In August 1945, a nondescript thirty-seven year old woman entered the FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut. It was, or should have been, a momentous occasion. The Second World War was finally ending, with Germany obliterated and occupied and Imperial Japan on the verge of surrender. These momentous events came with an ominous postscript: the detonations of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands in the blink of an eye. Equally ominous, the alliance between the Western Allies and Soviet Union already began to fray, with capitalist and communist powers arguing how to divide postwar Europe and Asia. And Elizabeth Bentley carried enough information to explode these tensions into open hostility.
But Bentley’s initial visit did little to pique the Bureau’s interest. As she shared cigarettes with Special Agent Edward Coady, they discussed a New York man named Peter Heller who falsely claimed to be a government agent; then, Bentley asked if the Bureau wanted her assistance. She informed Coady that she worked for a shipping company who traded with Russia, and offered to work as an informant. Coady, puzzled by Bentley’s presentation and reticent manner, reported that “she wanted to indicate she had information but wanted it to be elicited from her.” Bentley received a noncommittal response from her host and retreated to her home in Lyme, awaiting developments.
Around the same time and 430 miles away, a disaffected signals clerk, Igor Gouzenko, began smuggling 109 diplomatic cables out of the Soviet embassy in Ontario. “The documents felt like they weighed a ton and I imagined they were bulging out from under my shirt,” he would recall. Somehow, Gouzenko’s efforts escaped his employers’ notice. He spent a nightmarish day, September 5th, trying to interest Canadian officials, reporters and law enforcement in his haul. None took him seriously until Ontario police witnessed Soviet operatives raiding Gouzenko’s apartment. Finally, on September 6th, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took Gouzenko into custody, realizing he wasn’t your average disgruntled defector.
For Gouzenko’s papers proved an earth-shattering bombshell. They described an elaborate Soviet espionage network with operatives in Britain, Canada and the United States: many were scientists, intelligence agents and high-placed officials in the British and American governments. Prime Minister Mackenzie King personally flew to Washington, DC, notifying Harry Truman of this astonishing development. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI investigated the charges and found them, if not easily verified, more plausible than the average Communist conspiracy theory. From that moment, within a week of Japan’s final surrender, the wartime alliance between the United States and USSR effectively ended; the Cold War, and America’s Second Red Scare, was on.
Elizabeth Bentley’s second try came on October 16th. This time, she traveled to New York; again, she hinted and vacillated, still reluctant to make a full confession. Bentley told her interviewer that she was “mixed [up] in some Russian intrigues and espionage,” adding that the FBI had been spying on her since 1941 (they hadn’t). She seemed so flaky that Frank Aldrich, the agent-in-charge, thought she might be insane. It took several more interviews before Bentley’s story became more coherent and convincing. Once it did, Kathryn Olmsted writes, “her defection would effectively shut down Soviet espionage in the United States for a period of years” and “trigger an earthquake in American politics.”
Born in New Haven, Bentley came from a middle class, Episcopalian family and spent much of her childhood moving across the country. Her mother’s teaching career took her to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, then to Rochester, New York. Bentley attended Vassar College, where poor grades and a nonexistent social life plunged her into depression. She became engrossed in politics through a friendship with playwright Hallie Flannigan, but failed to charm her classmates. Elizabeth Bliss remembered Bentley as “kind of a sad sack, plain, dull, very teacher-like”; her aunt called Bentley “a brainy girl who spent too much time on world affairs and not enough on living.”
In 1930, shortly after graduating, Bentley traveled to Europe. She engaged in a shipboard romance with a British engineer and found herself transformed by Italy, a country she instantly adored. During several subsequent visits (between stints teaching at Foxcroft boarding school in Middleburg, Virginia and studying Italian at Columbia University), Bentley gained a reputation as a libertine, drinking heavily and pursuing numerous affairs. At a New Year’s Eve party in Florence, she shocked her friends by asking them “to pull down your pants and have your partner take you right here on the floor.” One of her paramours, Mario Casella, was a literary critic who wrote her Master’s dissertation.
Beyond her newfound pleasures, Bentley’s experiences steeled her social conscience. During her time in McKeesport, she’d witnessed starving children and massive unemployment which festered into a sincere, if vague desire to help the working class. She later proclaimed herself “haunted by the problem of our maladjusted economic system. Although I was only in my mid-twenties, I had already seen two depressions, the second worse than the first. Each had left in its wake suffering, starvation, and broken lives.” Though she briefly joined a fascist student group, the brutality of Benito Mussolini’s regime convinced her to embrace more progressive causes.
