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Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era

Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era

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by Lauren Kessler

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Communists vilified her as a raging neurotic. Leftists dismissed her as a confused idealist. Her family pitied her as an exploited lover. Some said she was a traitor, a stooge, a mercenary and a grandstander. To others she was a true American heroine—fearless, principled, bold and resolute. Congressional committees loved her. The FBI hailed her as an avenging


Communists vilified her as a raging neurotic. Leftists dismissed her as a confused idealist. Her family pitied her as an exploited lover. Some said she was a traitor, a stooge, a mercenary and a grandstander. To others she was a true American heroine—fearless, principled, bold and resolute. Congressional committees loved her. The FBI hailed her as an avenging angel. The Catholics embraced her. But the fact is, more than half a century after she captured the headlines as the "Red Spy Queen," Elizabeth Bentley remains a mystery.

New England-born, conservatively raised, and Vassar-educated, Bentley was groomed for a quiet life, a small life, which she explored briefly in the 1920s as a teacher, instructing well-heeled young women on the beauty of Romance languages at an east coast boarding school. But in her mid-twenties, she rejected both past and future and set herself on an entirely new course. In the 1930s she embraced communism and fell in love with an undercover KGB agent who initiated her into the world of espionage. By the time America plunged into WWII, Elizabeth Bentley was directing the operations of the two largest spy rings in America. Eventually, she had eighty people in her secret apparatus, half of them employees of the federal government. Her sources were everywhere: in the departments of Treasury and Commerce, in New Deal agencies, in the top-secret OSS (the precursor to the CIA), on Congressional committees, even in the Oval Office.

When she defected in 1945 and told her story—first to the FBI and then at a series of public hearings and trials—she was catapulted to tabloid fame as the "Red Spy Queen," ushering in, almost single-handedly, the McCarthy Era. She was the government’s star witness, the FBI’s most important informer, and the darling of the Catholic anti-Communist movement. Her disclosures and accusations put a halt to Russian spying for years and helped to set the tone of American postwar political life.

But who was she? A smart, independent woman who made her choices freely, right and wrong, and had the strength of character to see them through? Or was she used and manipulated by others? Clever Girl is the definitive biography of a conflicted American woman and her controversial legacy. Set against the backdrop of the political drama that defined mid-twentieth century America, it explores the spy case whose explosive domestic and foreign policy repercussions have been debated for decades but not fully revealed—until now.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In Clever Girl, author Lauren Kessler makes a distinction between Bentley and McCarthy. The latter worked off of suspicion and innuendo; the former informed on real, honest-to-goodness spies. But after the first year or so of naming names, Bentley testified in trials and congressional hearings that there were two more spy rings out there that she had never mentioned before, and justified the fact that there was no evidence against the spies she testified against by saying that a decent spy doesn't leave any evidence. Of course. — Carolyn See
The New Yorker
The image of the seductive female agent frightened and fascinated people even before Mata Hari faced a French firing squad, in 1917. Not only did it tap into fears about women's treachery, but it distinguished between the government-intelligence bureaucracy and the more dangerous and romantic aspects of espionage. In Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, Tammy Proctor attempts to rescue female spies from clichés that classed them as either sexual predators or martyred virgins, manipulators or dupes, heartless vamps or emotional basket cases.

Elizabeth Bentley, the subject of Lauren Kessler's Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley and the Dawn of the Mc Carthy Era, fell into the latter camp--more a depressive than a femme fatale. A Communist spy while her K.G.B. lover was alive, Bentley came clean to the F.B.I., which led to the first of the McCarthy-era witch-hunts. Later in life, lonely and alcoholic, she was reduced to supporting herself with speaking fees and an overwrought memoir.

