Mary Bancroft Biography

Author and intelligence analyst Mary Bancroft (1903–1997) had a colorful career as a journalist and spy for the United States in Switzerland during World War II. Bancroft was best known for her work with German military intelligence officer Hans Bernd Gisevius, who supplied details regarding a bungled attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944.

The Baby in the Basket

Mary Bancroft was the only child of Hugh and Mary Agnes (Cogan) Bancroft, born October 29, 1903, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hours after the birth, Bancroft's mother, Mary Agnes, an Irish Catholic housewife, suffered a fatal embolism, leaving her husband both a new father and a widow. Bancroft detailed the hours after her birth in Autobiography of a Spy (1983), describing how her paternal grandparents hid her in a laundry basket and whisked her away to their home in Cambridge so that her mother's relatives, whom Bancroft's grandmother referred to derisively as "those Cogans," would not have an opportunity to raise her as an Irish Catholic.

Bancroft's grandmother, Mary (Shaw) Bancroft, was of Irish descent as well, but kept the fact a close secret in a time when there was intense prejudice against Irish immigrants. Nolan, the Bancroft's coachman, referred to by Bancroft's grandmother as "that impossible creature," along with other Bancroft servants who were quietly Irish Catholic themselves, apparently fueled the war over the infant Mary's soul by smuggling her out to her Cogan relatives for a secret Catholic baptism. Despite everyone's efforts, however, Bancroft identified herself later in life as an agnostic.

Bancroft described herself in Autobiography of a Spy as a "wildly imaginative and insatiably curious child" and recalled, "When I was nine, I wrote in my journal, 'I am almost an adult.' When I was twelve, I noted, 'I am now an adult, but nobody seems to realize it.'" Her father, a brilliant man who first worked as a lawyer, then a journalist, and finally as a publisher for the Wall Street Journal , remarried, moved to Boston, and had three children with his second wife. Bancroft bonded closely with Nolan, whom she described as "my beloved friend and confidante … [who] shared my fascination with disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, volcanic eruptions—anything that proved the insignificance of man."


Bancroft was a student at the Cambridge School for Girls until age 15, when her Grandfather Bancroft suffered multiple strokes that left him largely incapacitated. She then joined her father and stepmother, transferring to the Winsor School in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she was awarded her high school diploma in 1921. In the summer of 1921 she went to Europe with some girlfriends under the watchful eyes of a group of chaperones. When she returned she enrolled in Smith College in 1922 against the wishes of her family, particularly her father, who put little value on academic achievements despite the fact that he had earned three Harvard degrees by the age of 21. Bancroft was a model student, but found herself increasingly bored by the freshman curriculum and left after the first three-month semester.

Hugh Bancroft's second wife happened to be the stepdaughter of Wall Street Journal owner Clarence Barron. Barron recognized Bancroft's intuitive talent for communication early on, and they maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence that served as a real-life education of sorts for Bancroft and played a large part in her later successes as a journalist and intelligence operative. Bancroft's 1983 autobiography noted that "I learned more on a wide range of subjects [from him] than I ever learned at school."

Married Life

Bancroft married old friend and U.S. figure skating champion Sherwin C. Badger in December of 1923. They followed Badger's job to Cuba, where they lived for a year before returning to Brookline. Bancroft admitted in her autobiography, "I still felt trapped in the role of a young married woman. And what was a young married woman supposed to do? Have a baby, of course. I got pregnant almost at once—and hated every minute of it…. Finally, after a long and difficult labor lasting nearly three days, the baby arrived…. I felt genuinely happy and contented. Perhaps life as a young married woman might be worth living after all." The baby developed erysipelas, a fever-inducing skin disease, and died while still an infant.

Bancroft and Badger moved to New York City, where Badger took a job with the Wall Street Journal . Bancroft spent her time writing and helping Badger with his articles and stories. They had a son, Sherwin C., in 1928 and a daughter, Mary Jane, in 1930, then divorced amicably in August of 1932. While still married, Bancroft had an affair with, and almost married, Jewish artist and musician Leopold Mannes, and was surprised to meet with virulent anti-Semitism at the prospect. She began a relationship with Swiss banker Jean G. Rufenacht in 1933. That same year Bancroft's father committed suicide by researching and then concocting a poisonous gas that killed him instantly. Bancroft married Rufenacht on October 10, 1935, and spent the next 18 years as a journalist and freelance writer in Zurich, Switzerland. Tiring of what turned out to be an emotionally and physically abusive marriage, Bancroft divorced Rufenacht in October of 1947.

