Monday, July 7, 2008

Red Spy Queen - the story of Elizabeth Bentley

In 1945, a 37 year old matronly woman walked into the FBI offices in Connecticut with a fantastical story of being a handler for a spy ring for the Soviets during World War II. Her name was Elizabeth Bentley. When her story checked out, the FBI was faced with the hard truth that this woman had run not one but two spy rings that had sent damaging information about US war time activities to the Soviets. It forced the US Government to take a hard look at their security procedures and the rise of the Communist party in America.

What made this woman whose family put the W in WASP turn against her country to the point of spying for the Soviets? Was she naive, under the influence of a powerful man, or was she a genuine 'traveler'?

Elizabeth Turrill (also spelled Terrill) Bentley was born on January 1, 1908 in New Milford, CT. Her maternal ancestors had lived in New Milford since the 1632. Her father Charles Prentiss Bentley managed several dry-goods establishments, and her mother May Turrill had been a schoolteacher. Elizabeth's parents were in their late thirties when she was born, and she was their only child. Her parents were die-hard New Englanders with roots all the way back to the Revolutionary War. As a child, Elizabeth's parents frequently moved as Charles Bentley changed jobs, moving from one department store to another, trying to succeed. "It seemed that everything he tried failed," Elizabeth said later in life. The moves disoriented Elizabeth, who grew up a lonely and withdrawn child with very few friends. While some children become more outgoing, taking on new roles as they move, Elizabeth withdrew into a fantasy world, spending her time reading. Her parents finally settled in Rochester, NY where Elizabeth graduated from high school. Her parents were both socially active, her father ran a temperance newspaper, and her mother generously gave food to the hungry.

Elizabeth attended Vassar College on scholarship where she didn't make a mark, not even smudge, during her four years at college. In fact, one of her fellow classmates described her as a 'sad sack.' However she was exposed for the first time to radical thinkers including Hallie Flanagan who later became head of the Federal Theater project. By the time she was 25, both of her parents had passed away, leaving Elizabeth with no family. After college, Elizabeth taught at Foxcrofts, a tony private school in Virginia before applying to Columbia University for graduate school. While studying in Florence, Elizabeth first made the acquaintance with fascism. She also came into her own as an individual, smoking, drinking, and generally indulging in promiscuity. While she deplored what she saw of Mussolini and facism, she joined the facist party to take advantage of the perks that were allowed to students. On her return to Columbia, however, she wrote several papers denouncing the facist government in Italy, joining the American Anti-Facist League.

She also returned to a country that was in the grips of the great depression. Elizabeth found it hard to make ends meet while studying at Columbia. She also claimed to have lost a potential grant because of her involvement with facism while studying abroad. It was not only the poor that were hurting during the depression, the middle class was hurting as well. Teachers were finding it hard to find jobs. Elizabeth's experiences counted for nothing in the workplace. Instead, she was forced to take secretarial courses in order to find any work at all. While living in Morningside Heights, she made the acquaintance of a woman named Lee Fuhr living in her building who introduced her to the communist party. Elizabeth had found a new home. She responded wholeheartedly to the comraderie of the members, although it took a while for her to actually join the party, which she finally did but under a pseudonymn. Soon Elizabeth was attending meetings two or three times a week, volunteering to write for the newspaper, working as the party secretary for her unit. Her life now revolved around her communist activities, as did her love life. The communist party became the family that she had lost.

Elizabeth soon met a woman named Juliet Glazer who claimed that she was doing research on Italian facism and hired Bentley to work as a translator. Bentley jumped at the chance not only to earn some money but also to put her Italian language skills. The work never materialized and Glazer shocked Bentley by trying to recruit her to go to Europe to sleep with men to get information. When Bentley refused, Glazer called her a Trostkyite (the worst insult she could call her) and threatened to kill her.