The anonymous author of Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America, an Iraqi-born Jew, has spent years disguising herself to attend Muslim rallies and conferences. When she was a child, her father was executed by Saddam Hussein as an alleged Israeli agent--a trauma she thinks led her into the spy game. But she's aware of the equivocal nature of her profession: lecturing a pair of F.B.I. agents, she is delighted to see them dumbfounded at her competence; earlier, she says, "they'd been ogling me." (Kate Taylor)
Publishers Weekly
Kessler (The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes) gamely attempts to create a true-life romantic spy-thriller from the life of Elizabeth Bentley, who in 1945 confessed to being a Soviet spy, implicated Julius Rosenberg and many others and set America off on its journey through McCarthyism. Unfortunately, Kessler's attempt to draw tension and romance from Bentley's life fails amid a clutter of cameos, unexplored details and a superficial rendering of early Communist history in the U.S. Bentley is certainly an intriguing subject. A descendant of Puritans and educated at Vassar, she joined the Communist Party while a graduate student at Columbia in the Depression. She soon became a covert agent and fell in love with her KGB contact, Jacob Golos. When Golos died in her apartment and Bentley's position with the Russians deteriorated, she reached out to the FBI. Kessler is a fine writer, but her subjects just don't cooperate. Bentley's "romance" with the homely, secretive Golos is hardly romantic, and much early American Communist history is still obscured beneath the shroud of secrecy under which it operated. Finally, Bentley appears to have left little behind to aid in reliably reconstituting her life. Despite Kessler's best efforts, the result falls short as spy thriller, as biography and as history. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Sandy Dijkstra. (Aug. 8) Forecast: There seems to be a minor revival of interest in Bentley. Last October, the University of North Carolina Press published another biography, Red Spy Queen by Kathryn Olmstead. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
By the mid-1930s, the Russians had discovered that it was relatively easy to spy on Americans in our open society. Like countless others, Elizabeth Bentley, a New Englander educated at Vassar College, became a committed Communist in response to the economic inequities so apparent in Depression-era America. She fell in love with a Russian agent and during the early 1940s began providing secret government documents to her Soviet mentors as their spy named "clever girl." When her lover suddenly died, Bentley was no longer considered reliable by the Soviets, who marginalized her. The heartbroken Bentley contacted the FBI in 1945 and began exposing her fellow spies. The Rosenbergs were just two of the dozens she fingered during her testimony before congressional committees. Kessler, who directs the graduate program in Literary Nonfiction at the University of Oregon, has written a spellbinding tale of a woman who fell prey to her idealism and was then swept up in the furor of the Red Scare. This book is a worthy complement to Marcia and Thomas Mitchell's recent The Spy Who Seduced America, which told a similar tale about Judith Coplon. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/03.]-Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From spy to snitch to shut-in: a life of an American radical in Stalin's service. Joe McCarthy was right, if inadvertently: throw a rock down a postwar Washington street, and you'd be likely to hit a Communist agent. Many of those Red spooks, it turns out, worked in espionage rings organized and maintained in part by a thirtysomething American woman named Elizabeth Bentley, who had been radicalized as a young student at Vassar during the late 1920s and drawn into treason through a love affair with a KGB agent. Bentley both drew on an existing network of agents and recruited others. So effective were she and her paramour that "by the end of the 1930s," writes Kessler (English/Univ. of Oregon), "the konspiratsia had spread to the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Bureau of Standards, and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland"-as well as the OSS, various branches of the armed services, and many other federal agencies, staffed by men and women who, for one reason or another, were committed to bringing about a workers' paradise. As federal agents caught on to her work and began sniffing ever closer to her at the end of WWII, Bentley turned herself in-just in time, it appears, to escape being assassinated by the KGB, which had come to regard her as a security risk. She named names to the FBI, helping corroborate the agency's Venona code-breaking program and providing leads that eventually led to the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Her transformation was complete, Kessler writes, and made without coercion: "As surely as she had been a Party member, a steeled Bolshevik, a courier, and a spy, she would be a warrior on the other side, for the other side." Kessler wanlyconcludes that the needy and perhaps unstable Bentley "lived life on her own terms," though that seems a little too generous, especially given that Bentley lived her last years in unwanted obscurity, and none too happily. Overwritten and slack, but of some interest to students of the Cold War era and American radical movements.
Seattle Times
“Superb... [brings] to life the loneliness, the fear and the thrill of [Bentley’s] life as spy and anti-spy.”
The Onion
“Clever Girl lucidly and engagingly lays out the tragic arc of an unlikely and important life.”
Statesman Journal (Oregon)
“Kessler has written a book as compelling and fascinating as any novel. Clever Girl is the work of a master.”
Eugene Weekly
“A brilliant portrait of [a] complicated personality.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“An insightful biography of an extraordinary American woman [and] a thrilling character-driven drama… Reads like good fiction…fascinating.”
“Compelling... Kessler masterfully explores and exposes the myriad, competing facets of Bentley’s tumultuous life.”
“Clever Girl vividly traces the dramatic life of New England blue blood Elizabeth Bentley.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] thoughtful and well-researched biography.”
Boston Globe
“A well-paced and sympathetic chronicle.”

