years earlier, he repeated an answer he had given Muggeridge: "I felt like a comedian who's got laughs all his life but suddenly finds himself being given the bird." That about puts it in perspective.