The Adirondack Life Behind “Bridge of Spies”

President John F. Kennedy with master negotiator—and former part-time Lake Placid resident—James B. Donovan. Photograph courtesy of Beth Amorosi

President John F. Kennedy with master negotiator—and former seasonal Lake Placid resident—James B. Donovan. Photograph courtesy of Beth Amorosi

When Steven Spielberg’s film Bridge of Spies opens nationwide on October 16 moviegoers will see Tom Hanks play James B. Donovan, described by the actor in the film as “an insurance lawyer.” But he was much more than that—including a seasonal Lake Placid resident.

A graduate of Fordham University and Harvard Law School and a World War II naval commander, Donovan became general counsel for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to today’s Central Intelligence Agency. He served as associate prosecutor at the first Nuremberg trials, which began in November 1945 and lasted nearly a year. More than 20 Nazi leaders were prosecuted for war crimes in this military tribunal.

Donovan’s subsequent legal career sent him to court in 30 states and in 1957 he defended Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Abel was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in a federal prison. In 1959 American pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a missile as he flew a sophisticated U-2 surveillance jet high over the Soviet Union gathering critical military intelligence. The episode dramatically escalated Cold War tensions and canceled talks between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev; without delicate diplomacy a new World War was possible. Washington struggled to find a peaceful solution.

While many in Congress urged that Abel be executed, Donovan knew the man—who was raised in Scotland and arrested in Brooklyn—would have far more value alive than dead.

The fateful phone call from President John F. Kennedy proposing the spy exchange came to Donovan when he was in Lake Placid. According to Donovan’s granddaughter Beth Amorosi, “This was his place for true contemplation, where he could think, read and make decisions. He was a great lover of books and ideas.”

James Britt Donovan was born in 1916 and he visited Lake Placid’s Stevens House with his parents. “He met my grandmother at the Lake Placid Club,” said Amorosi, and “became active in the club winter and summer.” He served as president of the Lake Placid Club Education Foundation and on the boards of Pratt Institute, the Morgan Library and many other cultural and educational organizations.

Kennedy again called on his steadfast “insurance lawyer” for help following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Starting in 1962 Donovan was responsible for freeing 23 Cuban prisoners, a number that grew to more than 10,000 over the next several years, according to Amorosi. The trade this time was millions of dollars and much-needed medicine. One perk of the extended mission was flying to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in Air Force 2 to get back to the Adirondacks in comfort and style.

Though James Donovan died in 1970, his family remains connected to Lake Placid, with a seasonal home there. John Donovan, James’s son, attended Northwood School and spoke to the Lake Placid Institute in summer 2014 about his father’s legacy. Amorosi is a figure skater and trained at the Olympic Center. Both her grandparents are buried in St. Agnes cemetery in Lake Placid.

James Donovan wrote two memoirs, including Strangers on a Bridge, which chronicles how he became involved in the delicate negotiations with the Soviet Union. Recently, his daughter Mary Ellen Donovan Fuller Fletcher, spoke with Jim Bohannon about her father’s diplomatic career in an interview aired by more than 400 radio stations.


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