In early 1934, shortly after returning to New York, Bentley struggled to find work and found herself appalled by the poverty she witnessed in America’s largest city. She befriended a widowed single mother, Lee Fuhr, who found Bentley’s firsthand accounts of Mussolini’s Italy captivating. Fuhr, “one of the most unselfish people I had ever known,” invited Bentley to join the American League of War and Fascism. At the first meeting Bentley attended, Fuhr lectured her that “our economic set-up is rotten clear through” and persuaded her, without difficulty, to join the Communist Party.
Elizabeth Bentley wasn’t the only American who embraced Communism in the ’30s. The Great Depression made capitalism’s failures seem obvious and inescapable; the rise of fascism in Europe (and similar rumblings at home), and the unwillingness of Western democracies to confront it, made the Soviet Union seem palatable as a counterweight. Earl Browder, the dynamic, dogmatic Communist leader, toned down his habitual calls for revolution while proclaiming Communism “twentieth century Americanism.” Thus American leftists raised money for European resistance movements, assisted refugees, bore arms for Republican Spain and praised the Soviet Union, even as the latter slid into nightmarish repression.
Many leftists in this era willingly condoned or dismissed Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, even as his destructive policies and secret police killed millions. His defenders included intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw, who claimed Stalin’s opponents “often have to be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks”; journalist Walter Duranty, who insisted that “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda;” and French Prime Minister Eduoard Herriot, who called famine-stricken Ukraine “a garden in full bloom.”
“We treated the Soviet Union as the single pivot in the world around which everything else was centered,” Communist leader Steve Nelson later admitted. For all that, in the 1930’s it wasn’t clear what progressive alternative existed. The dream of Utopia, however far-fetched, seemed more enticing than the evident failures of liberal democracy. And for out groups in particular – African-Americans, immigrants from Europe and Latin America, labor unions and the nation’s unemployed – radical politics seemed a worthier gamble than a system that repeatedly failed them.
Certainly Elizabeth Bentley dove wholeheartedly into her work. “From then on my life took on a new zest,” she recalled. “I seemed to have cast off the old feeling of listlessness and despair.” She attended debates, distributed Communist literature and organized public rallies; she even briefly worked for an Italian library and smuggled documents to her comrades. Bentley grew so enraptured by Communism that she earned the attention of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, who considered her prime material for intelligence work.
The NKVD and its branches were well-established in the United States, finding recruits among American Communists and progressives labeled “fellow travelers.” Boris Bazarov, their station chief in New York, organized these cells, which included American scientists, educators, journalists and even high-ranking officials like Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan and Harry Dexter White, who passed official documents to Moscow. In October 1938 one of their chief agents, Jacob Golos (calling himself “Timmy”) of the World Tourists travel agency, formally recruited Bentley into Soviet service.
Born Yakov Raisin to Ukranian Jews, Golos had been a Bolshevik almost from birth. At age eight he distributed Communist literature in his hometown of Ekaterinoslav (Dnipro); arrested as a teenager following the 1905 Revolution, he avoided execution by playing dead before a firing squad. He spent two years in a Siberian labor camp before escaping to the United States, where he co-founded the American Communist Party and engaged both in agitation and espionage. His brief was wide-ranging, from providing passports for operatives to funneling documents to Moscow to organizing assassinations; he served as point man for Stalin’s assassination plots against Leon Trotsky.
Initially, Bentley wasn’t impressed by Golos: just five foot two, he was portly and poorly dressed with faded red-gray hair. He was also married with several children, though Bentley wouldn’t discover this until later. Yet over a long dinner, Golos won Bentley over, persuading her to drop from public activism and join the Communist underground. “You must cut yourself off completely from all your old Communist friends,” Golos instructed her, adding that “the Party would not ask this sacrifice of you if it were not vitally important.” Deeply impressed, Bentley accepted the assignment without hesitation.
Bentley became Golos’ courier, confidant and lover, earning the nickname umnitsa (“Clever Girl”) for her industriousness. After Golos’s arrest in 1940 for failing to register as a foreign agent, Bentley became vital in his operations. She regularly traveled to Washington and befriended Mary Price, an aide to journalist Walter Lippmann, and Bob Miller, a State Department official, both of whom gave her confidential documents. Then, to her surprise, in August 1941 Golos asked her to directly supervise his agents in Washington.
In Washington, Bentley established contact with Russian handler Anatoli Yatskov (whom she knew as “John”). The two arranged exchanges of documents and microfilms, stuffed into attache cases, in restaurants and darkened movie theaters. Bentley enjoyed the work but found Yatskov a less-than-ideal agent: he wore “badly fitting clothes of obviously European make,” constantly fidgeted his hands and carried a suspicious expression on his “typically Slavic” face. Despite Bentley’s dissatisfaction, Yatskov later achieved the NKVD’s greatest coup: managing the spy ring who leaked the Manhattan Project’s atomic secrets to Moscow.