Juliet Glazer turned out to be Juliet Stuart Poyntz, an American born, Moscow trained member of the Soviet secret police. Bentley had been targeted as a potential recruit for espionage work. Through Columbia, Bentley found a job at the Italian Information Library. Bentley was appalled to find that the Library was a front for fascist propoganda. It was while working at the library that Elizabeth first dipped her toe into espionage. She went to the head of her cell and proposed that she spy on the library for the party. For a year Bentley used her position at the library to collect and pass on information on pro-Fascist activity being fronted by the library. Elizabeth was eventually fired when the Library discovered anti-facist papers she had written while a student at Columbia.

In 1938 Bentley began working with Jacob Golos, an émigré from Lithuania who was an American citizen. Also a member of the Communist Party, Golos worked for World Tourists, a company that was a front for Soviet industrial espionage. He was also the handler of Harry Gold, one of the Venona spies. At first, Bentley didn't know who Golos was, she only knew him by his alias, Tim, but before long she learned that his name was Jacob Golos. Through him she met Earl Browder who was the head of the American Communist party.

After she lost her job at the library, Bentley began doing low-level espionage work for Golos, and the two became romantically involved, despite the fact that Golos already had a mistress in New York, and a common-law wife and child back in Russia. Golos trained her well, instructing her in the ways of espionage, everything from making sure to use a payphone whenever possible, to how to lose a possible tail. She took an apartment in Greenwich Village, chiefly because it had a fireplace that she used to burn any documents that could be traced back to her. Through his passionate commitment to his work, Elizabeth began to believe that she was helping to change the world. She was also deeply in love for the first time in her life. Golos was her mentor, her lover, her father, he was everything to her. Going underground meant that Elizabeth lost her communist family, she only had Golos now.

At Golos's instigation, Bentley took a secretarial job assisting Richard Waldo, a conservative businessman, and spied on his contacts, conversations, and movements, reporting the details to Golos. Bentley also began doing other espionage work for Golos. She carried information, including copies of U.S. government documents, to other agents and couriers, and she entertained men on his recommendations in order to spy on them. The work was hard, there were times that Elizabeth suffered from headaches, and exhaustion but she also felt more alive than she had in years. She felt a part of something, as if in some way, she was changing the course of history. For once, she mattered, she was important, not just to Jacob but also to the Soviets.

Jacob Golos was under suspicion by the FBI as well as the KGB. They were interested in wresting control of the spy rings from him. But Golos was worried that the Soviets wouldn't know how to handle the Americans who spied for him. After he was forced to register as an agent of the Soviet government, Bentley came to work for him as a vice president at the United States Service and Shipping Corporation, which replaced World Tourists as the soviet front. As a Vice President, Bentley now was earning a good salary of $800 a month.

As his health declined (he suffered a heart attack), Bentley took over more and more of the work. She began making trips down to Washington every two weeks and then eventually every week, meeting with her contacts, ferrying documents back and forth. She began carrying a large knitting bag with her as a cover. Eventually, Elizabeth was running two different groups, Silvermaster and Perlos. Perlos in particular had been dormant until Golos decided to revive it. Eventually both groups were made up of about thirty contacts. Elizabeth was working so hard, not only with her work at USSIS but also with her work as a handler that she sometimes fell asleep on the train. Her job was not just to ferry documents but also to soothe the worries of the contacts under her care, listen to their problems, advise them, and to keep them in the fold.

On Thanksgiving 1943, Elizabeth's world changed when her lover Jacob Golos died on her living room couch. As a good Soviet agent, Elizabeth called the appropriate people and made sure to burn all documents before calling the ambulance and the police. She was devastated, for 5 years, Jacob Golos had been her world. Now after his death, the Soviets decided to wrest control from Elizabeth of the two spy rings that she handled. While they appreciated all the work that she had done for them, they thought that the Americans were sloppy in the way that they handled their contacts, becoming friends with them. It was not the Soviet way. While Elizabeth fought having to relinquish her duties, eventually there was nothing that she could do, and she hated working for the Soviets. They seemed too polish and slick compared to Jacob Golos. The last straw was when they attempted to pay her off. She became depressed and started to drink heavily, eventually ending up in an affair with man who she picked up in the bar at the hotel she had moved to in Brooklyn.