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Clever Girl
Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era

Chapter One

Connecticut Yankee

In the rolling hills of western Connecticut, at the foot of the Berkshires, where the Housatonic River cuts a wide swath south to the Long Island Sound, sits the self-possessed, quintessentially New England town of New Milford. Bucolic, picture-postcard pretty in all seasons, it is a town that could have been engraved by Currier & Ives, with its expansive village green, its tall, white-steepled churches, and its quiet, leafy lanes. Up from the river, on Main Street and Bridge Street and Bank Street, the houses are wood-frame colonials, impressive Greek Revivals and elegant Queen Anne Victorians, one historic building after another, built to last by merchants and farmers, cavalrymen and clergy, doctors and bankers, the solid, and stolid, New Englanders who made this place their home since the early 1700s.

But New Milford is more than a comely village. It is a town with a pedigree. It was the birthplace of Roger Sherman, a leading colonial statesman and politician who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and served as one of Connecticut's first senators. A hundred years later, the town was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a diverse and prosperous commercial center, with two banks, three hardware stores, four blacksmiths, five hotels, six dry-goods stores, seven doctors, eight churches, and one billiards parlor. Its population of five thousand made it the largest town in the Berkshire Valley. Still, it was largely a rural community, the few, well-manicured downtown streets surrounded by rolling farmlands. Out in the countryside, there were one-room schoolhouses to serve the farm families. In town, there was the New Milford Center School, housing grades one through eight, and presided over in 1906 by a bright, well-read, plain-faced, twenty-nine-year-old spinster named Mary Charlotte Turrill.

The Turrill family had the deepest of roots in New Milford. Daniel Turrill, Mary's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, was one of the original purchasers -- from "the Heathen," as town records indicate -- of the New Milford townsite in 1702. But he was not the first Turrill in the colonies. That was his father, Roger Tyrrell, who came to America from Hereford, England, on the ship Lion in 1632 as part of the great Puritan migration. By the time of the Revolutionary War, in which nine Turrill men fought, the family had already been in Connecticut for five generations. John Turrill, Mary's great-grandfather, was a private who fought at Germantown and survived the winter at Valley Forge. After the war, he married the niece of colonial statesman Roger Sherman, thereby connecting two of the "first families" of Connecticut. Mary's father, Frederick Jay, a member of the eighth generation of Turrills in America, was an ardent trout fisherman, a vestryman of St. John's Episcopal Church of New Milford, and owner of one of the finest tobacco farms in the area. He and his wife, Julia Frances Smith -- a "conscientious Christian, a devoted wife and mother" -- had seven children, the oldest of whom was Mary Charlotte, born in the summer of 1877.

She was a bright child and an eager learner, a girl of both strong character and strong faith. The Turrills lived close to town, with its venerable public library, its active civic and cultural life, and its laudable public schools, which, by town meeting decree, distributed textbooks free to all "scholars." Her parents must have encouraged her educational ambitions, for when Mary finished eight grades of public schooling in New Milford, she was sent to Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in the hills of northern Massachusetts. A college preparatory boarding school founded by a free-thinking evangelist preacher, Northfield Seminary -- commonly referred to as "Mr. Moody's School" -- was famous for having graduated a former slave in 1889 and enrolling Choctaw and Sioux students. Mary Charlotte returned to New Milford a young woman enlightened, and a young woman with a vocation, teaching, which she found deeply rewarding. By the age of twenty-nine, she was a veteran teacher at Center School in the village and, by the standards of the day, a confirmed spinster.

There was, however, a man in town who caught her eye, a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor named Charles Prentiss Bentley. He was a long-faced, jug-eared man with a strong chin and intelligent eyes. The son of a Baptist minister, he was the direct descendant of a dissident English clergyman who had arrived in Boston Harbor in 1637. His ancestor had preached from the pulpit of the church attended by Mary Charlotte's ancestor Roger Tyrrell.

Charles Bentley had spent his early adulthood trying to distinguish himself in a career outside the church. He was still trying. He had worked in New York City for a number of years, moving from one dry-goods establishment to another, while also serving on the staff of the Dry Goods Economist, the leading trade paper in the industry. At the end of 1900, he moved to New Milford to take over management of C. H. Booth's store on Bank Street. Booth had been selling everything from clothing to carpets, hats to "fancy crockery," from a small establishment just off the town green for more than forty years. It was time, he told his customers in a letter published in the local newspaper, to "lay aside some of the care and responsibility of business." In January of 1901, the store was renamed Booth & Bentley Company, with Charles the junior, but more active, partner.

The schoolteacher and the merchant wed in the spring of 1907, setting up their home in one of the well-kept, clapboard houses on Terrace Place, a lovely, tree-lined street near the center of town. The homes were not grand, but the street was one of the most respectable in town ...

Clever Girl
Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era
. Copyright © by Lauren Kessler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Lauren Kessler is the author of ten books, among them the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes and Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family. Kessler directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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