Rimington, Stella 1935- (Dame Stella Rimington, Stella Whitehouse)

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Rimington, Stella 1935- (Dame Stella Rimington, Stella Whitehouse)


Born May 13, 1935, in South London, England; daughter of a civil engineer and a home care nurse; married John David Rimington, 1963 (divorced, 1984); children: Sophie, Harriet. Education: Edinburgh University, M.A.; Liverpool University, postgraduate degree in the study of records and the administration of archives.


Office—P.O. Box 1604, London SW1P 1XB, England. Agent—Celebrity Speakers Ltd., 90 High St., Burnham, Buckinghamshire SL1 7JT, England.


Writer, novelist, civil servant, administrator, public speaker, and security service agent. Worcestershire county records office assistant archivist, 1959-62; India office library, London, England, assistant keeper, 1962-65; British Security Service (MI5), part-time clerical worker in New Delhi, India, 1965-69, worked in and served as director of counter-subversion, counterespionage, and counter-terrorism divisions, 1969-92, director-general, 1992-96. Marks and Spencer, director, 1996—; held corporate positions in BC PLC, 1997-2000, GKR Group, 1997—, and BG International, 2000—. Institute of Cancer Research, chair, 1997—; trustee, Royal Air Force Museum.


Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath, 1996; Honorary Air Commodore 7006 (VR) Intelligence Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 1997—. Recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Nottingham, 1995, and University of Exeter, 1996.


Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 (autobiography), Hutchinson (London, England), 2001.


At Risk, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.

Secret Asset, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

Illegal Action, Hutchinson (London, England), 2007.


Dame Stella Rimington was the first woman ever to serve as director-general of the British Security Service known as MI5. She was also the first leader of the service whose name was made public. Under her leadership, the service pursued a policy of greater openness, and it also began to devote more resources to counterterrorism and fighting organized crime.

Rimington was born in South London, England, in 1935, the daughter of an engineer and a home care nurse. Her father worked in the steel industry, and during World War II his work often took him and his family to steel-producing areas of England that were targeted by German bombs. In the transcript of a speech posted on the Financial Mail Women's Forum, Rimington said: "I spent quite a lot of my early childhood in an air raid shelter listening to the bombs dropping on our house and I think as a result I ended up as something of a nervous wreck with a craving for excitement." Although girls of her era were taught that they would simply be wives and mothers, Rimington secretly dreamed of being an airline pilot. This was not even an option for a woman at the time but, she recalled, "it was the most exciting thing I could think of."

Rimington earned a master's degree in English at Edinburgh University, and then worked as an archivist. In 1963 she married John Rimington, whom she had known since childhood. He was a British civil servant, and was posted to the British High Commission in New Delhi, India, in 1965.

In New Delhi, Rimington expected to be a typical diplomat's wife, with no more taxing chores than running social events and wearing fancy clothes. When she was asked whether she would like a part-time job assisting the local representative of MI5, she agreed. The job was as a clerk-typist, and she initially viewed it simply as something to do to pass the time.

At the time, MI5 was almost exclusively male, and most of those men came from the same schools, military organizations, and social groups. Rimington told Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian: "In those days the organization was very closed. I think the arrival of women like me—and people like me—began to challenge that. I always felt slightly revolutionary, because I was clearly quite different." Although there were a few other women in the service, they were scattered and without much influence. Rimington, impatient with working for people she believed were not as competent as she was, pushed to move up to more senior and more responsible positions. Along the way, she noted that the organization had a double structure: the men were the officers and the women worked in secretarial or supportive roles. However, she pressed to be able to do the same sort of work that the men did.

She worked first as an operative, then as a section chief. Rimington told Norton that she found the business of spying immensely entertaining: "You know, going round listening to people's telephones and opening their mail and stuff. It beats being an archivist and it beats being a civil servant, I thought." When collecting information, she often had to fight informants' reluctance to discuss secret matters with a woman, but she also found that, as a woman, she was good at persuading people to trust her.

Eventually she became director of counterterrorism for the organization, and she spent much of her time working against terrorist attacks conducted by the Irish Republican Army, which at the time was targeting British soldiers stationed in Germany. During her career, Rimington worked in the countersubversion, counterespionage, and counterterrorism divisions and became the chief of each of them in turn.