Two things served to make Elizabeth decide to come in from the cold. She suspected that the Soviets were planning to kill her, and the recent defection of another Soviet spy in Canada threatened to reveal her own role. She decided that rather than waiting for the FBI to arrest her, it would be better to go to them. She chose Connecticut because she feared that the Soviets would discover what she was up to if she went to the offices in either New York or Washington.

On November 7, 1945, just after lunch Elizabeth Bentley walked into the FBI offices in New Haven, CT and proceeded to change the course of history. The agents in the office didn't know what hit them when this rather mumsy woman walked in, but before the end of the day they knew that they had hit the mother lode. Elizabeth not only named names (the list eventually ran to almost 150 people) but she gave such extensive detail that the eventual report ran to 107 pages with an index. She had almost total recall, probably honed from the time when she had to memorize huge chunks of information in her work as a Soviet spy. The only flaw was the lack of documentation. Elizabeth had done her job too well by eliminating all reports, and paperwork that could have betrayed her if she had been caught.

For the next two years, Elizabeth was interviewed and reinterviewed as the FBI checked out the details in her story. They ordered wiretaps on the contacts that she had named, sent field agents to follow them, up to 200 agents were eventually involved. Some of the names she gave them included Lachlan Currie, Harry Dexter White (a senior U.S. Treasury Department official), William Walter Remington (worked for the War Production Board), Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, Victor Perlo, among others. Some of the people Elizabeth named had also been named by Whittaker Chambers and Igor Gouzenko. The plan now was to use Elizabeth Bentley has a counter intelligence agent, a plan which excited her after being dormant for almost two years.

The FBI became stymied in their investigation when unbeknownst to them, the KGB knew that Elizabeth had defected. Information had been intercepted by Kim Philby, a Soviet spy who had been recruited during his Cambridge days. Philby worked in British Intelligence and had intercepted cables sent by the US to the British detailing the investigation. The Soviets ceased all covert operations and recalled their agents back to Moscow. The FBI would now not be able to use Elizabeth as a double agent. There was one result of Elizabeth's confession, it made the US aware of how lax their security had been. Background checks on all new employees were ordered, and a loyalty oath was a requirement.

Hoover however was not about to let a coup like this slip out of his fingers. When the Venona cables were decrypted, they had more evidence that Elizabeth Bentley was telling the truth. She was mentioned many times in the cables as Clever Girl, along with a host of other agents. The only problem was, the government was afraid that if the information in the Venona cables was released, the Soviets would know that the Americans had broken one of their toughest codes. If he couldn't arrest any of the operatives that Elizabeth had named, then he would get a grand jury involved. The grand jury sessions were closed to the public, which meant that the testimony was secret. However, all the people Elizabeth had named either denied her charges or pleaded the 5th Amendment. Several of them even claimed that she was paranoid. The most the grand jury could do was to indict the Communist party of America for inciting espionage.

Meanwhile Elizabeth was upset. After three years, all her hard work was about to be forgotten. Her boss at USISS had decided to close the agency, leaving Elizabeth without a job. With pressure from the FBI, the company was persuaded to give Elizabeth a year's salary as severance pay. But that wasn't enough for her. She went to the press with her story, meeting with a reporter from the New York Journal-American. The FBI pressured the newspaper to wait until after the case before the grand jury ended before publishing the articles. In July of 1948, a seriers of articles appeared describing Elizabeth as a shapley blonde femme-fatale. Elizabeth now took the line that she was a naive, innocent woman who has been corrupted by her liberal professors at college and by Golos.

The Republicans hoped to use Elizabeth's confession to their advantage to prove that Truman was soft on Communism, and to sweep the party back into office. After almost 18 years of Democratic rule, they were sick of what they saw. Roosevelt's New Deal smacked of the worst liberal thinking. Elizabeth was going to be their star witness and their tool, the only problem was coorboration. They found it in Whittaker Chambers. Chambers had been pretty much forgotten after his initial testimony before the HUAC in 1938. He had gone on to work at Time Magazine as a writer. While Chambers testimony did cooborate some of Elizabeth's story, it lead them to an even bigger prize, Alger Hiss.

