Robert Carswell, pictured here in a Berkshire Eagle file photo, was deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department under President Jimmy Carter. During
Robert Carswell, pictured here in a Berkshire Eagle file photo, was deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department under President Jimmy Carter. During his tenure, he lent his negotiation skills to many historic situations, most notably the Iran hostage crisis, which began in 1979. (Eagle file)

GREAT BARRINGTON — Robert Carswell served under three U.S. presidents in the Treasury Department, participating in high-level negotiations involving the New York City financial crisis and Chrysler bailout in the 1970s.

In the 1960s, he represented the Secret Service before the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But his most important role surely was in negotiations that resolved the Iran hostage crisis in the 1980s.

"I would say probably no one was as important [as Carswell] in ensuring that transaction occurred," said H. Rodgin Cohen, of the New York City law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, who worked with Carswell on the hostages' release.

Carswell died recently at his home in Great Barrington at age 87.

He had served as a senior partner at Shearman & Sterling in New York City from 1985-91, the highlight of a 40-year career serving corporate and financial clients for a firm that has been advising many of the world's leading corporations and financial institutions, governments and governmental organizations for more than 140 years.

It was through Carswell's role as deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Carter Administration that he became involved in the Iran hostage crisis.


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He was the principal government official responsible for the release of the 52 American hostages that were taken when militant supporters of the Iranian revolution seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran on Nov. 4, 1979. The hostages were held for 444 days before being released on Jan. 20, 1981, a half-hour before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president.

According to The New York Times, the final agreement hinged on brokering a compromise between American banks, which sought guarantees that they would be repaid for outstanding loans to pre-revolutionary Iran, and the new Iranian government, which wanted the United States to release frozen Iranian assets and return the private fortune of the Shah of Iran, who was in New York for medical treatment when the embassy was taken.

Washington had vowed "not to yield" to blackmail by handing over the deposed Shah and imposed economic sanctions on Iran.

Iran eventually agreed to bargain with the United States through Algerian mediators after Iraq invaded the country in September 1980.

"It was extremely complicated," Cohen said, referring to the negotiations. "I knew the financial pieces of it, but he knew much more than that.

"I don't know exactly what he was doing with Iran, but I know that with the banks he was persuading and cajoling them that [the deal] was in their best interests," Cohen said.

"He did it in a way that no bank felt that they were being forced into a decision," he added. "He led them to the right situation, from my perspective."

Negotiating with two governments, intermediaries, and several banks to reach an agreement in a heated political situation required tact and skill, Cohen said.

"One, he was a master of the subject matter," Cohen said. "He knew exactly what was important and what was not. Second, he had really great people skills.

"There are various ways to try and accomplish what you want and he could do it without animosity," Cohen said. "I would think he worked with the banks rather than against the banks and made them understand that what they were doing was critical to the national interest."

In 1986, Carswell spoke to The Eagle about the role negotiators play in hostage negotiations shortly after American David P. Jacobsen was released by Iranian Shiite Muslims who had kidnapped him in Beirut.

"Thank God I'm not in that business anymore," Carswell said at the time. "Negotiations are not pleasant. They're very onerous. They mess up your personal life. Dealing with the press is a major problem in itself.

"The issue is usually not the hostages; it's something else," Carswell said. "If you want something, you take hostages and try to use the hostages to get what you want. Hostages are just part of a more complex issue."

Carswell was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 25, 1928. He attended Harvard College, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in government and economics in 1949, and served as sports editor of the school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.

He graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1952, the year he joined Shearman & Sterling as an associate.

After serving as a U.S. Naval intelligence officer for three years during the Korean War, Carswell returned to Shearman & Sterling as an associate in 1956. He was named a partner in the firm in 1965. Following six years as senior partner, Carswell became of counsel to the firm in 1993. He retired in 2014.

His clients included Betsey Cushing Whitney, the widow of thoroughbred horse breeder John Hay "Jock" Whitney, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain in the 1950s, and as the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. Carswell became co-executor of Betsey Cushing Whitney's estate when she died in 1998.

"We are all saddened by Bob's passing," said Creighton Condon, Shearman & Sterling's senior partner, in a statement. "He was a respected leader of our firm and a mentor to many of us here today, who had to the great pleasure of working with him over the years. He will be missed."

Carswell is survived by his wife, Mary Killeen Wilde, who is the daughter of H. George and Marjorie Wilde, who purchased High Lawn Farm in Lee in 1935. Originally known as Highlawn Estate, the property was presented to Mary Killeen Wilde's grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William B. Osgood Field in 1902 as a wedding present by Mrs. Henry White, the owner of the historic Elm Court estate in Stockbridge.

Marjorie Wilde, who died in 1997, was a direct descendant through her mother of the 19th century railroad and shipping magnate, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Carswells were married on Dec. 28, 1957, at Trinity Church in Lenox.

Mary K. Carswell had a career in the nonprofit sector that included 10 years as executive director of the MacDowell Colony, the nation's oldest artist colony, in New Hampshire, and as a board member of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge during the 1970s.

Carswell is also survived by his daughter, Kate Carswell, his son, William, and two grandsons.

Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.