Oct. 21, 2015 – In 1962, James Britt Donovan, a Jesuit educated insurance lawyer from New York City, negotiated the release of U.S. spy, Francis Gary Powers in exchange for Russian KGB Agent, Rudolf Abel. Donovan had earlier defended Abel in 1957 against charges of espionage in the United States. This is the premise of the latest film by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies, staring Tom Hanks as Donovan.
Born in the Bronx to Irish Catholic parents, Donovan would follow in his older brother’s footsteps and attend Fordham University to pursue a degree in English. After graduating he attended Harvard Law School and would then go on to serve in the U.S. Navel Reserve. But Fordham was his spiritual home and would engage in verbal sparring with Jesuits there. “That was a way of decompressing for him, because the Jesuits are known for their intelligence,” explained his daughter Mary Ellen Donovan Fuller. “It kept him motivated. The honor of doing good was almost a religious cause for him, and I think it was bolstered by his regular visits to campus.”
For Donovan, his defense of Abel was really a defense of the American legal system and his belief that everyone deserves a fair trial. This unpopular case resulted in the rancor of the American people who saw Donovan as a “traitor” and “commie lover.” While the case could not be won because of the evidence against Able, he did provide an earnest and objective defense.
On January 21, 1970, during his eulogy, Fr. Robert Gannon, SJ, former president of Fordham, called Donovan “intelligent, fearless, and good—a man of principle” and “a family man.”