The MI5 organization was highly secretive. "Nobody believes more strongly than I that there are things we must continue to keep secret," she told Norton-Taylor. "But I thought they were being excessively and sometimes rather ridiculously careful." While she worked for MI5, she could not tell other people where she worked or what she did, which drove her to avoid socializing with neighbors or many friends. She told Norton-Taylor: "I do think that in those days it made life more difficult and turned us all … in on ourselves so that … everybody dealt with it in their own way." Her children knew that she worked for the government, but nothing more.

All of this ended in 1992, when Rimington was named director-general of MI5. In addition, it was decided that for the first time, the name of the director-general would be made public. The ensuing publicity was difficult for Rimington and for her children, then ages seventeen and twenty. From not knowing anything about their mother's work, they became near-celebrities as curious reporters sought to find out everything they could about Rimington and her family. In one incident, reporters came to her house to interview her without warning. Her daughter opened the door without asking who was outside and, when Rimington appeared, one of them took a photo of her. She thought the camera flash was from a gun firing and slammed the door. The reporters yelled through the door, and Rimington yelled back. She recalled in her speech: "I think that was the beginning of [my daughters'] realization that their mum did not do something entirely normal."

In the end, the family was forced to move because the publicity became too burdensome and dangerous. Rimington's younger daughter, who was still living at home, had to attend another school under a fictitious name, and could not invite anyone home to the house. Rimington noted in her speech that this daughter often forgot her alias and asked Rimington: "Just tell me again mum, who am I?"

By the end of her career with MI5, Rimington was no longer concerned with the entertaining details of spy work, but with the success and survival of the organization as a whole. "These [administrative and strategic details] were the things that, by the end, were occupying me, and everybody else was having fun doing the spy bit and the terrorist bit." She also found that being in charge of individual agents posed an ethical dilemma: she had to ask people to do things that might risk their lives, and she often dealt with them face to face, making the issue very personal.

Rimington left MI5 in 1996. In 2001 she published Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5. The book describes her life and work for the secret service. As a result of publishing the book, Rimington had to endure what David Rose in the London Observer called "a long period of being persona non grata." Although the book presented a positive view of MI5 and did not reveal any real scandals or operational secrets, the simple fact that she wrote it was viewed as a betrayal by many of her old friends.

After publishing her memoir, Rimington went on to fulfill another long-held goal: to become a novelist. In a BookPage interview with Jay MacDonald, Rimington admitted to a great interest in spy novels and thrillers. "I am an avid thriller reader and always have been. That is rather odd actually, that somebody relaxes by reading fictional stories about their own profession, but indeed I do and always have," she told MacDonald. In her debut novel, At Risk, Rimington introduces MI5 agent Liz Carlyle, as determined and ambitious in her career as she is scattered and dysfunctional in her personal life. Involved with a married man she wants to dump, irritated by her mother's advice to find a nice man and settle down, she works hard at her job and earns every victory and promotion. As the story gets under way, Liz learns about a plot by a Middle Eastern terrorist to carry out attacks on British soil. Even more terrifying is the fact that his accomplice is an "invisible," so called because she is a British citizen who can come and go throughout the country and across borders without attracting attention from the authorities. As the story progresses, the terrorist's motives become more clear and are revealed to originate from more than a simple desire for violence. With the situation growing ever more urgent, and with the terrorist and his accomplice leaving behind a trail of dead bodies and abandoned equipment, Liz must determine when and where they will turn up next before their final attack comes to pass.

"Deftly plotted, realistic in dialogue and detail, At Risk is a first-rate thriller with plenty to say about the strengths and weaknesses of the men and women on the front lines of the war on terror," MacDonald remarked. The story is "breezily told, seldom pompous, and the plot, though every bit as hokey as you'd expect, winds its threads together very entertainingly," commented Sam Leith in the London Telegraph. Throughout the story, Rimington's "voice rings true, and she keeps faith with a genre she clearly venerates," observed a Publishers Weekly critic. Rimington "pulls off an exciting thriller," stated Teresa L. Jacobsen in the Library Journal.