Relationship with Jung

Bancroft, despite appearing to be exceptionally extroverted, suffered silently from asthma and violent sneezing fits that she suspected were psychosomatic and brought on by emotional turmoil. She sought out the celebrated psychologist Carl Jung, who cured her through analysis and became a lifelong friend. Her relationship with Jung was summarized in her New York Times obituary: "To Jung … her appeal was textbook obvious. In his scheme of things she was an extroverted intuitive, one who had experienced such fierce inter-family battles for her affections as a child that power had become her natural element. She had such an instinctive knack for wielding it, [Jung] told her, that men seeking or holding power would cherish her advice, as indeed they did." The list of Bancroft's male consorts over time included film director Woody Allen, Time, Inc. CEO Henry R. Luce, and Allen Dulles, who laid the foundations of what would become known as the Central Intelligence Agency. Bancroft's interactions with Jung fostered a lifelong interest in psychology, and she often lectured on Jung and others in his field when she had the chance. She also became a trustee of the Jung Foundation in New York after his death, and a contributing editor and writer for Psychological Perspectives , a Jungian academic journal.

Translation—U.S. Spy

Bancroft, a fluent translator of German and gifted "people person," was recruited by Dulles to serve as an intelligence analyst for the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) from 1941 to 1945, while living and working in Zurich, Switzerland. Bancroft's job was described in Contemporary Authors as "translat[ing] German dispatches and act[ing] as an intermediary between the German resistance and U.S. intelligence." Bancroft proved adept in this field, even identifying an unknown individual named Josip Broz as being worth considerable attention. Broz later adopted the code name "Tito" and rose to power as the leader of the communist party in Yugoslavia. Her most famous contribution to the war effort was the work she did with German military intelligence officer Hans Bernd Gisevius, who revealed details regarding a bungled attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Bancroft's job was to get to know Gisevius well enough to determine whether or not he was a double agent, and then relay information he revealed to her during conversations regarding the inner workings of the German government.

Back in the U.S.A.

Bancroft's biographical entry in the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives described how, in an effort to be more involved once the United States joined the World War II effort despite living in Switzerland, Bancroft "joined the American legation's Office of Coordinator of Information in Bern, where she wrote articles and analyzed German news and Nazi speeches and writings." When she returned to the United States she settled in New York City and immersed herself in local politics and her writing. An active Democrat, Bancroft volunteered for Harriman's campaign for governor of New York in 1954, as well as the Adlai Stevenson's campaign for the U.S. presidency in 1956. She served as an executive member of the Lexington Democratic Club from 1958 to 1960 and wrote numerous freelance articles covering specific political issues.

Bancroft published an autobiographical novel, Upside Down in the Magnolia Tree , in 1952. The cover depicted Bancroft as a young girl hanging from her knees in a pink-blossomed magnolia tree with Nolan driving a coach in the background. Her next novel, The Inseparables , was published in 1958, and her autobiography in 1983. A prolific writer, Bancroft spent a good portion of her life drafting novels, writing articles and keeping detailed diaries, journals, and notes. Her papers were handed over to the Radciffe College Library by her estate upon her death, with the list of materials alone filling a full 20 pages. More than 20 boxes preserve journals, invitations, diaries, appointment books, clippings, novel drafts and correspondence with individuals like William F. Buckley, Prince Constantine of Liechtenstein, American author Joan Didion, blueblood hostess Muriel Draper, comedian Bob Hope, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Pat Nixon, Harry S. Truman, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Bancroft died on January 10, 1997, of pneumonia at the age of 93, and requested that her ashes be buried in Groton Cemetery in Massachusetts. Her New York Times obituary set a tone that many people took when writing about Bancroft. The article used words like "coquettish," "bewitching," "brilliant," "daring," and "restless," and described Bancroft as "a woman with … penetrating intelligence, infallible intuition and boundless verve—not to mention legs that rarely failed to draw a second glance." Whether she was acting as journalist, companion, or spy, Bancroft excelled in her aims and will be remembered for her skills and style as well as for her service.


Bancroft, Mary, Autobiography of a Spy , William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1983.

Contemporary Authors: Volume 118 , edited by Hal May, Gale Research Company, 1986.

Contemporary Authors: Volume 156 , edited by Terrie M. Rooney, Gale Research, 1997.

Scribner Encyclopedia of Amercan Lives: Volume Five , edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.


New York Times Biographical Service , January 1997.


"Bancroft, Mary—Papers, 1872–1997: A Finding Aid," Harvard University Library ,∼sch00042 (January 7, 2007).

"Penwomen of Cambridge Past," The Cambridge Public Library , (January 7, 2007).

"Upside Down in the Magnolia Tree," , (January 7, 2007).

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