9 Things You Never Knew About Roald Dahl

by Charlotte Ahlin

It's time to celebrate! Roald Dahl's 100th birthday is coming up, so it's time to break out the giant peaches and rivers of molten chocolate. Many of us loved Roald Dahl's stories as children. Whether we were looking up to telekinetic girl genius Matilda or cowering in fear from The Witches, those books had something strange and wonderful for every kid. But how much do we really know about the man behind the chocolate factory? Here are a few facts you probably never knew about Roald Dahl.

You won't be surprised to learn that Roald Dahl enjoyed chocolate, that he had children of his own, or that he invented 238 words in The BFG alone. Perhaps you won't even be surprised to learn that he always wrote on yellow paper, or that his parents were Norwegian. But did you know that he was friends with Ernest Hemingway? Or that he spoke Swahili? Or that he was a spy? Dahl had a wildly interesting life, even before he was writing about oompa loompas.

So in honor of Roald Dahl's centennial, eat too much candy. Frighten a few children with bizarre, darkly humorous tales. And read up on Dahl's fascinating real life adventures. He's a prime example of how a children's author doesn't have to be just one thing:

1. He was a fighter pilot

Despite being too tall for the job at 6' 6", Roald Dahl was a professional fighter pilot in World War II. He fought for the British Royal Air Force, and he nearly died after a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt. He fractured his skull, temporarily blinded himself, and passed out, but lived to write about the ordeal. He even went back to flying afterwards, shooting down German planes in the Battle of Athens, 1941.

2. He was a sexy spy

Not only was he a spy, he was a sexy spy. Following his stint as a fighter pilot, Dahl was sent to the U.S. as an intelligence agent. His supplied info about the American inner-circle to an MI6 organization alongside officer Ian Fleming (best known for writing books about some guy named James Bond). While in America Dahl hung out with fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and seduced a few high profile American socialites (in the name of gathering intelligence, of course).

3. He worked for Shell Petroleum in East Africa

Prepare to feel uncomfortable: Roald Dahl also served in the British colonial army in East Africa. Before he was a fighter pilot, he moved to Kenya and then Tanzania as an employee of Shell Petroleum, where he lived in a mansion and learned Swahili. So... just go ahead and put him on a list of your extremely problematic faves. Once World War II broke out, he was also put in charge of rounding up all the Germans in Dar-es-Salaam for the British government (no pressure).

4. He mostly wrote for adults before he had children

You might not associate the name Roald Dahl with Playboy, but a lot of Dahl's writing was very... adult. Before he became a family man, most of his writing was for grown ups. He did start his writing career with the hallowing tale of surviving a plane crash, after all. And he followed it up with macabre and sometimes erotic short stories. He continued writing for adults throughout his career, but his children's writing eventually became his most well-known work.

5. He wrote all his children’s stories in a small hut

Roald Dahl liked to work in a shed in the garden, writing on a board balanced across his armchair. He habitually wrote from 10 to 12, and then again from 4 to 6. The shed was also home to Dahl's strange collection of memorabilia, including a ball of paper from chocolate bar wrappers and a piece of his own hip bone that had been surgically removed.

6. He advocated for vaccines and contributed to modern neurosurgery

Roald Dahl's family life was marred by tragedy. In 1960, his 4-month-old son Theo was hit by a taxi and suffered brain damage. Dahl, along with surgeon Kenneth Till and toymaker Stanley Wade, invented the Wade-Dahl-Till valve to help his recovery. Two years later, his seven-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles, and Dahl became a fierce advocate for childhood vaccination. The BFG is dedicated to her. Three years after that, his wife suffered three aneurysms while pregnant. No wonder his stories are so dark.

7. He wrote the screenplays for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and You Only Live Once

Well, he did have real life spy experience to go off of. Both scripts were heavily edited by other writers, but Dahl was given the job of adapting both books for the big screen. Blame him for all your childhood nightmares about the Child Catcher.

8. He got poor grades in writing at school

Writing was not his best subject as a kid. In fact, one teacher wrote in an official school report about Dahl: "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended." Roald Dahl held onto that report for the rest of his life, but it didn't seem to discourage him too much.

9. He was buried with all of his favorite things

Roald Dahl passed away in 1990, but his sense of humor lives on. He was given a modified "viking funeral," and buried with some of his favorite things, including his trusty pencils, red wine, chocolate (of course), snooker cues, and a power saw.

Images: Carl Van Vechten/Wikipedia Commons, Giphy (9)