Liz Carlyle's second adventure, in Secret Asset, finds her looking within her own organization for turncoats that jeopardize MI5's entire mission. Originally investigating the presence of a terrorist cell operating in London, Liz is abruptly pulled from that case and reassigned to the task of ferreting out a dangerous mole operating within MI5. In this "smartly constructed, sharply written thriller," Rimington "proves adept at building characters and constructing plots," commented Booklist contributor David Pitt. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that readers "interested in old school British intelligence thrillers will find much to like in the smart, enterprising Carlyle." The story is "slow to start," remarked a Kirkus Reviews critic, "but with whiplash control of momentum that raises your pulse a heartbeat at a time until the climax."

In her speech posted on the Financial Mail Women's Forum, Rimington said: "My whole life has been a surprise to me because I never expected a career at all and I certainly would not have expected to be director-general of MI5."



Rimington, Stella, Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 (autobiography), Hutchinson (London, England), 2001.


Booklist, May 1, 2007, David Pitt, review of Secret Asset, p. 38.

British Journalism Review, Volume 12, number 4, 2002, David Shaylor, review of Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5.

Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2005, Faye Bowers, "A Spy Comes in from the Cold," review of At Risk.

Entertainment Weekly, January 14, 2005, Daniel Fierman, review of At Risk, p. 92.

Guardian (Manchester, England), June 26, 2004, Richard Norton-Taylor, "Spooked," review of At Risk.

Independent (London, England), July 3, 2004, Boyd Tonkin, review of At Risk; July 30, 2006, Andrew Mueller, "Stella Rimington: Secrets and Spies," profile of Stella Rimington.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2004, review of At Risk, p. 1066; May 1, 2007, review of Secret Asset.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, Teresa L. Jacobsen, review of At Risk, p. 102; May 1, 2007, Jonathan Pearce, review of Secret Asset, p. 75.

London Review of Books, October 18, 2001, Bernard Porter, review of Open Secret, p. 8.

New Statesman, October 1, 2000, Phillip Knightley, review of Open Secret, p. 73; June 21, 2004, Douglas Hurd, "A Good Yarn," review of At Risk, p. 51.

Observer, September 16, 2001, David Rose, review of Open Secret, p. 15.

People, January 10, 2005, Heidi Schmidt, review of At Risk, p. 46.

Publishers Weekly, November 29, 2004, review of At Risk, p. 24; April 30, 2007, review of Secret Asset, p. 137.

Spectator, September 22, 2001, Henry Porter, review of Open Secret, p. 48.

Telegraph (London, England), September 18, 2001, "The Spymistress," profile of Stella Rimington; June 27, 2004, "The Spymaster's Tale," profile of Stella Rimington; June 27, 2004, Sam Leith, "An Insider Job," review of At Risk.

Times Literary Supplement, November 9, 2001, Nicholas Hiley, review of Open Secret, p. 9.

Washington Post, January 10, 2005, Patrick Anderson, review of At Risk, p. C1.


Australian Women's Weekly,http://aww.ninemsn.com.au/ (December 25, 2007), interview with Stella Rimington.

Best Reviews,http://thebestreviews.com/ (December 26, 2004), Harriet Klausner, review of At Risk.

BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (January 25, 2008), "Her Majesty's Not-so-secret Service," Jay Macdonald, interview with Stella Rimington.

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Web site,http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (December 1, 2001), "Stella Rimington: Spying Dame," profile of Stella Rimington.

Financial Mail Women's Forum,http://www.fmwf.com/ (September 19, 2001), transcript of speech by Rimington.

Guardian Online,http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (September 8, 2001), Richard Norton-Taylor and Alan Rusbridger, "I Spy."

Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/ (January 25, 2008), filmography of Stella Rimington.

Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (September 30, 2006), Eleanor Bukowsky, review of At Risk; (January 25, 2008), biography of Stella Rimington.

Observer Online,http://www.observer.co.uk/ (September 9, 2001), David Rose, "Secrets of Success."

Original Stella Rimington Fansite,http://www.freewebs.com/stellarimington/ (January 25, 2008), biography of Stella Rimington.