Dulles, Eleanor Lansing (1895–1996)

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Dulles, Eleanor Lansing (1895–1996)

American economic expert, diplomat, and author who was a major figure in the postwar economic reconstruction of Germany and whose distinguished family included three secretaries of state and a noted director of the CIA. Name variations: known as "the Mother of West Berlin." Born on June 1, 1895, in Watertown, New York; died in Washington, D.C., on October 30, 1996; daughter of Allen Macy Dulles (a Presbyterian minister) and Edith (Foster) Dulles; sister of John Foster Dulles (secretary of state), Allen Welsh Dulles (director of the Central Intelligence Agency),Margaret Dulles , and Nataline Dulles ; married David Simon Blondheim; children: David Blondheim; (adopted) Ann Blondheim .

Born into a noted family of the American WASP "ruling class," Eleanor Dulles took full advantage of the opportunities afforded her. Drawn to learning from an early age, she earned a doctorate and became a highly regarded expert on international economic issues. She was a major personality on the Washington landscape for more than half a century, always ready to share her rich knowledge of the world with friends or strangers. She played a significant role in the post-1945 economic reconstruction of West Germany and West Berlin, earning accolades as an achiever as well as a theorist in one of the greatest successes of the Cold War. Her strong personality and candor did not always serve to advance her career, but throughout her life she found telling the truth as she saw it preferable to merely sitting quietly while those she considered to be fools—almost invariably males with power—spouted nonsense. In essence, Eleanor Lansing Dulles was a remarkable human being, an American original.

Born three years before the Spanish-American war, Eleanor Lansing Dulles was less than six when the 20th century dawned in January 1901. "I remember vaguely another century," she recalled in her memoirs; "and in 1901 I was standing in the dimly lit hall of my grandfather's house at 1405 Eye Street in Washington when the telegraph boy brought the cablegram that announced the death of Queen Victoria." Eleanor grew up in an extended family that took its leading role for granted. Her father Allen Macy Dulles was a highly respected Presbyterian minister while her mother Edith Foster Dulles could boast of a father, John Watson Foster, who had fought in the Civil War and had a distinguished diplomatic career as the chief U.S. diplomatic representative in Mexico, Spain, and Russia, eventually achieving the post of secretary of state in the administration of Benjamin Harrison. Besides grandfather Foster, Eleanor could also point proudly to another diplomat on

her father's side of the family: grandfather John Welsh Dulles, who served as envoy to Great Britain during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. With her extended family a part of America's Establishment, young Eleanor was an eyewitness to a good deal of contemporary history; more than seven decades later she could re-call being present at the inauguration of William Howard Taft in March 1909, when the new chief executive rode in an open carriage and Washington experienced a late snowfall.

Eleanor's family, while not wealthy, was financially quite comfortable with enough resources on hand to live a pleasantly leisured life that included a summer home at Henderson Harbor by Lake Ontario. Both her parents had enjoyed tours of lands that were then distant and exotic. Despite or perhaps because of her bad eyesight, young Eleanor was drawn to books at a very early age: "I did my first traveling in books, devouring Henry M. Stanley's Through Darkest Africa, Dr. Fridtjof Nansen's Farthest North, a book about 'Hidden Shensi' in China, and several on Tibet and India." The habit of intensive reading, which remained with Dulles the rest of her life, prepared her for successful years in college. Books and libraries were simply part of "the excitement of the quest for knowledge." She enrolled at Bryn Mawr in September 1913, graduating with a degree in social science in 1917.

By that time, America was at war. Her family was closely linked to the conflict, with her uncle Robert Lansing serving as President Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. Despite her youth and gender, Eleanor very much wanted to be "part of the action" and soon found her role in relief work. She went to Paris, first working for Shurtleff Memorial Relief and then the American Friends Service Committee, helping with refugee rehabilitation and, after the armistice was signed, with reconstruction projects. By the end of 1919, she was once again thinking about her academic career, so she enrolled at the University of London's renowned London School of Economics. Still convinced European studies were useful to her, in 1921–22 Dulles took courses at the Sorbonne. Then, however, she returned to America for a radical change of pace. She took odd jobs in the real world including running a punch press at the American Tube and Stamping Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and working as a payroll clerk for a hair-net company in Long Island City, Queens.

Soon Eleanor Dulles was back in college, enrolled at Radcliffe where she was awarded a master's degree in 1924. Her extensive travels and study in Europe, including her investigations of industrial methods in 75 British firms, served her well during this phase of her career, for she was able to complete her doctoral work at Harvard University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1926. Her dissertation, published in 1929 as The French Franc, 1914–1928: The Facts and Their Interpretation, was a superbly researched and strongly argued investigation of a major currency and its problems with inflationary pressures. Excellent reviews buoyed Dulles' spirits but the most encouraging gesture from the world of professional economists was a letter she received from leading economic theorist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote, "Congratulations, Yours is the best book on monetary inflation that I know."

