Covert affairs

Walking through the lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after handing in his resignation on Friday, David H. Petraeus passed a bas-relief sculpture of Allen Dulles, who led the agency in the 1950s and early '60s. Below it is the motto, "His Monument Is Around Us."

Both men ran the CIA during some of its most active years, Dulles during the early Cold War and Petraeus during the era of drone strikes and counterinsurgency operations. And both, it turns out, had high-profile extramarital affairs. But private life for a CIA director today is apparently quite different from what it was in the Dulles era. Petraeus resigned after admitting to a single affair; Allen Dulles had, as his sister, Eleanor, wrote later, "at least a hundred." Indeed, the contrast between Dulles's story and that of Petraeus reflects how fully the life of public servants has changed in the US.

Dulles ran the agency from 1953 to 1961, and he had a profound effect on the America's role in the Cold War. Together with his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, he exercised enormous power and helped overthrow governments from Iran to Guatemala to Congo. He was also a serial adulterer. Dulles was married in 1920, but he and his wife, Clover, had a difficult home life. His affairs were legendary. The writer Rebecca West, asked once whether she had been one of his girlfriends, famously replied, "Alas, no, but I wish I had been."

For most of the 1920 and '30s, Dulles worked with his brother at the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. He often took extended foreign trips, and the letters he wrote home to Clover were full of references to other women that could at best be read as insensitive, at worst as taunting.

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