In 1895 Juliet's father left the family home. Her mother decided to move with Juliet to New Jersey. While studying at Barnard College she changed the spelling of her name from Points to Poyntz. She then moved to England where she studied at London School of Economics and Oxford University. Juliet developed left-wing views and became involved in the struggle for women's suffrage.
In 1909 Juliet Poyntz joined the Socialist Party of America. She also found employment at the Rand School of Social Science. She worked very closely with Morris Hillquit, a lawyer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). According to Elias Lieberman: "Hillquit needed Poyntz’s assistance researching economic data regarding cost of living for New York garment workers to be utilized during arbitration for wage increases. Poyntz’s work and friendship with Hillquit led to her employment as the first educational director of the Dressmakers’ Union. In a 1916 report of the Ladies’ Waist and Dressmakers’ Union Local 25, Poyntz is identified as the director of the newly created Organization and Education Department. And beginning June 1916, she was the editor for The Message, the official magazine of Local 25. In her role as educational director, she developed a program of adult labor education, set up lecture series by professors, and organized dancing and recreation classes. She also launched some of the early cooperative housing initiatives for the young and unmarried immigrant girls of the union, and the concept of “unity houses” soon expanded into vacation retreats, whose popularity led to the union’s purchase of the Unity House summer resort in the Poconos." (1)
Poyntz was deeply influenced by the Russian Revolution and as a result became a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUS). She also worked with other left-wing groups and became a member of the staff of the Friends of the Soviet Union. Whittaker Chambers got to know Poyntz during this period: "Juliet Poyntz... had been a member of the first unit of the Communist Party which I joined in 1925. A heavy-set, dark, softly feminine woman, she was also a little absurdly imperious and mysterious as Communist bureaucrats often become, sagging self-consciously under the weight of so much secret authority and knowledge." (2)
In 1928 she ran for the post of New York State Attorney General. She was elected to Central Committee of the CPUS and in 1935 she served in China for the Comintern. Poyntz also recruited party members as Soviet spies. Elizabeth Bentley claimed in her autobiography, Out of Bondage (1951), that Poyntz attempted to recruit her. Poyntz introduced her to a man named "Smith". He seemed more interested in developing a sexual relationship with Bentley. When she rejected his advances he reported her to Poyntz. Worried that Bentley might inform the FBI about her spy network, Poyntz visited Elizabeth's apartment and denounced her as a "subversive". Poyntz then told her: "Just remember one thing, if ever you meddle in my affairs again, I'll see that you're taken care of. You'll be put six feet under and you won't come back to do any more talking!" (3)
In 1936 she spent time in Moscow and was deeply shocked by the purge that was taking place of senior Bolsheviks. Unconvinced by the Show Trials she returned to the United States as a critic of the rule of Joseph Stalin. As fellow member, Benjamin Gitlow, pointed out: "She (Juliet Poyntz) saw how men and women with whom she had worked, men and women she knew were loyal to the Soviet Union and to Stalin, were sent to their doom." (4)
It has been argued by Ted Morgan, the author of Reds: McCarthyism in Twenty-Century America (2003) that "Juliet Poyntz.. got caught up in party factions, she had the distinction of giving her name to an 'ism,' when the Daily Worker called for the liquidation of Poyntzism." In May 1937, Carlo Tresca, later recalled that "she confided in me that she could no longer approve of things under the Stalin regime." (5)
Juliet Poyntz was reported missing in June, 1937. Whittaker Chambers claimed in Witness (1952): "She was living in a New York hotel. One evening she left her room with the light burning and a page of unfinished handwriting on the table. She was never seen again. It is known that she went to meet a Communist friend in Central Park and that he had decoyed her there as part of a G.P.U. trap. She was pushed into an automobile and two men drove her off. The thought of this intensely feminine woman, coldly murdered by two men, sickened me in a physical way, because I could always see her in my mind's eye." (6)
On 8th February, 1938, The New York Times ran a story, quoting Carlo Tresca, that Juliet Poyntz had been lured or kidnapped to Soviet Russia by a prominent Communist... connected with the secret police in Moscow, sent to this country for that purpose". Tresca claimed that the case was similar to that of Ignaz Reiss: "Poyntz was a marked person, similar to have disillusioned Bolsheviks." (7) Another source said that she had been murdered because she was planning to write a book that was highly critical of Joseph Stalin and would tell of her time in the "underground". (8)
Whittaker Chambers asked Boris Bykov what had happened to Juliet Poyntz. He replied: "Gone with the wind". Chambers commented: "Brutality stirred something in him that at its mere mention came loping to the surface like a dog to a whistle. It was as close to pleasure as I ever saw him come. Otherwise, instead of showing pleasure, he gloated. He was incapable of joy, but he had moments of mean exultation. He was just as incapable of sorrow, though he felt disappointed and chagrin. He was vengeful and malicious. He would bribe or bargain, but spontaneous kindness or generosity seemed never to cross his mind. They were beyond the range of his feeling. In others he despised them as weaknesses." (15). As a result of this conversation, Chambers decided to stop working for the Communist Party of the United States.
Reiss's death moved me deeply. But another murder touched me closely - that of Juliet Stuart Poyntz, Barnard College graduate, Midwestern American, former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, U.S.A., long an underground worker in a Soviet apparatus whose existence (until her death revealed it) I had not suspected. I had known Juliet Poyntz. She had been a member of the first unit of the Communist Party which I joined in 1925. A heavy-set, dark, softly feminine woman, she was also a little absurdly imperious and mysterious as Communist bureaucrats often become, sagging self-consciously under the weight of so much secret authority and knowledge.
In 1937, Juliet Poyntz deserted from the Communist Party. She was living in a New York hotel. One evening she left her room with the light burning and a page of unfinished handwriting on the table. She was never seen again. It is known that she went to meet a Communist friend in Central Park and that he had decoyed her there as part of a G.P.U. trap. She was pushed into an automobile and two men drove her off. The thought of this intensely feminine woman, coldly murdered by two men, sickened me in a physical way, because I could always see her in my mind's eye.
I was not a quarry of those twilight manhunts. I was too small a figure, compared to those great ones in the underworld of Communism. I was affected but not endangered. Moreover, I had never been a Trotskyist. But these episodes from our daily life served me as profuse examples of what I could expect when I broke. I studied the mistakes by which the deserters were trapped as a man might study the chart of a minefield. I determined to fight the Communist Party as a Communist would fight, to prepare my break carefully, using against the conspiracy all the conspiratorial method it had taught me, and especially to guard against premature, impulsive actions caused by tensions more or less natural in the circumstances.
(1) Cornell University IRL School, A Lady Vanishes (21st January, 2014)
(2) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 36
(3) Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage (1951) page 48
(4) Benjamin Gitlow, The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America (1948) pages 333-334
(5) Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twenty-Century America (2003) page 158
(6) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 36
(7) The New York Times (8th February, 1938)
(8) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 17
(9) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 439