Book 79: Will Bill Donovan


 "Colorful stories about 'Wild Bill' became chitchat fare at Washington parties. To show off what his unit could do, he had agents steal secret documents from the office of an admiral he was having drinks with at one social event, then bring the papers to him to give them to the astounded officer before the party broke up."

Dates read: August 15-20, 2016

Rating: 3/10

One TV show I keep meaning to watch (but haven't gotten to yet) is The Americans. The story of Russian spies living undercover in the US during the days of the Cold War, it's supposed to be amazing. Spy stories have a natural appeal: the constant tension of trying to discover without being discovered is inherently compelling. Gadgets, cloak-and-dagger mechanations, disguises and false identities, double and triple crosses...it's ready made drama for screens big and small.

Reality, of course, is always less glamorous, and Douglas C. Waller's Wild Bill Donovan tells the story of America's first real spymaster. Bill Donovan headed up the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor body for the Central Intelligence Agency. The book bills itself as a biography, but that's not strictly true...it's as much a story about the OSS as it is about Donovan himself. A Medal of Honor and Purple Heart winner for his military service in World War I, the Republican Donovan was tapped by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Coordinator Of Information in the buildup to World War II to make sure that the various military intelligence services and the FBI were sharing information. Eventually Donovan expanded that role into his own agency, the OSS, that engaged in espionage and spy missions across Europe and Asia during the war years. It was briefly shuttered after the war, but a proposal Donovan had made beforehand to keep it running afterwards as the Cold War loomed eventually resulted in the CIA, which Donovan (much to his displeasure) was not chosen to run.

As you can tell by the low rating, I had significant issues with the book. I'm not all that into spy stories on the page (although I do enjoy them on the screen), and a large portion of the book deals with the spy missions that made up the early days of the OSS. It recounts these missions in what I found to be tedious detail, including agents and their code names and intricate ins-and-outs of how specific missions played out without there ever being much payoff for that kind of information dump. What I was interested in reading was a biography of a person, which only showed up at the beginning and the end. We get through Donovan's first 50 or so years (including a pretty scandalous social life that saw him marry a socialite above his class only to be relentlessly unfaithful...so much so he was accused of having an affair with his own daughter in law!) in about 60 pages. There are some intriguing tidbits about his longtime feud with J. Edgar Hoover, but it's never developed. Then there's the endless boring espionage stuff, and finally we get more insight into Donovan's actual life after the OSS is disbanded, which focused mainly on a final diplomatic posting and then decline into dementia. Through it all, I never got a sense of an actual person. He's constantly described as charismatic and dashing, and while there's definitely a sense of a dynamic person created, I don't feel like I know anything about who Bill Donovan was as a human being. If you have any interest in an actual biography of the man, this is a pass. If you're interested in espionage during World War II, though, you will probably enjoy this book more than I did.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite spy show or movie?

One year ago, I was reading: Spinster

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