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
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...