William J Donovan (1883–1959) was head of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War. The OSS was the equivalent of SIS and SOE combined, and the precursor of the CIA. This hugely competent biography tells Donovan’s story.
Donovan was the son of second-generation Irish immigrants. His family had progressed from the clapboard shanties of Buffalo’s rough First Ward to the relative gentility of what was called ‘lace curtain Irish’. William graduated in arts and then law from Colombia University. Charming and sexually irresistible, Donovan married into serious money in 1914: his wife, Ruth, was the daughter of a multimillionaire with a leather and property empire in Buffalo. In late 1917 Donovan joined the 165th Infantry Regiment as part of General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force in France. Combat had no terrors for him; he felt like ‘a youngster at Halloween’. By the time he returned home Donovan had won the Croix de Guerre, to which in 1922 would be added the Congressional Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism under fire – all of which earned him the soubriquet ‘Wild Bill’.
By then Donovan had become a tough prosecuting attorney in Buffalo and western New York, taking on Chinese opium dealers, strikers and coal-industry profiteers. His burgeoning political hopes as a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1932 may have failed, but the law firm he co-founded made serious money from