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

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

Lauren Kessler

Language: English

Pages: 372

ISBN: 0060185198

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

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.

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stories themselves were written with journalistic directness in a punchy, “just-the-facts-ma’am” voice that sounded nothing like the voice of Out of Bondage. Either she had been heavily edited or the series had actually been written by a reporter. Whatever the case, she was once again in the public eye. The St. Louis articles led to her second appearance on Meet the Press—“America’s press conference of the air”—which had moved from radio to television and was broadcast “live and unrehearsed”

found himself fighting for his job. This time it was not enough to proclaim his innocence. This time he took direct action, mounting a $5 million libel suit against the Washington Daily News for carrying a story in which he was accused of disloyalty. In putting together the case in February of 1954, Taylor’s lawyers subpoenaed Bentley. She was to give her deposition at a law office in Opelousas, Louisiana. But Bentley wanted no part of it. She immediately called the FBI field office in New

interested the Russians. He told Bentley about aircraft production schedules, airplane and high octane gasoline tests. He told her of a process he’d heard about for the manufacture of synthetic rubber. And he was a font of political information as well, commenting on the personalities and opinions of those he knew in government. As important as all these men and women were to the Bentley-Golos apparatus, there was no one more significant than a man named Nathan Gregory (Greg to his friends)

take notice. Some derided the revelations. The World Telegram had not done itself any favors with its screaming headlines and tabloid tone. But other news media picked up the story and began to make it their own. Newsweek, echoing the World Telegram series, presented Bentley as a “tall, thin blonde…of old American stock and full of the idealism which had flowered at Walden Pond and Brook Farm.” And editors were not the only ones paying attention. The morning after the first story appeared, Nelson

Julius and then Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair at the federal penitentiary in Ossining, New York. The Rosenberg case was the big show for the Department of Justice. The Attorney General’s Office sent in its best men. Hoover put his considerable weight behind it, and the Bureau worked doggedly to collect intelligence. But even in the midst of such a high-stakes, high-profile case, no one could quite forget a certain small fry who had thus far escaped prosecution. He was no

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