Donovan was a college football star at Columbia University, graduating in 1905. On the football field, he got the nickname that he would earn over and over again in a long and eventful life: "Wild Bill Donovan."
During WWI, Donovan organised and led a regiment of the United States Army, the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, on the battlefield in France. As a lieutenant colonel, he was awarded the medal of honor, the highest American valour award, for leading a successful assault, despite serious wounds. By the end of the war he was a full colonel and his other awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award, and three purple hearts.
After the war, he was the US Attorney for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition, and he ran unsuccessfully for public office. President Calvin Coolidge named him to the Justice Department's Antitrust Division.
After the start of WWII, Roosevelt began to put the United States on a war footing. After Navy Secretary Col. Frank Knox recommended Donovan, Roosevelt gave him a number of increasingly important assignments, trusting him absolutely until Roosevelt's death in 1944, even though they were political opponents -- Roosevelt was a member of the Democratic Party and Donovan a lifelong Republican.
In 1940 and 1941 he served as an emissary and information gatherer for Knox and President Roosevelt, traveling to Britain and parts of Europe that were not under Nazi control.
In June 1941, Donovan received what would be his most important assignment: Roosevelt named him Coordinator of Information (COI). This made him the first overall chief of the United States Intelligence Community, which at the time was fragmented into Army, Navy, FBI, State Department, and other interests. The FBI retained its independence, and control of intelligence in South America, at the insistence of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The COI became the OSS and Donovan was returned to active duty in his WWI rank of Colonel (by war's end he would be Major General). The OSS was responsible for espionage and sabotage in Europe and in parts in Asia. The OSS was kept out of South America by Hoover's hostility to Donovan, and out of the Phillipines by Douglas Macarthur's. For many years the exploits of the OSS remained under wraps, but in the 1970s and 1980s significant parts of the OSS history were declassified, making Donovan a household name to a new generation.
After Roosevelt's death, Donovan's political position, which depended on his personal connection to the President, was substantially weakened. He argued forcefully for the retention of the OSS in the years after the war, but President Harry S. Truman was not interested. After the war, he reverted to his lifelong role as a lawyer to perform one last duty: he served as special assistant to chief prosecutor Telford Taylor at the Nuremberg Tribunal. There he got the personal satisfaction of seeing Nazi leaders who were responsible for torturing and murdering OSS agents brought to justice. For his WWII service, Donovan received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the United States military gives for service (not valour).
At the conclusion of the trial, he returned to Wall Street where his firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton and Irvine, was a powerhouse. He remained always available to the postwar Presidents who needed his counsel -- or his intelligence management experience.
Donovan's son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in WWII. His grandson William James Donovan served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam.
Donovan died on February 8, 1959 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower referred to him as "the Last Hero," which later became the title of a biography of him. After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee (not, as some biographies state, the "Medal of Freedom," a different award). The law firm he founded, Donovan, Leisure, was dissolved in 1998.