Bentley’s most important contact was Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, another Ukranian immigrant employed by the Department of Agriculture. Along with his wife Helen, Silvermaster managed a spy ring truly impressive in its scope. Heeding Moscow’s directive “to penetrate into those places where policy is born and developed” counted among his contacts Lauchlin Currie, a Canadian-born economist and personal aide to President Roosevelt, and Harry Dexter White, the Undersecretary of the Treasury. All of them passed crucial information, both economic and military, to Silvermaster.
How did Bentley and Silvermaster recruit such high-placed Americans? Motives and commitment varied. Some, like Laurence Duggan, were deluded idealists who broke with the USSR over Stalin’s brutality; others, like Congressman Samuel Dickstein, worked primarily for money (the NKVD sardonically code-named him “Crook”). Harry Dexter White, who brokered the Bretton Woods Conference, was a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist who fancied himself aiding a wartime ally. “White believed that the U.S. government should have sought closer cooperation with the Russians,” his aide Ray Mikesell recalled; “he was…quite willing to deal with Communist officials to achieve his objectives.”
Successful though Bentley was, she found the Silvermaster Ring compromised by her handlers. Moscow, considering their American operatives amateurish, began minimizing her and Golos’ roles and relying on Russian operatives; one official complained that Golos had become “dangerous for business.” Golos, in turn, complained that the Russians were “young and inexperienced, didn’t work hard, and were not careful” and began hiding many of his papers from the NKVD. As the war dragged on, Golos, Bentley and their new superior, Itzhak Akhmerov, found themselves increasingly at odds.
On November 27, 1943, Bentley awoke to hear “horrible choking sounds” from Golos. Golos suffered a massive heart attack and died before medics could arrive. Bentley assumed control of Golos’ operations, including another spy ring headed by Victor Perlo, but her passion for the work abated. She believed the Soviets murdered her lover, an impression reinforced at a tense dinner with Akhmerov, who complained about “that traitor Golos” and demanded Bentley’s fealty. “I don’t know what’s going on but something is very, very wrong,” Bentley thought to herself.
Golos’ death, indeed, spelled the end of Bentley’s prominence. Akhmerov forced her to turn her agents over to the NKVD (now the NKGB) in 1944; she tried working with Earl Browder, the American Communist leader, only to realize he was a mere puppet. She began drinking and sank back into depression; she began having romantic liaisons, including an attempted assignation with a woman that horrified her prudish minders. Another operative, Anatoly Gorsky, warned Bentley that “there is the risk that you, because of your connection with [Golos] may endanger the apparatus.”
Akhmerov initially attempted to ease Bentley out of the service, offering her a stipend (“What kind of a racket is this where they pay you for doing your duty?” she raged) and a comfortable exile in Moscow. Then he proposed marrying her off to a Soviet operative, proposing someone “35-45 years old, single” (“The question of a husband for her must be thought over,” an NKGB general agreed). The final breaking point came when she began an affair with Peter Heller, an American whom her handlers considered an FBI plant. Now, Gorsky lamented, “only one remedy is left – the most drastic one – to get rid of her.”
Thus Bentley’s defection, which came at a propitious time for American anticommunism. Curt Gentry calls Bentley “the third-most-important woman in J. Edgar Hoover’s life — after his mother and Emma Goldman.” Bentley’s disclosures indeed gave credence to Hoover’s wildest fears of a grand Communist conspiracy. Additionally, Hoover’s attempts to prosecute the editors of Amerasia, a left-wing periodical, resulted in disaster; now, it appeared, he had a bona fide espionage case to work with.
Trouble was, Bentley had no direct evidence, only her word. And that seemed qualified by her inaccuracies. She initially named fourteen Soviet agents she had worked with personally, then began adding others she’d only heard about (among them, former State Department aide Alger Hiss). She made claims about her network – that they leaked advanced knowledge of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and the D-Day landings in France to the Soviets – that were provably false. Even Hoover admitted that “it is impossible to determine exactly how many of these people had actual knowledge” of espionage.
Thus, Hoover’s investigation took years to unfold – ample time for the Soviets to roll up their spy network. Notified by double agent Kim Philby in London, the KGB’s American agents were either recalled or deactivated between 1945, when Bentley defected, and 1948, when her public testimony began, leaving only a small skeleton force behind. Until then, their efforts had been remarkably successful, penetrating the highest reaches of America’s government and military; the KGB never fully rebuilt its apparatus, finding American leaders reflexively hostile to Communism less welcoming of “fellow travelers” than Roosevelt.
Bentley granted interviews to the New York World Telegraph and other outlets, creating an immediate sensation. Newspaper profiles branded her “the Blond Spy Queen,” the “Nutmeg Mata Hari” or, more explicitly, the “svelte and striking blonde” whose “gnawing pangs of conscience” compelled her to betray her one-time comrades. Anyone expecting a Lauren Bacall-type femme fatale must have been disappointed with Bentley, who was neither blonde nor especially young, and certainly not movie star attractive. No matter, as the substance of her accusations proved compelling enough.
