Barbara Colby once recalled turning on the washing machine to muffle her husband’s conversations. She accompanied him on a road trip in Scandinavia, purportedly to visit castles but in fact so that he could supply anti-communist operatives with radio devices hidden in the car’s trunk. In Saigon, she protected her young children during a coup mounted against their neighbor, President Ngo Dinh Diem.
For nearly four decades, Colby lived the life of a CIA wife, performing what another agency spouse once described as “the traditional partnership role of ‘two employees for the price of one.’”
From 1945 until their divorce in 1984, she was the wife of William Colby — the spy and later spymaster who, as CIA director from 1973 to 1976, revealed the assassination attempts and other clandestine activities known as the agency’s “family jewels.”
Colby, 94, died July 16 in Washington. The apparent cause was a heart attack, said her son Paul Colby. William Colby died in 1996 in an apparent accidental drowning in the Wicomico River in Maryland.
The couple met on a blind date and were married shortly after William Colby returned from service in Europe during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services. He soon joined its successor espionage agency, the CIA, which would take him — and his family — on covert and often risky missions on several continents.
“There were times when, really, I didn’t know what role we were playing,” Colby said in an interview for the film “The Man Nobody Knew,” a 2011 documentary about her ex-husband and directed by their son Carl Colby. She recalled wondering, “Who are we tonight?”
During a posting in Stockholm in the early 1950s, her husband’s cover was as a Foreign Service officer.
She “jumped into the job of the junior diplomat’s wife with her typical enthusiasm and charm,” William Colby wrote in his 1978 memoir “Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA,” crediting her also with maintaining a normal family life. “Together in this way,” he wrote, “we did much to shore up my weak cover and convince most people that I was in fact what I said I was — a diplomat.”
In Rome, where William Colby was posted from 1953 to 1958, she immersed herself in the country’s language and religious and artistic heritage while her husband helped lead efforts to prevent a Communist victory in Italian elections.
In 1959, they moved to South Vietnam, where William Colby became station chief in Saigon, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City. In that city, he wrote, the family received its “baptism of fire” during an unsuccessful 1960 coup mounted against Diem.
As bullets “whined” through the windows of their home, William Colby recalled, he “barricaded” his wife and children upstairs. During a pause in the fighting, and with her husband by then occupied at the embassy, Colby escorted her children to a safer location. Diem was deposed and killed in a U.S.-supported coup in 1963.
After that posting, the family returned to the United States and William Colby went back alone to South Vietnam. There, he oversaw Operation Phoenix, a program designed to root out Communist Viet Cong agents in South Vietnam and that ultimately killed more than 20,000 Vietnamese.
In his memoir, William Colby wrote that in his absence, Barbara Colby “faced increasing difficulties,” particularly in caring for their daughter Catherine, who suffered from epilepsy and anorexia. But her “loyalty kept her from complaining or letting anything interfere” with his work, he wrote. In 1973, their daughter died at 23.
Colby supported her husband when, after his testimony about the “family jewels,” he was removed from office by President Gerald Ford. During and after her husband’s tenure as director, she was regarded inside the agency as a charismatic advocate for CIA families. She drew attention to the particular problems, including high divorce rates, that are shouldered by couples who must contend with the rigors of clandestine life.
In the 1980s, Colby helped lead a successful effort to win legislation guaranteeing shares of lifetime benefits, survivor benefits and health insurance for former spouses — mainly wives — of CIA employees. She and other CIA wives modeled their campaign on earlier, more public efforts by former spouses of State Department employees. The CIA women worked behind the scenes, as not to “out” the spouses still employed there.
Before the legislation was enacted, many spouses endured long overseas assignments that left them unable to build careers in the United States, then divorced and were destitute because they were not entitled to portions of CIA benefits.
She found herself a beneficiary of that legislation when she and her husband, who had supported the campaign on behalf of the ex-spouses, were divorced. Shortly thereafter, William Colby married Sally Shelton, a former U.S. ambassador.
“I guess I would say he was a complicated person whom maybe I didn’t know as well as I would hope to think I did,” she said in her son’s documentary.
She was born Barbara Ann Heinzen in Springfield, Ohio, on Dec. 25, 1920. Her father, Karl, was president of the Bayer drug manufacturer in the mid-1930s.
She received a bachelor’s degree in history from Barnard College in New York in 1942 and was an advertising copywriter before marrying. In 1992, she received a master’s degree in humanities from Georgetown University.
She served for many years on the CIA’s Family Advisory Board, which represents the interests of agency family members, and in 2002 received the prestigious Director’s Award from then-CIA Director George Tenet, recognizing her “untiring efforts on the part of former Agency spouses” and her “constant concern for the welfare of Agency families.”
In a statement after Colby’s death, Tenet and his wife, Stephanie Glakas-Tenet, said that “CIA Directors came and went, but Barbara was an indispensable foundation, serving the Agency for nearly 60 years.”
Survivors include four children, Jonathan Colby of Jupiter Island, Florida, Carl Colby and Christine Colby Giraudo, both of Washington, and Paul Colby of Alexandria, Virginia; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In the documentary, Carl Colby said that his mother did “everything for the mission.”
“She hadn’t signed up for this,” he said, “But she did it.”