Strangers On A Bridge – Cold War Attorney James Donovan’s Granddaughter Reflects on His Legacy

Strangers on A Bridge by James B. Donovan
“I decided to keep a diary on the case…on what would appear to be my most challenging assignment of law since the Nuremberg Trials.” 
~ James B. Donovan, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel 

Nowadays one would be hard pressed to find someone who has not heard of the historic role of Cold War attorney James Donovan, the subject of the Steven Spielberg’s six-time Oscar nominated film, Bridge of Spies. One Google search, a subscription to Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or any other newsfeed provides enough information to fill a term paper or at the very least a few paragraphs of this post. 

Donovan’s granddaughter Beth Amorosi recalls when that wasn’t always the situation.  An untimely death in 1970 of a heart attack at the age of 53 pushed her grandfather’s legacy to the bottom of the history pages, into the footnotes. 

“Over the years my family was somewhat actively trying to revitalize interest in my grandfather’s story. It just happened independently of our efforts. A screenwriter [Matt Charman] expressed interest in my grandfather after he noticed his name as a footnote in a book about the Kennedys*,” says Amorosi. “He noticed another footnote in a different book, this time about the Abel case. In the Abel case he was much more than a footnote; he was central to that story.” 

James Donovan's granddaughter Beth Amorosi
with Bridge of Spies Director Steven Spielberg
It wasn’t the first time that Donovan or his book, Strangers on a Bridge had been the subject for a screenplay. In the 60s, MGM bought the film rights and Gregory Peck had been slotted to play the Cold War lawyer. 

“I’d met Gregory Peck’s daughter and her husband, who is a screenwriter,” says Amorosi. “He had informally talked about the script process and how a character has to catch the interest of the writer.”

According to Amorosi that is exactly what happened when playwright and screenwriter Matt Charman zeroed in on her grandfather’s story. It sparked his interest on how this person was obviously much more than a footnote in history. Charman shopped the story around where it landed in the hands of people at Dreamworks and ultimately in the lap of Steven Spielberg. 

The Donovan Family at their Lake Placid, NY cottage. 
Donovan’s role in history started well before he was asked to defend the Russian spy, Rudolph Abel. While in the Navy during WWII, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As assistant prosecutor to the Nuremberg Trials, Donovan assigned OSS personnel to film the Nazi concentration camp liberations and gather other propaganda to present as evidence during the trial.

In 1957 his military background and other experiences made Donovan, then practicing insurance law, the perfect choice to defend Col. Rudolph Abel (The Hollow Nickel Case).  In Donovan’s book, Strangers on a Bridge he reflects on that momentous day when he was relaxing at his family’s Adirondack summer cottage in Lake Placid, NY. A member of his law firm called to say the Brooklyn Bar Association selection committee had chosen him to represent Abel because of a lecture he had given about the Nuremberg Trials. Though discussions turned heated following his Nuremberg lecture, Donovan had remained steadfast and stood up for what he believed.

James B. Donovan
Donovan defended Abel amidst threats to his family and public doubts of his patriotism. He eventually avoided the death penalty for his client by suggesting the future need of a prisoner exchange.  In 1962, Donovan was once again called into service to carry out the very type of prisoner swap he had foretold in the Abel trial. He was sent to East Berlin to orchestrate the simultaneous exchange of downed USA pilot Gary Powers for convicted Russian spy Rudolph Abel on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany.

It was that conviction that is echoed through Donovan’s book and Amorosi sees as part of her grandfather’s legacy. “I would hope this movie and book remains a ‘must see’ for the younger generation because it is part of our history and also very much part of our present day in terms of international relations and diplomacy,” says Amorosi. “It also demonstrates how we approach everyday challenges and rise to challenges in general.”

