Hilary La Fontaine became a senior officer of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) at a time when women were seldom found in such positions. But her benign influence on personnel management in an organisation which was often more sensitive in its handling of secret agents than of its own staff was felt long before she reached the highest levels of the service. Her remarkable personality touched many lives in government and beyond it.
She joined SIS as a secretary in 1967 after having had some contact with the service while living in Kinshasa (Leopoldville) three years before. She used to say that she first thought of joining during a conversation in the back of a cargo plane flying over the Congo River. Those were strange times, and it may have been the same plane, this time chartered for the use of the Director-General of the Congolese Surete, in which, after a perilous journey by road from Kampala to Kisangani (Stanleyville) through rebel-held territory, she found herself perched on a box in the cargo bay, one of several, which when she lifted its lid proved to be packed with gold bars.
Hilary La Fontaine was a descendant of British Levant traders who settled in Constantinople in the 18th century, which may have contributed to her restless sense of adventure. She was born in 1937 in Kenya, at Nyeri from whence the snows of Mount Kenya are in plain view. She was the youngest of three daughters of a colonial official and grew up in Karen, by the Ngong Hills. It was Out of Africa country -- lions roared near by. It had a population one seventh of its present level and, however one may regard it, the order and peace of effective administration. The Kenya of her youth seemed like one big game park with scenery as dramatically beautiful as any in the world. Compared with their contemporaries in grey postwar Britain, the children of British officials and settlers grew up in a frontier atmosphere of freedom and adventure, and with a spirit of selfreliance which stayed with many as they moved on.
The service which La Fontaine joined was in many respects different from today's. Its existence was not publicly admitted or referred to. It was much smaller and it was thinly spread, most posts being occupied by an officer supported by a secretary. Communication by "book and pad" cypher was slow and laborious, making it difficult for Head Office to control the work of officers who wished to be independent, or to offer close support. There was a strong camaraderie which largely ignored age and rank and stemmed from shared experience, right to the top, of lonely and demanding work. And it was male-dominated. Other than in exceptional circumstances no women were recruited to the faststream Intelligence Branch until 1981. As a result SIS got a great deal of energy and brain-power at secretarial rates of pay. Women like La Fontaine who were quite as intelligent as the men they supported found themselves making the best of a subordinate role.
They also carried heavy responsibility.
In her first two posts in Africa La Fontaine was involved in the whole spread of the post's activities including meeting, debriefing and managing clandestine agents.
Personality was of key importance in this role, especially the ability to impart confidence, and she was brilliant at it. After a series of unsatisfactory jobs in London and Nairobi she felt that she had found her niche. The service thought so too, and judged her performance so outstanding that she had the the very rare distinction of being appointed MBE.
She was by now a highly professional intelligence officer, but back in London she spent the next two years in the equally demanding job of personal assistant to the head of the service before engineering a transfer back to operations in the department directing these against the Soviet Bloc.
In 1980 she was promoted and was sent as head of post to Hanoi, where her life was uncomfortable and the responsibility of being the only regular source of Western intelligence inside Vietnam very great. La Fontaine was undaunted. Former CIA colleagues remember their enjoyment of her perceptive reporting and the fun they had on her visits to Bangkok to confer. She would get on with anybody, had a splendidly direct and uninhibited manner and a quick and kindly wit, and was always more interested in other people having a good time than in having one herself, though she was good at that too; just as she was always more interested in recognising other people's achievements than in advertising her own. After Hanoi she stayed in London for the rest of her twice-extended career and over the years moved up through a series of increasingly responsible appointments in personnel management, arriving ultimately at the equivalent of under-secretarial rank.
In all of these she was, in changing times, an important and powerful influence on matters of gender-equality, opportunity, and fairness, a resolute defender of the underdog, and a constant and effective advocate of examining established practices and, where appropriate, abandoning them for something better.
The example of her personal interaction with staff members, direct, quick, fair, compassionate while always keeping the needs of the service in mind, understanding of individual circumstances, positive and incisive, contributed importantly to the service's style of management. Younger members of staff valued her approachability and sense of humour -- she named one senior officer Darth Vader for his vigorously impatient demands.
In retirement La Fontaine remained energetically engaged in a range of activities and connections, from each of which she drew new friends. Around her home in Camberwell she made more friends. Local shopkeepers and restaurateurs came to her funeral, along with half the occupants of the street in which she lived, and a great many former colleagues.
Hilary La Fontaine, MBE, intelligence officer, was born on October 19, 1937. She died on September 24, 2012, aged 74
La Fontaine: she had a direct and uninhibited manner, a quick wit and a readiness to recognise others' achievements