But Elizabeth was still important to the process. She was proof that communists looked just like everyone else. If an Upper Middle Class woman could be duped into spying for the Commies, who knew who else had been lured into their lair? It was the beginning of the nation's paranoia of a communist around every corner. Elizabeth fed into this by insisting that the Communist party's mandate was for their members to spy for the Soviet Union. During her time testifying, she spoke without notes and without a lawyer present, impressing everyone with her poise and her ability to never waver from her story. She often seemed more capable and intelligent than the people interviewing her. She came across as cool and unflappable, unlike Whittaker Chambers who could drowned in his own sweat whenever he appeared.

While Elizabeth reveled in her new position as the anti-communist spokeswoman, the fall-out started. While some newspapers and the right wing of the country praised her for coming forward, others attacked her and her character, particularly the fact that Elizabeth had no cooboration for her story. She also symphathized with the very people that she had named. They called her at traitor to her country who was getting off scott free. While Whittaker Chambers had kept confidential papers to prove his story (as a safety net just in case the Soviets tried to eliminate him), Elizabeth had done her job too well. She got into a huge amount of trouble when she repeated her accusation against William Remington on the radio version of Meet The Press. Remington decided to sue Elizabeth, NBC, and the show for libel.

While the case raged on, Elizabeth quietly became a Catholic after taking instruction from Bishop Fulton Sheen (the man from whom actor Martin Sheen took his last name). Religion now filled the void that communism had filled, and like any athiest who had found religion, Elizabeth now became a zealot. Having quietly resigned her position as a teacher at a Catholic women's college in Chicago, Elizabeth now lectured across the country, warning the nation about the Red Threat.

The case with Remington was settled out of court, despite the fact that Bentley's lawyer had investigators digging up dirt against Remington. The network decided that the cost of the investigation outweighed the cost of the case, and they settled with Remington for $9,000 (Remington's lawyers had asked for $100,000 in damages). Elizabeth and her lawyer was furious. However, they turned over the information they had dug up to the HUAC and the FBI who eventually proved that Elizabeth had been right all along about Remington, but damage had been done to her credibility (Remington had earlier been cleared of charges by a review board).

Despite this, she was still called to testify in the Rosenberg trial (her statement had led the FBI to Harry Gold who had been a courier for David Greenglass). Elizabeth testified that Golos had met a tall, thin man with glasses one night who was named Julius. While she was not sure that the Julius was Julius Rosenberg, her testimony along with that of Greenglass (Ethel Rosenberg's brother) and Harry Gold sent the Rosenberg's to the electric chair.

Hurting for money, the government only paid her travel expenses when she testified, Elizabeth agreed to write her autobiography, entitled Out of Bondage. Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on her life and the why she had become a communist, Elizabeth turned out a melodramatic story, portraying herself as the innocent, naive victim duped by forces larger than herself. While the book was serialized in McCalls to great effect, the book sold below expectations. Once again, Elizabeth was running out of money. Although she was now in her forties, she had never learned to budget, save or manage her money. She loved restaurants, hotels, nice clothes. She depended on the FBI for money, often running to them when she encountered problems. They had replaced the communists as her erstwhile family.

Elizabeth was now caught in the positions of having sought out publicity, but now that she had it, she realized just how quickly the tide could turn, how open to criticism she would be. While some reviewers praised her book, others were more scathing, pointing out the differences between her sworn testimony and the book. Elizabeth admitted that she had changed some names, inflated some incidents, all for dramatic purposes (a charge that most memoirists have dealt with over the years). While Harry Dexter Smith had died of a heart attack soon after being accused of spying, William Remington was stabbed to death in prison. Elizabeth bore the brunt of her own guilt and the outrage of their defenders.

Throughout the 50's, Elizabeth was the go-to-girl for the government anytime new information was discovered. While Elizabeth was happy to help, it took a toll on her. For seven years, she lived a double life, now she was forced to constantly relive it. She suffered severely from depression, became paranoid, convinced that the communists were out to get her, particularly when the IRS came after her for back taxes. She had finally settled down and bought a house in Connecticut, but she eventually had to sell it to pay her bills. She bounced from one teaching job to another, having to leave either when irate parents found out about her, or from various scandals that seemed to keep cropping up.

