Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era
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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 angel. The Catholics embraced her. But the fact is, more than a half 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 World War II, 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 anticommunist 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.
to people calling her a liar. She would have to read about herself in the newspapers. It was one thing when she wrote the stories herself, quite another when they were written about her. She still didn’t understand, or at least had not come to terms with, the reality: In coming forth to target others, she had become a target herself. She had set something in motion that she could not stop. But maybe her friends at the Bureau could. On the phone, the agents stonewalled her. There would be no
venues in Manhattan”: Bentley’s signed FBI statement, pp. 75–76, 78; Bentley, Out of Bondage, p. 249. “He was really Anatoly Gorsky”: Bentley’s signed FBI statement, p. 83. “‘Her life will lose its meaning without this work’”: Letter in KGB archives, June 25, 1944, quoted in Weinstein and Vassiliev, Haunted Wood, p. 98. “a fur coat and an air conditioner”: Bentley so testified before HUAC, Communist Espionage, Aug. 11, 1948, p. 812. “Bentley nonetheless must have felt deeply honored”: Bentley
York, to special agent in charge, New Haven, Nov. 17, 1961, Bentley file No. 134-182-A-10. “Elizabeth Bentley was dead”: My thanks to oncologist Peter Kovach for insights into the symptoms accompanying abdominal cancer and the complications that may follow surgery. Bentley’s death certificate makes note of the “exploratory laphrotomy” and the diagnosis of “carcinomatosis, primary unknown.” “She made headlines one last time”: New York Times, Dec. 4, 1963, p. 47; New York Herald Tribune, Dec. 4,
day after that. She was interviewed fourteen times in November by the two New York special agents who took over her case, Joseph M. Kelly and Thomas G. Spencer. She came in at least every other day, and, during a particularly grueling stretch in the middle of the month, she was interviewed six days in a row. The logistics were challenging. She continued to work at USS&S during the day, both because it was the way she made her living and because quitting might have tipped off the Russians that
hearsay—the subcommittee used the hearings to point out just how difficult it was to prove that anyone was or had been a spy. “Miss Bentley,” asked the counsel for the committee, “while you were an underground agent, was there in existence documentary evidence of the fact that you were such an agent?” “No, except in Moscow,” Bentley replied. “Did you feel that it was your business to make sure there was no such documentary evidence?” he asked. “Definitely,” she answered. “I took every