A solid teaching career now began, first at Simmons College in Boston, then at Bryn Mawr, and finally at the University of Pennsylvania. A number of important books were published during these years, including studies of the French Franc, the Bank for International Settlements, and the evolution of reparations ideas. During this period, Eleanor Dulles met and fell in love with David Blondheim, an Hebraic scholar. Hopes of marriage for the couple were negated by the attitudes of her parents and family, who did not approve of her marrying Blondheim. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, he was now estranged from both his faith and family but still deeply attached to Jewish cultural values. Their love for each other persisted, however, and their relationship continued until they were finally married in 1932. But while Eleanor and David were in many ways happy to be united, Blondheim's personal demons finally triumphed when she told him that she was pregnant with their child. The prospects of being father to a child of "mixed blood" was too much for Blondheim to bear. Never having recovered from his family's rejection, he committed suicide in September 1934. Eleanor gave birth to their son David within weeks of his death. Several years later, she adopted a daughter, Ann.

Eleanor Dulles responded to the death of her husband by reverting back to her maiden name and resuming her academic career. In 1936, she became chief of the finance division of the newly founded Social Security Board, quickly earning the respect of her colleagues. After Pearl Harbor, her latent international interests asserted themselves, so that in 1942 she joined the State Department as an economics expert, becoming one of a group of pioneering women in that venerable institution. Years later, she recalled the difficulties she encountered. One of her superiors told her he would not promote her because she was a woman, while another told her male assistant that he did not have to follow her instructions. In 1958, she noted that much of the wartime prejudice still remained and that "This place is a real man's world if ever there was one. It's riddled with prejudices. If you are a woman in Government service you just have to work 10 times as hard—and even then it takes much skill to paddle around the various taboos. But it is fun to see how far you can get in spite of being a woman."

Despite the press of work and meeting the needs of her children, Dulles was able to publish a book in 1944 on the Bank for International Settlements, her second on this subject. In 1944, Eleanor Dulles' talents were recognized when she served as a prominent member of the U.S. delegation to the Bretton Woods international monetary conference, which was held in New Hampshire to create a stable financial structure for the postwar world. Around the same time, she disagreed vehemently with her brother John Foster Dulles, who believed that defeated Germany should be harshly treated and even divided up among its neighbors. Eleanor felt strongly that this was a recipe for a future catastrophe and lobbied vigorously in the State Department for more realistic policies that would create the foundations for postwar social stability and a permanent reconstruction of Europe after the destruction of the Nazi Reich.

Allied victory in Europe saw Dulles posted in Vienna as the financial attaché of the State Department. The scholarly Miss Dulles, enjoying the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Four Power Occupying Garrison, exhibited a remarkable degree of down-to-earth pragmatism in a Vienna that was demoralized and in ruins. She helped to feed the starving Viennese population by arranging the barter of horses for German cabbages and potatoes. Rejecting the idea of imposing a harsh Carthaginian peace on defeated Germany, Dulles strongly opposed Directive 1067, which mandated policies leading to a "pastoralization" of the former Reich's economy. Such policies, she was convinced, were disastrously mistaken and would result in anarchy and a likely expansion of Soviet influence. After leaving Austria in 1948, Dulles returned to Washington and quickly took a role as a key policymaker on Germany in the State Department. In 1951, her expertise in this area received an official stamp of approval when she became special assistant to the Department's Office of German Affairs.

It was as an important figure in the Office of German Affairs that Eleanor Dulles was charged with the task of advising both the American occupying authorities and West German governments on the crucial matter of economic reconstruction. Her encyclopedic theoretical knowledge of international economics combined with her pragmatic assessments of day-to-day realities empowered Dulles to give advice that enabled the fledgling Federal Republic of Germany to revitalize its economy and drastically cut down a high level of unemployment. Recognizing the crucial strategic importance of West Berlin as a bastion of Western values within Soviet-occupied East Germany, she made many trips to the beleaguered city. Eleanor Dulles admired the courage of West Berliners and did her utmost to secure funds for the city's reconstruction, somehow always finding a few million extra dollars for the construction of schools, hospitals, and the modernistic Congress Hall, which some irreverent Berliners called the "Dulleseum" and "Frau Dulles' Hut" (Mrs. Dulles' Hat); others preferred to dub it "the pregnant oyster." Over the years, she earned the unofficial title of "Mother of West Berlin," which eventually led to official tokens of recognition including an honorary doctorate from the Free University of Berlin (1957), the Ernst Reuter Plaque (1959), and the Federal Republic of Germany's Grand Cross of Merit (1962).