“I would say his legacy was his unique style of diplomacy. He had an extreme curiosity for people. He was always developing a personal and humane relationship with the individual as opposed to the enemy. He approached challenging situations using his humanity in achieving that common goal,” says Amorosi. “My grandfather took on the case for moral reasons. Though his whole book is moving to me, the most moving passage is the dedication page. Everyone deserves a fair trial and we aren’t always given that.”   

Dedication: “To those among the American bar who defend the weak, the poor and the unpopular” James B. Donovan, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel

Bridge of Spies stars Tom Hanks as Donovan
and Mark Rylance as Colonel Abel
Currently the Donovan clan plans to watch the Academy Awards together as a family. Amorosi encourages people to read Strangers On A Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel in addition to seeing the movie. She feels the book can help provide a richer, broader context due to a movie’s two-hour time constraint.  

“We are thrilled and honored to have Steven Spielberg, the most esteemed filmmaker, gravitate toward this story and my grandfather,” stresses Amorosi. “We are so proud that he and Producer Marc Platt created such a timeless classic. This movie has provided a greater interest in my grandfather’s career and all that he accomplished.”

Amosori says, “I wish and hope that one message to be taken away from this story is to defend an unpopular case as a lawyer is a privilege and an honor because you are upholding the Constitution. It is not something to be vilified or to be numbed by, but something to be moved by.”

The DVD for The Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks as Donovan, will be released on February 2, 2016. 

*The Cuban Families Committee selected Donovan to negotiate with Fidel Castro for the freedom of the detainees from the failed “Bay of Pigs." The mission was overseen by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the CIA with the cooperation of President Kennedy. Donovan negotiated the release of 1,163 of the exile brigade captured at the Bay of Pigs as well as 8,500 political prisoners.   In 1962 Donovan received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal from the CIA for his work. 

** The irony doesn't escape me that I had to use a footnote to describe Donovan's vast diplomatic experiences. 

(For those interested: this is the second film starring Tom Hanks with a connection to the Adirondacks. In 2013 Hanks portrayed Captain Phillips. Phillips spoke at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall at the request of his sister and the Champlain Valley Film Society.)

All photos of James B. Donovan are the property of the Donovan family and used with permission. 

© Diane Chase is the author of the Adirondack Family Time™ guidebook series. Adirondack Family Time™guidebooks have easy, short Adirondack family hikes for ADK kids, parents, retired, seniors, dog-owners, Adirondack swimming holes, Lake Placid Olympic activities, Adirondack trivia, Adirondack horseback rides, Adirondack snowshoe family trails and more. Look for the Adirondack family guidebooks online or bookstores/museums/sporting good stores. Diane is currently working on the next Adirondack Family Activities™ guide.


Wow. This is just marvelous. I am Jim Donovan's daughter and Beth Amorosi's aunt. My father's and our whole family's heart and soul is in the Adirondacks. Jim Donovan is buried in lake Placid because these were his happiest moments. He and his brother were camp counselors on lake George several summers in a kid's camp in the 1930's as young men. the Adirondacks are so personal--I just love the sound of the wind through the trees...thank you for such a well written article.
Regards,Mary Ellen Donovan Fuller
Unknown said…
I'm the son of James Donovan, and this movie has been a wonderful experience for our family and, as I'm learning, a particularly wonderful experience for some people who lived through those dangerous years and believe they shouldn't be forgotten. Beth Amorosi herself is making her mark as someone who is helping assure that this will not happen.
Diane said…
John, It was a pleasure to learn more about your father. His book, experiences, and your family has also impacted a younger generation. There are always discussions around our dinner table about "doing what is right isn't always popular and what is popular isn't always right." Your father certainly made his choices on what was right. Thank you for sharing his life and experiences with the world.
Diane said…
Dear Mary Ellen,
Thank you for your kind words. Your father's story is so important and you all worked so hard to make sure that it be told. I find that his book, movie and life in general has opened up conversations between my teenage son and his friends. James Donovan is a reminder that good choices are not always easy ones.

The Adirondacks has been a special place for my family as well. I wish you and your family the very best!

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