Bentley’s grand jury testimony brought the prosecutions of several American Communist leaders under the Smith Act, but none of the high-placed operatives she’d named. In July 1948, as tensions heated up in Berlin, she appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, already the bluntest instrument of postwar Red hunters. Bentley faced a scurvy gang of Congressmen: J. Parnell Thomas, the reactionary New Jerseyite later indicted for corruption; John Rankin, the racist Mississippian who ranted about Jews and Negroes; and a young, ambitious Californian named Richard Nixon.
Wearing a modest black dress, Bentley nonetheless commanded instant attention. “She sat erect, her spine straight, her hands clasped on the desk in front of her,” recounts Lauren Kessler. “She brought no notes or documents to read from or refresh her memory, and she was not accompanied by counsel.” She played her part well, blaming her treachery on poor understanding both of Communism and American history. Bentley, improbably, presented herself as an intelligent, highly polished naif who’d blundered into running a Communist spy ring.
Her act didn’t impress everyone. F. Edward Hebert, a skeptical Louisianan, pressed Bentley on her claims of ignorance. “I want to know whether or not you were a mature individual,” he demanded. “I think you may be physically mature, but many times you are not mentally mature,” Bentley riposted. She stressed her attachment to Golos as a major factor in her treason, with Hebert wondering if her love “blinded you to your treacherous acts against your country.” “That is right,” came her response.
The other committee members contributed little. Bentley sat politely as John Rankin demanded the mass execution of Communists and deportation of immigrants, apropos of nothing. Richard Nixon used the occasion to savage President Truman’s supposed laxity towards Communism. J. Parnell Thomas, in his only substantive comment, told Bentley “your ability to stand up under [scrutiny] in the way you have is certainly something to be proud of.”
Bentley continued appearing before the Committee; many charges would be brought against her agents. Harry Dexter White, who engaged Thomas in heated debate about the statement of his health, won the argument by suffering a heart attack the day after his testimony. William Remington, a Commerce Department employee named by Bentley, was charged with perjury in 1953 and murdered in prison a year later. She also became a witness at the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, claiming she had contact with Julius during her time in Washington; her testimony played a role in their conviction and ultimate execution.
Afterwards, Bentley enjoyed a brief bout of fame as the “Blond Spy Queen.” In 1951, she published a memoir, Out of Bondage, which presented her exploits in a heavily sanitized fashion. She harped on her naivety and romance, as she had before HUAC; she downplayed her depression and drinking and elided her love life. She emphasized her conversion to the Catholic Church, even claiming that God had instructed her to defect rather than fears of assassination. Kathryn Olmsted mused that “she seems to have rewritten her life story to make it fit into the gender norms of the 1950s.”
Liberals and Communists alike fell over themselves insulting Bentley. Walter Goodman, an historian of HUAC, dismisses her as “the heroine of all the bad novels she had ever read.” Cedric Belfrage, a British writer later persecuted by Joe McCarthy, mocked how Bentley “launched herself into party life with a zeal for the horizontal.” Her appearance was branded “homely,” Bentley “a roly-poly thing” and “neurotic old maid.” Rumors spread that she had abortions, that she not only battled depression but was a madwoman moments away from incarceration. This portrait lingers today in less sympathetic accounts of Bentley’s life; rather than rebut her charges, her detractors choose character assassination.
In any case, Bentley’s celebrity quickly faded; the clash between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, an indirect result of her own testimony, dominated headlines. The FBI alternated between utilizing Bentley and disowning her; her notoriety prevented her from holding a steady job. She finally found work as a teacher in Louisiana, only to be run out of school by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who protested her communist past. She again sank into drink, engaged in an affair with fellow ex-Communist Harvey Matusow (whose own career as informant rested on blatant fabrications) and lingered in obscurity before dying on December 3, 1963.
Elizabeth Bentley, unlike many ex-Communists, was a genuine spy whose accusations were largely corroborated. Her defection dealt a near-fatal blow to Soviet espionage in America, achieved with little help from J. Edgar Hoover or HUAC’s inveterate Red-baiters. But it also kicked off a period of political repression, her charges playing to conservatives eager to undo the New Deal, overcautious liberals hoping to prove their patriotism, and irresponsible demagogues embracing an easy issue. Readers can decided which legacy was more important.
Sources and Further Reading:
This article draws upon: Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage: The Story of Elizabeth Bentley (1951); Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991); Lauren Kessler, Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era (2009); Amy Knight, How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies (2005); Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (2002); and Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassilev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era (1998).