During a recent public forum organized by the Adirondack Roundtable featuring Eileen Rockefeller as speaker, I was seated next to Beth Amorosi.
She is the granddaughter of James B. Donovan, made famous as the man who negotiated the exchange of the captured American U-2 spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers for the Russian master spy, Col. Rudolph Abel. In addition, it was Donovan who negotiated the exchange of prisoners after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
In the course of our conversation, I learned that Amorosi, a top public relations executive, was successful in the republication of her grandfather's book, "Strangers on a bridge: The case of Colonel Abel." It is a first-hand account of the capture and the trial of Colonel Abel, the Soviet's most capable and effective spy. The events in the book are now being dramatized in an upcoming Hollywood style movie by Steven Spielberg, staring Tom Hanks, as James Donovan. The movie's release is slated for October 2015.
All this caught my attention because George Carroll, at that time the public relations director of the exclusive and famous Lake Placid Club, had a front-seat view of Donovan's involvement, in the Abel affair.
As every student of the history of U. S.-Soviet rivalry in the field of espionage knows, the atomic spy case of Col. Rudolph Abel, a Soviet operative whose mission was to reorganize the spy network that supplied the Soviet Union with American nuclear secrets, was a riveting story.
What unmasked Abel as the Soviet master spy was a hollowed-out nickel that contained a microfilm inscribed with numbers. The nickel was turned over to the FBI by a newspaper delivery boy. It had been given to him by mistake by one of his customers. As a result, Abel was arrested and faced trial in the U.S. Federal Court in New York City.
That was the starting point, of the story told to me by George Carroll. "I remember clearly the day when it happened," he said. "It was the end of the summer and I have accompanied James Donovan, a longtime member of the Lake Placid Club, to the golf house. He said, "I have just received a very interesting letter from the New York State Bar Association. They are asking me to be the public defender of Col. Abel, the Soviet master spy. And I have my doubts about getting involved in this matter."
Donovan asked Carroll, a long-time friend, for his advice. Carroll expressed his hope that Donovan would accept the assignment. If for no other reason then to demonstrate to the world the inherent fairness of the American judicial system.
Donovan accepted the assignment and saved Abel from execution by arguing that sometime in the future Abel might become an invaluable asset and be exchanged for an American citizen in the hands of the Soviet Union. His prediction proved to be accurate.
Fast forward. While once again on vacation at the Lake Placid Club, Donovan was summoned to the telephone and instructed by the White House to fly to East Berlin. There he organized one of history's most-talked-about spy exchange.
I asked Amorosi, what impact Donovan's involvement in those "hush, hush" affairs had on his family. "My mother, aunt, and uncle knew about most of my grandfather's exploits that required them to duck picketers to get to school," she said. "My grandmother was worried about the cost of all of this to the family. But she understood her husband's dauntless nature and strong conviction to defending a basic human right, so she always stood by him. She respected his commitment to the law and the defense of unpopular causes."
Her grandfather, Amorosi recalled, once told his son, John, he came to understand that Abel's loyalty was to Mother Russia, not to communism .That he, and Abel, developed a certain level of mutual respect. Years later, when her aunt, Mary Ellen, turned 16, she traveled to Moscow, accompanying her father who was to meet with Abel. They celebrated her birthday with a chocolate cake.
"In 5th grade, I had to prepare a report on a foreign country. I picked Russia," Amorosi said.
Frank Shatz is living in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns.