Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley / Edition 1

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"When Elizabeth Bentley slunk into an FBI office in 1945, she was thinking only of saving herself from NKGB assassins who were hot on her trail. She had no idea that she was about to start the greatest Red Scare in U. S. history." "Bentley (1908-1963) was a Connecticut Yankee and Vassar graduate who spied for the Soviet Union for seven years. She met with dozens of highly placed American agents who worked for the Soviets, gathering their secrets and stuffing sensitive documents into her knitting bag. But her Soviet spymasters suspected her of disloyalty and even began plotting to silence her forever. To save her life, Bentley decided to betray her friends and comrades to the FBI. Her defection effectively shut down Soviet espionage in the United States for years." "Bentley played a crucial role in the cultural and political history of the early Cold War, but she has long been overlooked or underestimated by historians. Even in her own time, journalists and investigators joked about her looks and character, portraying her as either a seductive siren or a vengeful old maid. But Bentley helped remake American politics. Her accusations led to the most sensational spy cases of the Cold War and convinced many Americans that homegrown radicals posed a serious threat to national security." For years, it has been difficult to assess Bentley's veracity. New documents from Russian and American archives now make it possible to determine when she was telling the truth and when - and why - she decided to lie. Far from a pathetic, lovelorn fool, she was a shrewd woman who succeeded in outsmarting both the NKGB and the FBI. This long overdue biography rescues Elizabeth Bentley from obscurity and tells her dramatic life story.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A valuable addition to the annals of spy lore. (Kirkus Reviews)

Olmsted's thoughtful account restores Bentley to her rightful place and gives her all the credit—and blame—she deserves. (Publishers Weekly)

Olmsted shows clearly that Bentley told the truth about Soviet espionage in high places. . . . [and] that Bentley was a truly disturbed, and disturbing, woman. (New York Times Book Review)

A revealing and compassionate biography. (Booklist)

This original biography about a complex personality is absorbing and well written. (Library Journal)

Maurice Isserman
[Olmsted] seeks to understand the forces—personal, circumstantial, and ideological—that led Bentley into the shadowy world of espionage. Her even-handed approach recognizes that Bentley was both a truth-telling whistle-blower and a desperately troubled, self-aggrandizing liar at different times in her post-1945 career as informer.
Publishers Weekly
In August 1945, a 37-year-old woman named Elizabeth Bentley walked into the FBI office in New Haven, Conn., and announced that she was a Communist spy who controlled a vast network of agents operating within the U.S. government. Her defection precipitated the decade's first "Red Scare" and set off a chain of events that eventually led to the execution of the Rosenbergs. Despite her importance, however, Bentley has been largely ignored by history. Olmsted, an assistant professor of history at UC-Davis, corrects this oversight in an intelligent, balanced biography of the woman the tabloids labeled the "red spy queen." Bentley, Olmsted makes clear, was by no means a doctrinaire Communist. She joined the CP-USA primarily because she was lonely, and became a spy because she fell in love with a Soviet agent named Golos. Bentley helped Golos with his work; after his death, she took over many of his agents. But Bentley was too erratic and independent-minded for Moscow (and a hardened alcoholic as well). When she realized her Soviet masters were plotting her "elimination," Bentley went to the FBI and became what Olmsted calls a "professional ex-Communist," collecting sizeable speaking fees and frequently appearing before Congress and on TV and radio. But Bentley soon faded from the spotlight, undone by her emotional fragility and penchant for lying. When she died in 1963, the world took little notice. Olmsted's thoughtful account restores Bentley to her rightful place and gives her all the credit and blame she deserves. 12 illus. (Oct)
Library Journal
Though most readers are familiar with the names Joseph McCarthy, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and Alger Hiss, many have not heard of Elizabeth Bentley (1908-63), the Red Spy Queen. With access to newly available documents, Olmsted (history, Univ. of California, Davis; Challenging the Secret Government) unveils the amazing story of the woman who became first a highly regarded spy for the Soviets and later a major informant for the U.S. government. A Vassar College graduate, Bentley defected from the Soviets in 1945 and soon became a household name when she began naming names, eventually uncovering a vast Soviet spy ring that extended into the government itself and helping to precipitate the Red Scare of the 1950s. Because of her unstable personality and willingness to stretch the truth, historians for decades have questioned her testimony. Olmsted shows that although Bentley may have sometimes exaggerated her own role in espionage activities, there was also truth in her testimony. This original biography about a complex personality is absorbing and well written. There is a lengthy notes section and an extensive bibliography but no index. An important addition to all academic collections.DMaria C. Bagshaw, Lake Erie Coll., Painesville, OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Olmsted (History/UC Davis) chronicles the rise and fall of a Communist-spy-turned-informer from her early days as an antifascist at Columbia to her Cold War defection to the FBI. Descended from true-blue Yankees and raised by devoutly Christian parents, Bentley was unlikely spy material. But after achieving her graduate degree in 1934 under shady circumstances (she passed off someone else’s master’s thesis as her own), she found herself an orphan in the midst of the Great Depression, with dismal job prospects and few friends. The Communist Party, with its offer of acceptance, a sense of purpose, and friends and lovers aplenty, proved as irresistible to Bentley as she, with her impeccable pedigree, was to party recruiters. She was tapped as a spy and was soon intimately involved with her controller, a Bolshevik defector who taught Bentley all the basics of spycraft. Enthusiastic but notoriously sloppy, the two gathered information for both the American Communist Party and the Soviets. As her partner's health failed, Bentley stepped in to run his spy ring, but Moscow was dissatisfied with her maverick ways and tried to push her out. Invited to pay a visit to Mother Russia, she realized she was a target for execution and in 1945, fearing for her life, turned herself in to the FBI. A string of congressional hearings followed, and Bentley, who "seemed positively enthusiastic about the prospect of informing on her friends," named more than 50 former spy associates. After this swan song, she endured some sordid years, succumbing to alcoholism, squeezing more and more money out of FBI agents who wanted her to remain a cooperative witness, and losing teaching jobs due to her loose morals. Shesuccumbed to abdominal cancer in 1963 at age 55. Far from a thriller, but a valuable addition to the annals of spy lore.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807827390
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 10/7/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.82 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathryn S. Olmsted is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is author of Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI.

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Read an Excerpt

Red Spy Queen

A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley
By Kathryn S. Olmsted

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 Kathryn S. Olmsted
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0807827398

Chapter One

The Sad and Lonely Girl

After she had launched her career as a former "blonde spy queen," Elizabeth Bentley liked to emphasize her patriotic origins by claiming that one of her ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. It made a good story, but it was not true.

Her family certainly had impeccable New England credentials. Both of her parents could trace their families back to the early days of Connecticut, when sturdy English immigrants had carved out towns in the wilderness. Her mother's family, the Terrills or Turrills, as the name was variously spelled, had lived for generations in New Milford, a charming Connecticut town complete with white clapboard buildings and a Roger Sherman Hall on the town green. Favorite son Sherman was the Declaration signer whom Elizabeth credited with siring one of her ancestors. He had indeed lived in New Milford for eighteen years and fathered fifteen children. None of them, though, ever had a descendent named Elizabeth Bentley.

Apparently, Elizabeth believed that a connection to Sherman would add to the shock value of her autobiography. The evil Communists, she implied, could corrupt even the children of the nation's founders. It was not the onlytime she would fudge the facts to create a better story.

Elizabeth's father, Charles Prentiss Bentley, was a dry-goods merchant originally from Morristown, New Jersey. After relocating to New Milford, he met and married a "strict but inspiring" local schoolteacher, May Charlotte Turrill. Charles and May both married rather late: the groom was thirty-seven, and the bride, at twenty-nine, was facing the specter of spinsterhood. Their wedding was held on April 10, 1907, at St. John's Episcopal Church. Nine months later, on January 1, 1908, Elizabeth Terrill Bentley was born. Her parents never had another child.

Charles Bentley worked for many worthy causes in New Milford, including temperance reform. He was so committed to curbing alcohol abuse, in fact, that he helped found a temperance newspaper when the New Milford Gazette refused to print his group's antidrinking ad. For several years he served as the journal's business manager.

The Bentleys and the Turrills, in short, were old-family Republicans and Episcopalians who enjoyed respect from their fellow small-town New Englanders. They were, in the words of the townspeople, "good, Christians, honest."

They were also somewhat restless. Charles Bentley was a hapless businessman. "It seemed as if everything he tried failed," Elizabeth recalled later. He was a partner in a mill that burned down, then in a store that folded. When his daughter turned seven, Charles began moving his family from state to state in a fruitless search for success. Elizabeth, who described herself as a "lonely, withdrawn child," attended public schools in four towns before her father finally settled into a position as a department store manager in Rochester, New York, in 1924. Fellow executives praised him as "a very nice gentleman of the straight-laced New England type." May Bentley taught eighth grade in Rochester, where she was remembered as a woman who generously gave food to the hungry. Elizabeth later portrayed her childhood home as "cluttered up with lonely people" whom her mother had invited for dinner.

Elizabeth attended East High School in Rochester, where the high school yearbook jocularly described her as "strong, active and bright; always jolly and full of life." She later told the local newspaper that the "nicest" memories of her life were from Rochester, where she filled her days with piano lessons, Girl Scouts, the Presbyterian Church, and basketball. But former students surveyed years later had only dim and generally unfavorable memories of the "not very popular" and "uncolorful" girl who had transferred in during her junior year.

Elizabeth later explained that her "very, very strict" mother "didn't allow me to befriend girls of my age who were drinking, smoking and visiting nightclubs"-all popular activities for teens in the 1920s. In later years, she seldom talked about her parents except to describe her upbringing as "overly stern" and old-fashioned. Whatever her relationship with her parents may have been during her childhood, she spent most of her adulthood trying to find love and acceptance.

In 1926, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth won a scholarship to Vassar College, the oldest and most elite women's college in the United States. There, this sheltered young woman met emancipated students who did all the things her mother abhorred. Many Vassar "girls" rouged their cheeks, shortened their skirts, swilled their gin, smoked their Lucky Strikes, and "petted" with their boyfriends.

During her undergraduate years, Elizabeth was just an observer of these changes in women's roles and sexual mores. The cloak of loneliness she had donned in high school still clung to her at Vassar. She was a tall girl-over five feet nine-with a large build, long neck, and shy smile. She was growing into the kind of woman that some people would term "somewhat attractive," but more critical observers would call plain. At Vassar, Elizabeth seemed uncomfortable among her rich, prestige-conscious classmates. She made few friends and took solitary bird walks at 5:00 a.m. One former classmate, Elizabeth Bliss, described her as a "kind of a sad sack, plain, dull, very teacherlike. She didn't have a single boyfriend, if I recall correctly, a pathetic person really. Everyone that knew her just called her Bentley. She was a sad and lonely girl." Nor did she distinguish herself academically: she was an indifferent student, earning a C plus average. One of her aunts described her as "a brainy girl who spent too much time on world affairs and not enough on living."

Elizabeth later claimed that the views of "world affairs" she found at Vassar turned her into a political radical. Indeed, she said, Vassar "had gotten me to the point where I was a complete pushover for communism." Certainly, Vassar had a reputation in the late 1920s for independent thinking. Once the depression hit, many Vassar students began to feel guilty about their comfortable lives at an exclusive school during a time of such privation. The college hosted a chapter of the League for Industrial Democracy, a student organization with socialistic ideals, which Elizabeth joined briefly.

Moreover, Vassar had on its faculty one of the most influential leftists in American higher education at that time, the director Hallie Flanagan. Elizabeth later greatly stressed the influence of her one drama course with Flanagan. The director, who was just starting to build her reputation as head of the Vassar Experimental Theatre, overflowed with enthusiasm for the Communist government in Russia. In 1930, shortly after she taught Elizabeth, she took some Vassar students to Leningrad and burbled in her journal, "Oh, I was right. Russia is what I thought it was, only infinitely more. It is a country of free men, it is a land of workers. They exist to help others." Later in the 1930s, Flanagan oversaw the Federal Theater Project, the only federally supported theater in American history. The left-wing content of some of the plays it put on prompted a subpoena from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1938.

Knowing that Flanagan's name was well known to Red hunters, in her later testimony Elizabeth dwelt on the pernicious way Flanagan in particular and Vassar in general had affected her ideological development. However, in reality Hallie Flanagan was no more Elizabeth's political mother than Roger Sherman was her ancestral father. While admiring of the Soviets, Flanagan only produced two left-wing plays while Elizabeth was at Vassar. Hundreds of young women passed through her classes without joining the Party. Indeed, Flanagan herself was never a Party member.

Most important, though, Elizabeth would not join the Party until five years after she had left Vassar's supposedly subversive influence. In the meantime, her political journey would take her on a detour hardly endorsed by Flanagan: down the path of Italian fascism.

* * *

One year before she was graduated from Vassar, Elizabeth was devastated by the unexpected and early death of her mother. Emotionally adrift, she spent her small inheritance on three trips to Europe in the next four years. Her first grand tour came immediately after graduation in 1930. Before the trip, she was "shy and a virgin," she later told the Soviets. But on board ship, she was attracted to a British engineer and enjoyed her first romance.

On her return, her Vassar degree in English, Italian, and French helped her win a teaching job at the exclusive Foxcroft preparatory and finishing school for girls in Middleburg, Virginia. She spent the next two years alternately teaching languages to Virginia's wealthiest daughters and attending school herself: one summer studying at the University of Perugia in Italy, and another at Middlebury College in Vermont. Her employers judged her to be a "very competent teacher."

In 1932, she quit her job to attend graduate school full time at Columbia University. This was a relatively unusual choice for a woman at the time: women made up less than 20 percent of the doctoral students in the 1930s. As she matured, she became more confident with men. In Perugia, she had an affair with an older Hungarian officer. At Columbia, she fell in love with an Arab student and moved in with him. They planned to marry, but in 1933 she broke her engagement when she won a coveted fellowship to the University of Florence.

Before she left for Italy, her sixty-three-year-old father fell gravely ill. In April, he died of arteriosclerosis in a Connecticut convalescent home. Orphaned at twenty-five, Elizabeth tried to ward off despair with continuous activity and amusement.

In the land of la dolce vita, she threw off the shackles of her strict upbringing. The Vassar girl who "didn't have a single boyfriend" suddenly had a different one every week. She slept with older men and younger men, single men and married men, soldiers and teachers, Italians and expatriates. She lived the high life, even though as a financial aid recipient she could not afford it. She borrowed money frequently from her friends and did not always repay it. Breaking the last of her parents' rules, she also drank to excess. Elizabeth would be an alcoholic throughout her life, but her public displays of drunken behavior began in Florence. At a New Year's Eve party in the home of Joseph Lombardo, a fellow exchange student, she challenged other women "to pull down your pants and have your partner take you right here on the floor." Friends and acquaintances from this period in her life later characterized her as a "leech," a "bum," a "lush," and, inevitably, a "slut." Not surprisingly, considering her enthusiasm for spontaneous sex in the years before oral contraceptives, there were rumors that she had had some illegal abortions.

She never admitted her drinking problem to anyone, and she certainly never explained what drove her to the bottle. It is possible, though, that she was self-medicating for depression and anxiety. "She used alcoholism to ease her pain," says one of her later boyfriends, Harvey Matusow, "and she had a lot of pain." Matusow suspects that she was manic-depressive.

Throughout her life, she would have "blue periods" when she would weep and beg for help. She would often drink so much during these bouts of depression that she would be unable to leave her home for weeks at a time. She had different euphemisms for these episodes: sometimes she said she suffered from a "virus," or the "grippe," or the "black influenza." But her doctors and her friends suspected that her health problems were the result of too much alcohol.

Elizabeth also developed her lifelong taste for political extremism in Florence. Like many Americans at the time, she was impressed by the Mussolini regime's order and efficiency. In 1934, the year Cole Porter wrote the popular lyric "You're the tops; you're Musso-li-ni," she joined the local group of college fascists. She was so active in the Gruppo Universitate Fascisti, in fact, that she began neglecting her studies.

She did not need to study, however, once she started an affair with her faculty adviser. Mario Casella was a prominent literary critic more than twenty years her senior. The recipient of literary awards and the author of several books, Casella taught classes in courtly romance literature. He appears to have been charmed by his new American student and lover, for he assigned his assistant to write her master's thesis for her. Elizabeth did the research for the analysis of a fourteenth-century poem, but the assistant wrote the paper for her.

Elizabeth's decision to claim credit for a master's thesis written by someone else was a case of monumental academic dishonesty. If her ruse had been discovered, she could have been kicked out of the university and stripped of her degree. But she relished taking risks; she loved breaking the rules and deceiving the authorities. Throughout her life, she seemed to believe that other people's regulations and laws did not apply to her. If egotism is a central ingredient for treason, as Rebecca West has said, then Elizabeth Bentley had it in abundance.

Casella not only helped her get her graduate degree, but he also turned her against fascism. A critic of the Mussolini regime, Casella was on a special "watch list" of the Italian secret police. Elizabeth's later claims of antifascist activism in Italy appear to stem from her romantic liaison with this anti-Mussolini professor.

Her lover's assistant could write her thesis, but he could not take her exams for her. In May, the University of Florence notified her that she had failed one of her courses and was in danger of being expelled. She had already been suspended twice, once for violating the university's ban on smoking. When she received the notice of possible expulsion, Elizabeth sank into depression. In despair, she swallowed some poison. She received medical help in time, and the U.S. consul in Florence hushed up the whole affair.

She returned to New York that summer with an addiction to alcohol, considerable sexual experience, and a talent for deception. Tucked away in her luggage was a pilfered master's thesis with her name already typed on the title page. Her lover's assistant had written an impressive dissertation. It would not fool her professors, who knew immediately that "it was not hers and could not have been hers." But, as she had expected, it was simply too much work for them to contest it. She would get her degree.

* * *

New York City in 1934 was a forbidding place for a recent graduate hoping to start a new life. As her ship entered the harbor, Elizabeth knew her job prospects were dismal. "Standing there on the deck, I felt alone and frightened," she remembered later.

The scene that greeted her was bleak. Along Riverside Drive, close to Columbia, a line of tarpaper shacks, packing crates, and oil barrels served as makeshift "homes." New Yorkers who had no place else to go huddled in these "Hoovervilles" by night and raked through the dumps for food during the day. That winter, 40 percent of the city's workers were unemployed. Many New Yorkers fortunate enough to live under real roofs began to question an economic system that produced such tragedy. As New York writer (and later Communist) Hope Hale Davis wrote, "[S]omething was wrong with a day that began with buying a five-cent apple from an unemployed architect who stood shivering at the entrance to my building."

Stuck in the ranks of these jobless professionals, Elizabeth grew increasingly angry about her situation. "All those years of academic study have been wasted," she concluded. After months of fruitless job searching, she lowered her expectations and enrolled in business courses at Columbia. There, she thought, she could learn shorthand and typing and ultimately land a secretarial job. She took an apartment near the university. Her choice of accommodations turned out to be significant, for down the hall lived a woman who was unusually friendly to the lonely, unemployed Vassar graduate with a drinking problem. Her name was Lee Fuhr, and she was a Communist.

Actually, according to her FBI file, her name was Lini Moerkirk Fuhr. She had been born three years before Elizabeth in Paterson, New Jersey, into very different economic circumstances. A child of Dutch immigrants, she had spent her youth as a factory worker. Paterson was the site of a famous, violent strike in 1913, and the city was known for its oppressed workers and radical politics. Despite her poverty, Fuhr had managed to improve herself through education, obtaining a nursing license and working toward a bachelor's degree in public health.

Lee was a widow trying to balance her last year of undergraduate education at Columbia with raising her four-year-old daughter. She reached out to the solitary woman down the hall, and Elizabeth was more than happy to return the friendship. Soon, Elizabeth decided that Lee was "one of the most unselfish people I had ever known."

Elizabeth quickly learned that Lee was vehemently antifascist. Conveniently enough, so was Elizabeth-or at least she had been for the past few months. She excised the profascist period from her life and implied that she had been an active opponent of fascism throughout her year in Florence. The story of Elizabeth Bentley, intrepid enemy of Mussolini, was born.

Lee was fascinated by Elizabeth's tales of the horrors of Italian fascism and invited her new friend to tell her stories to others in New York's antifascist community. In a short period of time, Elizabeth found herself at the center of a group of politically active, idealistic intellectuals who regarded her as an "expert" on Italian fascism and a heroine of sorts for "opposing" it.

Lee took Elizabeth to meetings of the American League against War and Fascism, a Communist-front group designed to expand and unify Americans' opposition to fascism in Europe. The members of the local chapter, mostly students and teachers at Columbia, paid Elizabeth great respect, and she blossomed in her new identity. "Surprisingly enough," she later wrote, "from then on my life took on a new zest. I seemed to have cast off the old feeling of listlessness and despair." She met a new "circle of friends" and a new lover, a worker from Greece. She belonged, at last.

Soon, however, she discovered that her friends were nervous about discussing their politics. When Elizabeth jokingly mentioned the Communist Party at a meeting with other antifascists, the group fell silent. Lee loved to educate Elizabeth by pointing out the problems caused by capitalism, but she always hesitated to spell out the implications of her views. Finally, one day, after Elizabeth eagerly asked how the "new society" could be achieved in the United States, Lee confided that she belonged to the Party.

At first Elizabeth was surprised by Lee's confession: she had always thought Communists were "the down-and-outers" she saw around Union Square. Even as she adjusted herself to Lee's true political beliefs, she did not want to join the Party. But as word of her reluctance spread among her new friends, she found that they became increasingly distant with her. One March afternoon, staring at the barren trees on Riverside Drive, craving companionship, Elizabeth decided to stop vacillating. She hurried over to Lee's apartment and asked for a membership application.

* * *

Elizabeth had hesitated because she knew that joining the Party was not an act to be taken lightly. Not only were Communists ostracized, but the Party itself demanded total commitment. Elizabeth, for example, had to attend four meetings a week. At various times she served as her unit's financial secretary, agitprop director, and organizational director. She had to attend classes in Marxism-Leninism at the Party's Workers School, circulate petitions, throw parties for new recruits, attend rallies and marches, and even brave the occasional police baton. Many American members lasted only a few months or years, given these requirements. But, for the lonely woman from New England, the endless meetings were a small price to pay for the true comradeship the Party offered.

Elizabeth joined a movement in transition. For years the Party had been a small, largely foreign-born sect in America. After the Communists took power in Russia in 1917, left-wing admirers of the Bolsheviks in the United States had bolted from the Socialist Party and formed two small Communist parties. These parties faced daunting obstacles during their early years. Their membership, small to begin with, was sliced by 80 percent thanks to the anti-Communist drive launched in 1919 by the U.S. Department of Justice. Led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a staunch anti-Communist with presidential ambitions, federal officials routinely arrested American Communists, held them without trial or counsel, and deported those who were foreign-born.

The first Red Scare ended in 1921, and the surviving Communists stumbled out from the underground to merge into one legal entity, the Communist Party of the United States of America. But the government persecution had a lasting effect. During the Red Scare, Communists had been forced to lie about their politics and even change their names. They lived in fear of government repression-and government infiltration. Party members grew increasingly paranoid about potential informers within their midst.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression could have provided Communism with its greatest recruiting opportunity. Here, after all, was proof that Marx had been right about the inherent contradictions of capitalism. But the Party did not take advantage of this opportunity for a few years. Following the dictates laid down by Soviet leaders, American Communists continued to shun alliances with liberals and even other leftists in the United States, reserving their harshest criticism for Norman Thomas, the leader of American Socialists.

Then the Party began to change. As fascism cast its shadow across Europe in 1934, the Communist International, or Comintern, in Moscow began to rethink its strident opposition to others on the left. International Communist leaders began their slow, halting progress toward a "Popular Front" with other antifascists. In August 1935, under orders from Moscow, the CPUSA tentatively began to make common cause with liberals. The period of the Popular Front, which lasted from 1935 to 1939, was the most successful time for Communists in American history. Thousands of Americans like Elizabeth joined in the mid-1930s, bringing the Party to its peak in membership and influence; many more sympathized without actually signing membership cards. By 1936, for the first time, most Party members were native-born.

The Party of the mid-1930s had several attractions for college graduates like Elizabeth. To Americans disgusted by the failures of capitalism, the Communists seemed to offer the most accurate roadmap to the future. Communist writer John Dos Passos derided Socialism as "near beer," and many American intellectuals agreed. A number of the most talented writers, artists, and philosophers in Europe and the United States began to gravitate toward the Communist Party, which seemed to be the only group taking action to prevent depressions and to stop Nazi expansionism.

The CPUSA's theories on gender and sexuality also increased its appeal to young, educated, sexually emancipated women like Elizabeth. Theoretically, the Party advocated the end of discrimination against women in the marketplace and in the bedroom. Leaders condemned unequal pay along with the sexual double standard. Especially in their early years, Communists were known for their bohemian attitudes toward sex, and Party leaders had numerous affairs. Elizabeth clearly enjoyed this aspect of Party culture: she frequently invited visiting Communists from other cities to stay in her apartment, and sometimes invited them to sleep with her as well.

Of course, the Party did not always deliver on its rhetorical commitments to gender equality. In general, American Communists in this era believed that male chauvinism was a "bourgeois concern," not nearly as important as racism or poverty. By the mid-1930s, Party leaders also toned down their rhetoric about sexual experimentation, hoping to broaden their appeal to culturally conservative American workers.

Nevertheless, despite its limits, the CPUSA still advanced a much more progressive and broad-minded view of women and of sex than other political parties in the United States. Women like Elizabeth had the opportunity to learn organizational and leadership skills while discovering an empowering ideology. Even if American Communist leaders seemed hesitant about ending sexism, feminists in the Party could always look for inspiration in the Soviet Union. There, they believed, the Bolsheviks had achieved true gender equality.

Indeed, the Soviet Union, with its booming economy and just society, provided a model for every aspect of life, the Communists believed. At least, that was the image projected by the official Soviet press reports. In a world plagued with unemployment, Columbia student James Wechsler remembered, "[T]he Russians (we were told) had everybody working. If there were occasional reports of trouble in paradise, they could be discounted as the evil imaginings of the 'capitalist press.'"

For many Americans like Elizabeth, the contrast between this "paradise" and the shattered American economy proved that Karl Marx had been right. "We felt that the world was moving very, very fast," remembered Jack Olsen, a Young Communist League organizer in California. "People joked about expecting the revolution in two or three years, but there was a feeling that this was a revolutionary period. No question that in our lifetime we'd see socialism."

"History"-with a capital "H"-is repeatedly invoked by former Communists to explain their reasons for joining the Party. "That was the tremendous thing about those times. The sense of history that you lived with daily. The sense of remaking the world," one former Communist told author Vivian Gornick. Others used almost the same words: "A new world was coming-and I wanted to be part of it"; "We literally felt we were making history"; "We felt . . . like we had our hands on 'the throttle of history,' as we used to say. That's an extraordinary feeling."

* * *

Elizabeth enjoyed this extraordinary feeling, and threw herself wholeheartedly into Communist activities. But it was a struggle to balance her Party obligations with her studies. In the fall of 1935, she once again began studying at Columbia, this time in the sociology department. She believed it would be easier to get a good government job with a doctorate in that field. She needed a loan, however, to continue her studies, and she was shocked when she discovered in October, two months into the semester, that the Italian department had vetoed her application.

Elizabeth immediately saw a potential for a political protest against the loan denial. Columbia's Italian department was notorious among New York leftists. The preceding spring, the Nation had proclaimed that "avowed fascists" controlled both the department itself and the Italian cultural center, the Casa Italiana. In the fall of 1935, when the department denied the loan, New York antifascists were especially sensitive to fascist outrages because Mussolini had just invaded Ethiopia.

Given the timing of the loan denial-and the notoriety of those who denied it-Elizabeth seized the opportunity to gain stature in the eyes of her newfound leftist friends. She told the Columbia campus newspaper, the Spectator, that the loan had been denied because of her antifascist activities in Italy. Since these alleged activities are not documented in any other source, though, this explanation is extremely unlikely. A more probable reason was either her current membership in the American League against War and Fascism or her adviser's belief that she had not written her master's thesis. The dean's office explained that administrators approved loans after deciding "whether or not they were students of whom Columbia could be proud."

Whatever the reasons for the denial, Elizabeth could not have hoped for a better response to her protests. Not only did the Spectator place the article on page 1, but the staff also wrote an editorial condemning the loan denial. "Every indication was that hers was a case of discrimination on account of her political views," the paper intoned the next day. The editors went on to suggest that the Italian department was "the nucleus of Mussolini's propaganda machine in this country." Three days later, a near-riot occurred outside the Casa Italiana when fascist sympathizers assaulted a small group of antifascist protesters angry over two events: the appearance of the Italian consul and the denial of Elizabeth's loan.

The battle in front of the Casa Italiana was just one of many antifascist protests at American colleges that year. It was an era when Columbia students held a torchlight parade for Angelo Herndon, a black Communist arrested for leading a march in Georgia. It was an era when the Yale Daily News editor could compliment the joie de vivre of Soviet youth and contrast it with the "harsh discipline and militarism" of Germany and Italy. It was an era when a young book reviewer at Columbia could snidely attack Socialist leader Norman Thomas from the left for his "pious slip-slop about war." In this atmosphere, the twenty-seven-year-old Communist who had been denied a student loan for her "antifascist activities" in Italy was nothing short of a celebrity.

* * *

As Elizabeth struggled to survive the Great Depression with a succession of short-term jobs, she devoted all of her spare time to Party work. Some of the work was quite straightforward: distributing literature, for example, and collecting dues. But other aspects of her Party life grew more burdensome-and more bizarre.

Elizabeth first met Juliet Stuart Poyntz, one of the most intriguing and mysterious Communist spies in America, shortly after she joined the Party. Pauline Rogers, an official with the American League against War and Fascism, introduced the two women at a Childs restaurant in Manhattan. Elizabeth learned that this heavy-set, poorly dressed, middle-aged woman was-allegedly-organizing underground cells of revolutionaries in Italy. Known as "Mrs. Glazer" during this period of her life because of her brief marriage to a German, Poyntz wanted to discuss Italy with Elizabeth and learn Italian from her. Mrs. Glazer, it turned out, did not speak the language of the country she was attempting to organize.

At least that's what Elizabeth was told. She did not know that her "student" had actually been one of the leading lights of the Communist Party in the 1920s. Like Bentley, Poyntz was a native-born Communist whose highbrow accent and Barnard-and-Oxford pedigree pleased leaders who were looking to put a more American face on the Party. A stirring speaker, Poyntz had been the first director of the Workers School in New York and a Communist congressional candidate. In 1934, though, she suddenly stopped her well-publicized involvement with the Party.

Party insiders knew what it often meant when a formerly prominent member dropped out of public activities: the "dropout" had joined the underground. Ever since the first Red Scare, the CPUSA had maintained a secret department. This clandestine arm of the Party was not well organized in the 1920s, but by the 1930s it had become a significant force.

The underground served many purposes. It regulated the activities of Party members, and it recruited, trained, and fielded potential spies. Sometimes these spies would infiltrate party "enemies" such as rival radical groups or fascist organizations. Sometimes they would collect information from sympathetic journalists. And sometimes, if they had government jobs, these agents would steal official documents that might be useful to the Party. These underground members had a complicated relationship with Soviet intelligence agents. Officially, they worked for the American party. But often they would share the information they gathered with their counterparts in Moscow.

Indeed, Poyntz began working for Soviet intelligence in 1934. Her duties included spotting and recruiting future agents-particularly women. Elizabeth, with her Vassar degree and her alleged antifascist credentials, was a leading prospect. Poyntz, however, was an incompetent recruiter. She had three lengthy meetings with Elizabeth without even beginning to discuss antifascism or disclose her true purposes. New to the Party, Elizabeth still had no idea that this woman wanted something from her other than Italian lessons. Moreover, she was put off by Poyntz's rambling and abusive tirades.

According to Elizabeth's autobiography, she was also shocked by Poyntz's lack of traditional moral values. During their fourth meeting, Poyntz suddenly erupted in fury when Elizabeth declined a second drink. As a Communist underground agent in Italy, she shrieked, Elizabeth would have to drink heavily and sleep with many men to help the cause. The movement did not need a delicate "hot-house flower."

Elizabeth's autobiography is filled with improbable moments like this. She consistently portrays herself as an innocent schoolgirl who was appalled by the Communists' flouting of traditional sexual mores. However, given her history of alcohol use and sexual adventures, it seems unlikely that Poyntz would find her wanting in this area.

But Poyntz certainly did something to antagonize and terrify her would-be recruit. Elizabeth was especially upset when Poyntz introduced her to a slick, rather intimidating foreigner-"Mr. Smith"-who promised her financial help for school and seemed to expect sexual favors in return. "Mr. Smith" was actually a Russian agent who used his position to recruit, then assault, American women.

As an ardent and idealistic Communist, Elizabeth decided that "Glazer" must be an imposter and a counterrevolutionary. She was sure that the Party would never allow such an unpleasant person to hold an important job. Determined to expose the infiltrator, Elizabeth and a male friend charged over to Poyntz's apartment and accused her of being a fraud and a spy.

They were shocked at her response. "Her face went chalk white and the rouge stood out in blobs," Elizabeth later wrote. "I don't think I have ever seen such naked terror in anyone's eyes in my life." Elizabeth glimpsed the figure of a man hiding in the next room, and wondered if he might have anything to do with her fear.

Two days later, Poyntz stormed over to Elizabeth's apartment with Pauline Rogers, the woman who had initially introduced them. After loudly denouncing Elizabeth as a subversive, she paused and stared directly into her eyes. "Just remember one thing," she said, "if ever you meddle in my affairs again, I'll see that you're taken care of. You'll be put six feet under and you won't come back to do any more talking!"

In the end, though, it was Poyntz who was put six feet under. Shortly after she threatened Elizabeth's life, she visited Moscow and grew disillusioned with the Communist cause. According to ex-Communist Benjamin Gitlow, "She saw how men and women with whom she had worked, men and women she knew were loyal to the Soviet Union and to Stalin, were sent to their doom." After she returned to New York, there were rumors that she planned to write about her years in the underground.

In June 1937, Poyntz took a phone call at her hotel from a former lover. She put on her hat and coat and walked out into the night. In her room, her clothes were neatly folded, her passport was in her drawer, and a candle was burning. She was never seen again. One of her friends, the anarchist Carlo Tresca, investigated her disappearance and concluded that her old lover had lured her out to be kidnapped and killed.

Many years later, Elizabeth would remember Poyntz's fate and learn important lessons from it. The long arm of Stalin's enforcers, it seemed, reached even to the residential hotel rooms of lonely, single women in New York.

* * *

Juliet Poyntz's fury-and even her subsequent disappearance-did not end Elizabeth's contacts with Soviet intelligence, however. She was too good a prospect for the Soviets to ignore. She had no foreign accent, no police record, and no family to hinder her in "special" work. Over the next two years, Soviet spies met intermittently with her but did not activate her as an agent.

Actually, as in all the major developments in her life, Elizabeth made her own decision to become a Soviet spy. In effect, she activated herself. She later claimed that she just happened to get a job at a fascist propaganda agency, thanks to a tip from the Columbia placement office. But she told the Soviets a much different story. After she had tried unsuccessfully to get a job at the Romanian consulate, she "managed to join" Mussolini's propaganda bureau, called the Italian Library of Information. Excited by the opportunity to spy on and sabotage the fascists, she rushed down to the "inner sanctum of United States communism," as ex-Communist James Wechsler called it: the ninth floor of the CPUSA headquarters on East Thirteenth Street.

At the Party offices, Elizabeth was directed to an Italian Communist with the rather improbable alias of "F. Brown." He seemed interested in her potential as a spy and promised to introduce her to an official with the Communist International.

On October 15, 1938, Elizabeth and "Comrade Brown" walked to the corner of Eighth Street and University Place to meet her new controller. A short, sturdy man in his mid-forties "appeared seemingly out of nowhere," Elizabeth remembered later. He was well built, with dazzling blue eyes and red hair. He spoke English well, but with an Eastern European accent. His name, he said, was "Timmy."

Elizabeth did not know that she was meeting one of the Soviets' most important intelligence agents in the United States. She did know very quickly, however, that she had met the love of her life.

Excerpted from Red Spy Queen by Kathryn S. Olmsted Copyright © 2002 by Kathryn S. Olmsted
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1. The Sad and Lonely Girl

Chapter 2. Vitally Important Work

Chapter 3. Clever Girl

Chapter 4. A Serious and Dangerous Burden

Chapter 5. Get Rid of Her

Chapter 6. The Blonde Spy Queen

Chapter 7. False Witness

Chapter 8. Somewhat Hysterical



Selected Bibliography


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