Cover image for Red spy queen : a biography of Elizabeth Bentley
Red spy queen : a biography of Elizabeth Bentley
Olmsted, Kathryn S.
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Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiv, 268 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
1310 Lexile.
Personal Subject:
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HX84.B384 O45 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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When Elizabeth Bentley slunk into an FBI field 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 own 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.

Despite her crucial role in the cultural and political history of the early Cold War, Bentley has long been overlooked or underestimated by historians. Now, new documents from Russian and American archives make it possible to assess the veracity of her allegations. This long overdue biography rescues Elizabeth Bentley from obscurity and tells her dramatic life story.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In 1945, after a successful career as a Soviet spy, Connecticut native Elizabeth Bentley turned herself in at the New Haven FBI office. The information she gave to the government set Soviet espionage in the U.S. back years, perhaps decades. It was Bentley, for example, who helped lead investigators to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In addition to revealing Olmsted's life as a spy, this carefully researched biography traces her early years (she was a Vassar graduate more interested in fun than politics) and her later life, as she tried to engineer a transition from traitor to hero. Tracing Bentley's rise from information gatherer to courier to spymaster, Olmsted characterizes her subject as an intelligent, troubled woman who let herself be led into a world for which she was unprepared. As a chronicle of the early years of the cold war, and as a portrait of a woman who happened to be a spy, this is a revealing and compassionate biography. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Olmsted (Univ. of California, Davis) has written a fascinating account of Elizabeth Bentley, a former Soviet spy who became an FBI informant and achieved fame in the late 1940s. Olmsted's excellent account points out that some of Bentley's charges against government officials were true, while others were either exaggerated or simply made up. Bentley lived what can only be described as a tragic life, suffering from chronic alcoholism and bouts of depression. Olmsted indicates that Bentley was drawn to spy work through her romantic involvement with Jacob Golos, a Russian spy. After his death in her apartment, Bentley kept working for the Russians. In August 1945, she decided to inform the FBI of her activities. Olmsted has relied on the most current scholarship as well as numerous archival collections, including the Venona documents, to demonstrate that Bentley did supply the government with accurate information on a number of topics. However, her inner problems led to many lies. Bentley's later years, in which she converted to Catholicism, spoke at anticommunist gatherings, taught, and even extorted money from the FBI, ended in November 1963, when she died of stomach cancer. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers and upper-division undergraduates and above. A. Yarnell Montana State University



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 only time 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.[23] 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. Continues... Excerpted from Red Spy Queen by Kathryn S. Olmsted Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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