The most serious was when another former communist turned informer, Harvey Matusow, after converting to the Mormon religion, accused her both in print and before the government of admitting to him that she had run out of things to testify about, and was going to have to "find" additional information, implying that she was making things up. He also claimed that he had been encouraged to lie by McCarthy and Roy Cohn about members of the American communist party. Elizabeth was appalled. She swore that she had never said anything of the kind, and the FBI was eventually able to find witnesses to back her up. The upshot was that Matusow ended up spending 5 years in prison for perjury.

Finally in 1955, Elizabeth had had enough. She had gone back to school to get another master's degree in education at Trinity College. One night while walking across campus, she blacked out, whether from stress, or alcoholism. Whatever the cause, she told the FBI that she would no longer be available to testify or to help. The FBI tried to change her mind, she finally agreed that in cases of national importance, they could come to her but she stuck to her guns.

Elizabeth found a job teaching at a school for wayward girls. She loved teaching and felt that it was the one thing that she was truly good at. Working at the Long Lane School was something that both her parents could be proud of. While Elizabeth was considered a good teacher, she never got personally involved with her students, keeping a distance from them. She had no friends and rarely went out. From time to time she would check in with the FBI agents in New Haven. She also occasionally wrote letters to Hoover.

In the fall of 1963, Elizabeth finally went to the doctor to see about the constant pains in her stomach. She was admitted for exploratory surgergy, where they discovered that she was riddled with cancer, and it was too advanced. Before they could reveal the diagnosis, Elizabeth died from complications from the surgery. She was 55 years old. She was buried near her relatives in New Milford. The funeral was sparsely attended and the obituaries were small. Soon she was just a footnote in the period we call the McCarthy era.

But she was much more than. Elizabeth Bentley's life was a bundle of contradictions. She was both a fervent communist and an anti-communist. She was both a weak woman, and fighter. She was a pawn of the FBI and the right wing tear down the New Deal and the Truman Administration, but yet she was quite capable of using them when she needed something. She was an emotionally distant woman, but capable of deep passionate feeling when she finally fell in love with Jacob Golos. She was both a traitor and a heroine.

She was a woman ahead of her time. While her contemporaries were bobbing their hair, and drinking bathtub gin, part of the lost generation, Elizabeth was prim and shy. She had no desire for domestic life or settling down. Most of her life was spent rootless, moving from place to place, job to job. She lived in a domestic arrangement with more than one man. She was promiscuous at a time when most women were virgins until marriage, a good girl gone bad. While she was an independent woman, she was not a feminist.

She was a soviet spy, proving that a woman was more than capable of running a spy network, that you didn't have to be Mata Hari or a femme fatale. Her later testimony led the US government to Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs, shut down the Soviet spy network in the US for a number of years, convinced the government to pay more attention to the communist threat. She opened the door to the McCarthy era, although even she couldn't have imagined the excesses and abuse of power that went with it.

Lauren Kessler said it best, when she wrote that Elizabeth Bentley was for better or for worse the author of her own conflicted life.

Sources: Wikipedia (for all the links.)

Clever Girl - Lauren Kessler

Red Spy Queen - Kathryn S. Olmsted

A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans - Michael Farquhar


Bearded Lady said...

Very interesting life story...and so many career changes. I bet the kids she taught never got away with much. It's hard to pass notes when your teacher is an ex-spy.

And doesn't Elizabeth Bentley looked more like someone's grandmother than a spy?

I am also surprised the KGB never got to her after they figured out she had defected.

Thanks for the great post!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think the KGB just decided to cut their losses and go underground for awhile. After she defected, it would have been to hard to make it look like an accident, although they seriously thought about it.

My favorite is the newspaper stories that called her a shapely blonde and then she turned up in court! The matronliness probably worked to her advantage. Who would suspect the plain woman with the knitting bag to be a Soviet spy?

Glad you liked the post.

chris said...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon you are wrong, can't even be stuffed telling you why. Bentley was a stupid and arrogant woman!

mickberg said...

A fascinating article. It is somewhat spoiled by the numerous grammatical errors. I hope you will fix them.