In Washington, D.C., a city of rumors and ceaseless intrigues, a strong-willed and outspoken individual like Eleanor Dulles was bound to make enemies. In the State Department, a bastion of male chauvinism, she had many foes as well as admirers and allies. Further complicating the situation was the fact that the Republican victory of 1952 brought her two brothers to the very heart of national and world power. Older brother John Foster Dulles, a corporate attorney with longstanding international interests, became secretary of state while younger brother Allen Welsh Dulles became director of the Central Intelligence Agency. John Foster, fearing that three Dulleses in Washington was one too many and would lead to charges of nepotism, attempted to persuade his sister to quit her job. Even when he applied pressure, she refused to budge and was successful in holding on to her job, which she felt strongly she had earned though her own merit and whose responsibilities she had carried out with distinction for years before her brothers had ever arrived in Washington. In her memoirs, this refusal throughout her career to bow to pressure from her brothers is noted with considerable satisfaction: "In the search for useful work, I did not turn to my brothers or others in the family for help. I sought rather for the support of my professors and colleagues in finding academic or government jobs."

Starting in 1953, Eleanor Dulles' bungalow house in McLean, Virginia, often served as a pleasant meeting place for her and her brothers to socialize on weekends. At the back of the house was a swimming pool that drew both Allen and John Foster to their sister's home on Sundays. Sip-ping highballs, CIA Director Allen and Secretary of State John Foster would discuss various facets of international relations or Washington political intrigues with their well-informed and highly opinionated sister, she in her thick glasses and they, "two middle-aged Presbyterian gentlemen sporting baggy shorts and gaudy Hawaiian shirts." Foreign diplomats fortunate enough to receive invitations to Eleanor Dulles' pool parties throughout the 1950s could report back to their capitals that they had finally been able to gain access to the very nerve center of U.S. foreign policy.

By the early 1960s, with the Democratic victory of John F. Kennedy and the passage of time, it was clear that the end of the Dulles era in Washington was at hand. John Foster Dulles had died in 1959 and his posthumous reputation as a hard-line Cold Warrior had become somewhat tarnished as the world became increasingly weary of the economic burdens and inherent risks of the Cold War. The world community now desired a drastic reduction of the tensions that could by accident or miscalculation trigger global annihilation through intercontinental nuclear missiles. Rightly or wrongly, the Dulles name was increasingly linked in the public mind to the most unstable and risk-filled period of the Cold War.

Eleanor's last major assignment, with the office of intelligence and research of the State Department, was to study its foreign aid programs. To carry out this task, she showed exceptional stamina by visiting 60 foreign nations throughout the world. The Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961 which ended the CIA career of brother Allen was handwriting on the wall, and few were surprised in 1962 when Eleanor was fired from her State Department post. Refusing to succumb to depression over this sudden end of her career in government, she accepted an offer of a temporary professorship at Duke University, moving back to Washington in 1963 for a permanent academic post in the political science department of Georgetown University.

The idea of retirement meant little to Eleanor Dulles, who remained active into the tenth decade of her life despite poor eyesight, deafness, and a weak heart. She kept on writing, penning a candid autobiography that was published in 1980. An enthusiastic outdoorswoman since childhood, she continued to summer at the family lake property, in her mid-80s sailing The Scud, a 14-foot wooden center-board sloop. In her memoirs, she noted approvingly that the responsive Ackroyd dinghy, given to her in 1926 as a present for completing her Ph.D. by the aunt for whom she was named, Eleanor Foster Lansing , "was still going strong fifty years later." She, too, was still going strong in the final decades of her extraordinarily long and productive life, never mincing words about her accomplishments. In a 1982 interview, she told a reporter that had she been born male her career would doubtless have developed differently, "I would have been in the Cabinet. I would have earned a lot of money." During the same interview, she addressed a male photographer taking her picture, "Are you nice to women? You're nice to 'em in the evenings, but don't much like 'em during the day?" Refusing to submit to the ravages of old age, she continued to travel, met with a steadily diminishing group of old friends, and immensely enjoyed the company of her six grandchildren.

Despite having witnessed catastrophic wars, the chaos of postwar reconstruction and decades of international tensions, at the end of her life Eleanor Dulles remained essentially an optimist. In her late 80s, responding to a reporter's query as to why she continued to interest herself in international affairs, she answered crisply, "Two reasons. One is, it's fun. And the other is, I think the world needs some help."


Dulles, Eleanor Lansing. Berlin: The Wall Is Not Forever. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

——. Chances of a Lifetime: A Memoir. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

"Eleanor Dulles," in The Times [London]. November 5, 1996, p. 23.

"Eleanor L. Dulles of State Dept. Dies at 101," in The New York Times Biographical Service. November 1996, p. 1614.

Gamarekian, Barbara. "Fiction, Reality, Dulleses," in The New York Times Biographical Service. February 1986, pp. 268–269.

Mosley, Leonard. Dulles: A Biography of Eleanor, Allen and John Foster Dulles and Their Family Network. NY: The Dial Press/James Wade, 1978.

Rosellini, Lynn. "Eleanor Dulles, Active as Ever at 87," in The New York Times Biographical Service. June 1982, p. 702.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia