Eleanor Bontecou (14 February 1891–19 March 1976), attorney, was born in Short Hills, Essex County, New Jersey, the daughter of Frederic Thayer Bontecou and Amy Vail Bontecou. A descendant of early Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley, her father was a broker who saw lean as well as affluent years but always insisted on the best education for his daughters. Bontecou attended Miss Beard's School in Orange, New Jersey, noted for its exceptionally high standards, and she entered Bryn Mawr College in 1909 on a scholarship awarded for the highest grades received on entrance examinations from New Jersey and New York. She graduated with highest honors in 1913.
Bontecou entered the New York University law school and graduated in 1917. She was admitted to the New York bar in 1919 and worked as a law clerk in a New York City firm from 1918 to 1921. In 1922 Bontecou returned to Bryn Mawr as dean of the college. She began graduate work at Harvard University law school three years later and studied there under Felix Frankfurter. From 1927 to 1930 Bontecou was a research fellow for the Commonwealth Fund, studying the rule-making activities of administrative agencies of the federal government. She received an M.A. in administrative law from Radcliffe in 1927 and a Ph.D. a year later from the Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government (later the Brookings Institution) in Washington, D.C.
With this brilliant academic record, Bontecou looked forward in 1929 to her new appointment as a full professor of legal relations at the University of Chicago. She had served just one year when she was stricken with encephalitis lethargica (sleeping sickness). Returning to the Washington area, Bontecou spent most of the 1930s bedridden and disabled in mind and body from the effects of the disease. She derived her bravery and determination to recover from a conviction that bodies could heal themselves and, with the help of her recently widowed mother, worked diligently throughout the decade to regain her strength and coordination. Bontecou never fully recovered, but undaunted by an impaired sense of balance and a slight tremor in her hands, she designed a house overlooking the Potomac River in 1936 and lived in Arlington from 1932 until 1974.
Campaign Against the Poll Tax
Bontecou joined the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, providing legal advice to its campaign to abolish the poll tax. In 1939 she began working with Ralph Johnson Bunche on a survey of southern suffrage for the New School for Social Research and the Carnegie Foundation Study of the Negro in America. The survey became part of Bunche's monograph, later published separately as The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR (1973), which he wrote in 1940 for Gunnar Myrdal's larger work, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Still homebound, Bontecou used her earnings to pay a research assistant and a field-worker to complete the research for her own study, The Poll Tax, which the American Association of University Women published in 1942.
In 1943 Bontecou was ready to return to what she called "regular work" and sought a temporary position in the new Civil Rights Section of the Criminal Division at the United States Department of Justice. She named as references two close friends who were associate justices of the United States Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter and Hugo Black. Tom C. Clark, the director of the Civil Rights Section, recognized her keen legal mind and research skills and soon offered her a permanent position. In matters involving race and cases of discrimination against Japanese Americans, Bontecou was considered the most able attorney in the section. During her first year she completed a study of the treatment of conscientious objectors by the United States and the allied nations in World War I and recommended solutions to conscientious objector problems in World War II. Bontecou was one of the first seven attorneys in the Civil Rights Section, and she believed that this small group paved the way for action by the federal government in later civil rights cases. Especially skillful in the appraisal of witnesses, she was transferred to the War Department in 1946 to help prepare for the prosecution of major war criminals in the Pacific area. In 1947 the War Department sent Bontecou to Nürnberg to inspect and report on all war crimes activities in Germany. The rigors of travel and the nature of the work in Germany proved too great a strain. When Bontecou returned to the United States, she suffered a heart attack and was forced to retire.
Despite her health problems Bontecou soon resumed her research. In 1948 she undertook a study of the federal loyalty-security program for Cornell University. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Bontecou's research covered the work of the Dies Committee, the attorney general's list of subversives, and the work of federal and regional un-American activities committees. The Federal Loyalty-Security Program (1953) was one in a series of volumes that emphasized the effects of the security programs on civil liberties. Bontecou conducted and included interviews with government employees who had faced charges that they were disloyal or were security risks, and the book also had a chapter based on her 1950 study of British loyalty-security programs. Her research affected her deeply, and she put her abhorrence of the miscarriage of justice in the McCarthy era to practical use by counseling, and in some cases raising money for, persons charged with subversive activities. Bontecou also recounted in two impassioned unpublished manuscripts the experiences of other government employees whose careers were destroyed by the "self-appointed guardians of political purity." The most notable among the eight case histories was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom she interviewed shortly after he was denied a clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission in April 1954.
In 1955 the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights made Bontecou a consultant on loyalty and security problems. She later edited Freedom in the Balance: Opinions of Judge Henry W. Edgerton Relating to Civil Liberties (1960), part of the Cornell Studies in Civil Liberty. Bontecou never rose to national prominence. She was confident in her own intellectual endeavors and did not seek recognition beyond a few close associates. Acutely aware that through illness she had missed one important period in law and government in the 1930s, Bontecou seized the opportunity to devote her keen legal mind and her energy to victims of McCarthy-era hysteria in the 1950s.
Eleanor Bontecou never married. She moved to the Goodwin House in Alexandria in 1974 and died of a heart attack on 19 March 1976 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. She was buried in Alstead, Cheshire County, New Hampshire.
Birth date and professional data in Office of Personnel Management Records, Record Group 478, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Eleanor Bontecou Papers, including oral history and unpublished manuscripts (quotation), in Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, Independence, Mo.; Bontecou correspondence and files in Bryn Mawr College Archives and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; information provided by Doris Bryant, Virginia Foster Durr, Jolande Goldberg, Jean Atherton Flexner Lewinson, Zola Shoup, Edward Squibb, Margaret Squibb Stevens, and George C. Stoney; Washington Post and Times Herald, 12 Sept. 1955; obituaries in Washington Star, 24 Mar. 1976, Fairfax Northern Virginia Sun and Washington Post (portrait), both 25 Mar. 1976, and Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (summer 1976): 28–29.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Mary Kate Black.
How to cite this page:
>Mary Kate Black,"Eleanor Bontecou (1891–1976)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Bontecou_Eleanor, accessed [today's date]).
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