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Justice for spies

ON THE SCENE: Movie being made about the principled Cold War role of James Donovan, who’s buried here

August 13, 2015
By NAJ WIKOFF - Correspondent , Lake Placid News

Had it not been for defense attorney James B. Donovan, now buried along side his wife Mary in St. Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid, our country could have slid into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Donovan was a man of courage, one that epitomized the best of American values, and in so doing has been equally vilified and celebrated by many. He believed strongly that all people should be treated equally and fairly, and that war was a last resort, an action that should only be undertaken when all efforts at finding a peaceable solution had utterly failed.

Born a hundred years ago, one of the extraordinary highlights of his life was exchanging Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot who had been shot down over the Soviet Union, for convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel in the middle of the Glienicke Bridge that then linked West and East Berlin. The story will be released this October as "Bridge of Spies," a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg, co-authored by Ethan and Joel Cohen, and starring actor Tom Hanks - Academy Award winners all.

Article Photos

James B. Donovan
Photo provided by the Donovan-Amorosi family

That the United States had a convicted spy to exchange was the outcome of a call Donovan received from his office early one August morning shortly after he, his wife and family arrived in Lake Placid by train from New York to begin a much-delayed annual holiday. It was 9:30 a.m. A Soviet spy had been captured. Would Donovan be willing to serve as his defense attorney?

Not since John Adams had been asked to defend soldiers in the British regiment accused of murder in the 1770 Boston Massacre had an American lawyer been requested to represent a foreign agent equally despised. The consequence of his answering yes, as he well knew, would be to put himself and his family up to public ridicule and possible harm in a manner that Adams received two centuries before.

"Donovan knew if he took this case defending Abel, he knew it was going to consume him," actor Tom Hanks said in an interview for Entertainment Weekly. "He had to make that decision. It wasn't about should he do it; it was, 'Can I let this take over my life the way it's going to have to be?'"

"I had the privilege of standing next to my father when he actually decided to take on this job of defending Abel," said Donovan's daughter Jan, who was 10 at the time. "I was standing next to him when the call came in from the judge in Brooklyn telling him that the spy Abel was captured and asked if he would consider taking on the case. He said, 'I believe I will do it, and I will get back to you.' He then went over to practice his swing with golf pro Jim Searle and discussed his thinking with him. Searle's response was, 'Why would you want to take that on?' My father was a unique man. He loved challenges. He had all kinds of friends from all walks of life. He believed in being fair to everyone no matter what your background. So when he got the call, it was an immediate decision."

"When leaving the house to go to school, I had to duck under picket lines," said daughter Mary Ellen. "When he was representing Abel, every morning people were picketing us: 'Your father is a commie.' There was all of that going on."

Donovan, who grew up in the Bronx, met his future wife Mary at the Stevens House, the once-grand hotel that lorded over the community from the top of Swiss Hill. Both she and his family were seasonal visitors to Lake Placid, a tradition continued to this day as Jan and her family maintain a home. Granddaughter Beth Amorosi is an active member of the Lake Placid Institute board.

Then serving as a defense counsel for an insurance company, his life up to that point had been anything but normal, having served as a Navy commander in World War II, as intelligence officer for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA and as an associate prosecutor for the Nuremberg trials, where one of his main duties was preparing visual exhibits for the prosecution, an emotionally challenging assignment if there ever was one.

While he lost the trial, he did keep Abel from being executed, resulting in the United States having a bargaining chip when Powers was shot down three years later, flying a spy plane over the Soviet Union. Then it was the CIA who called, asking for his help. Later on, serving as the general counsel for the Cuban families committee, he successfully negotiated the release of 9,700 Cubans and Americans from Castro's Cuba.

Donovan wrote his memoir about his experience defending Abel and negotiating and personally facilitating his exchange for Powers at the Glienicke Bridge. The memoir, "Strangers on a Bridge," has been re-issued, the result of Amorosi's efforts, and will soon be available at Bookstore Plus if it is not already. The making of the movie was another matter as Donovan's wife Mary struggled for decades to generate interest. At one time it seemed possible with Gregory Peck in the leading role.

British writer Matt Charman pitched a Cold War thriller based on Donovan to Spielberg in September 2013. Spielberg loved the idea and said he wanted to direct. He commissioned Charman to draft a screenplay - his first - recruited Hanks, and it all came together with a national release scheduled for Oct. 16 of this year.

"I am thrilled about the film coming out," said John Donovan. "Spielberg is quoted as saying my dad was a hero. If he comes out looking like man of principle and courage, it can't go wrong."

If all goes well, the Lake Placid Institute and Adirondack Film Society will be able to arrange a special screening in Lake Placid featuring members of the family. One or more representatives of the film may introduce it and participate in a post-screening discussion. In the meantime, buy the book. It's a riveting read as good as any John le Carre thriller, but in this case it's a real-life experience that happened to members of our community.


Side notes

In addition to his role in the Abel case and the exchange for Powers, Donovan ran for the U.S. Senate for New York state and served as president of the Board of Education of the City of New York, president of the Lake Placid Education Foundation and president of Pratt Institute. I was a student at Pratt when he was president, and he occasionally took me to lunch at Montauk Club in Brooklyn's Park Slope, where we chatted about Lake Placid and he queried me on how I was doing at the college.



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