Obituary: Mary Bancroft

Mary Bancroft was that rarity in real life, a glamorous upper- class spy. She reached that condition by the tried and tested method of having a love affair with a man who was himself one of the most important spies of the Second World War and went on to be the most celebrated chief of America's Central Intelligence agency.

Allen Welsh Dulles had served as an American secret agent in Switzerland during the First World War. After the United States joined the Second World War, Colonel "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA, gave Dulles the assignment of returning to Switzerland to create a network of intelligence inside Nazi Germany.

Dulles sent an NBC radio technician, Gerald Mayer, ahead to begin identifying possible agents, and one of the first people Mayer recruited was Mary Bancroft.

Then a handsome, bored married woman aged 38, Mary Bancroft had dropped out of Smith College in Massachusetts, and rebelled against the ultra- respectable life of a debutante in Beacon Hill, the Mayfair of Boston, where she was brought up by her stepgrandfather, C.W. Barron, who was the publisher of the Wall Street Journal and the founder of the business magazine which bears his name. Something of a Bright Young Thing, not to say a "goer", in the Jazz Age, Bancroft had been married twice, first to an American, then, to the surprise of her friends, to a Swiss accountant called Jean Rufenacht. She tired of the marriage, and first wrote a novel, then began to study the work of the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung.

She had many lovers, and as her husband's work took him away from home frequently, she was in restless and emotionally available mood - "randy and ready", says Dulles's biographer - when, early in December 1942, she was introduced to Allen Dulles over a drink at the ultra-discreet Hotel Baur am Lac in Zurich. Her upper-class credentials appealed to Dulles, himself the nephew and grandson (and later the brother) of American Secretaries of State, and a partner in the powerful New York law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. But she was also a highly intelligent woman who had been living in Switzerland since 1934 and had acquired excellent French and German.

He quickly put the relationship on a more intimate basis by asking her to help him to find some bed-linen, scarce in wartime Bern, where he lived under diplomatic cover, and she obliged by lending him some from her husband's country chalet.

Within days he took her for a walk along the lake in Zurich and put his double proposition to her with bluntness close to effrontery. "We can let the work cover the romance," he said, "and the romance cover the work."

Before long both work and romance had settled into an efficient and pleasurable routine. Every morning, at precisely 9.20, Dulles would telephone Bancroft and tell her what reports he needed translated. They kept their conversation secure by using American slang, something that was more impenetrable in Switzerland in 1943 than it would be today.

Once a week she would take the train from Zurich to Bern, and check in at a cheap hotel opposite the station. She would then take a taxi to Dulles's comfortable home, where they would spend the day preparing a report for Washington. That evening Dulles would report to Donovan over a more or less secure radio-telephone, high technology for the day. Spy master and spy mistress would then retire to bed together.

After a while, Dulles gave Bancroft the assignment of editing a book written by Hans Bernd Gisevius, an upper-class Prussian military intelligence officer who was both an agent of Admiral Canaris's Abwehr secret intelligence service, and a member of the anti-Nazi underground. He was naturally one of Dulles's most prized contacts inside the German Resistance. Before long, Mary was romantically involved with Gisevius too.

At the same time as she was becoming drawn deep into the web of intelligence- gathering and anti-Nazi plotting in Switzerland, Bancroft was getting more and more involved in her study of Jungian psychology, and eventually became a confidante of Jung himself.

Her relationship with Dulles soon began to cool; he was a physically ardent but emotionally cold lover who once demanded that they make love hastily on a sofa "to clear his head" before an important meeting. After the end of the war, Dulles was joined in Switzerland by his wife Clover. She lost no time in telling Bancroft that she was aware of her relationship with her husband and that she approved of it, and the two women became close friends for life.

Later, after Dulles had become the first head of the new Central Intelligence Agency and she had returned to New York, Bancroft also became close, though apparently not sexually involved with, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life, whose wife, Clare Booth Luce, was another of Allen Dulles's lovers. She became a leading champion of Jung's psychology in the United States and wrote a number of articles in learned journals about his work.

The relationship with the Dulles family became even closer when, in 1952, Bancroft's daughter, Mary Jane, married Horace Taft, son of the conservative candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Allen Dulles gave the bride away.

In 1983 Mary Bancroft wrote her memoirs, which she called Autobiography of a Spy.

Godfrey Hodgson

Mary Bancroft, spy: born 29 October 1903; twice married (one daughter); died New York 10 January 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick