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.

In one he wrote of a night out with "an attractive (not beautiful) Irish-French female whom I took to Scheherazade, where we stayed until the early hours." In another, the subject was a "rather good-looking" English woman with whom he "danced and drank champagne until quite late." As if to pour salt in her emotional wounds, Dulles wrote in another letter that he didn't "deserve as good a wife as I have, as I am rather too fond of the company of other ladies."

During World War II, Dulles ran American espionage operations in neutral Switzerland. Soon after arriving in Bern, he found a mistress, Mary Bancroft, a dynamic woman of the world who had grown up on Beacon Hill in Boston under the wing of her doting step-grandfather, C. W. Barron, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. Dulles hired Bancroft to write political analysis, but there was little doubt where his interest lay. By her own account, Bancroft developed "overwhelming admiration for his abilities" and fell "completely in love" with him.

Dulles was 60 years old when he took over the CIA, and had slowed down a bit. Nonetheless, he was rumoured to have become familiar with one of the highest-profile women of the era, Clare Booth Luce, the wife of Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Time and Life.

Dulles's behaviour was well known in Washington and elsewhere, but never publicly reported. By the journalistic codes of the 1950s, it was not newsworthy. The same code applied to Dulles's superiors. Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy entrusted the security of the US to him. What Dulles did in his private life, even when it intersected with his public role, was considered none of their business. Allen Dulles, who died in 1969, may have been, as one biographer claimed, "the greatest intelligence officer who ever lived." Yet by today's standards, this master spy would not have been allowed even to join the CIA, much less lead it.

STEPHEN KINZER is the author of 'The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War'

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