Mary Price was born in Rockingham County, North Carolina, in 1909. Her ancestors had been prosperous slaveholders but by the time she was born her parents had "slipped into a genteel poverty" (1) Price, who graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1931, came under the influence of her sister, Mildred, who worked for the Young Women's Christian Association in New York City. Mary joined her and both became involved in radical causes. (2) Mary later recalled: "I was very much influenced by my sister Mildred... Mildred got an M. A. in sociology at the University of Chicago, and then she got acquainted with the YWCA when she was in Chicago. She went to work for the YWCA as the industrial secretary. I was of an impressionable early teen age, and she was working in Lynchburg, Virginia. I went up to stay at the YW camp with her, and there was just a whole new approach to life as far as I was concerned. Mildred is a very decisive kind of person. She never takes a mild stance. She has keen ideas. She met... Edward Linderman, a sociologist, who was at the Women's College in Greensboro when they were there. He befriended them and my sister Teenie also and had a tremendous influence. He was an editor later of the New Republic. He was concerned with what was going on in the world. So I got from them that interest in current events, current affairs." (3)
In about 1935 the sisters visited the Soviet Union and were impressed by its prosperity and efficiency. On her return, Mary joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). "I didn't do any of it for financial reasons or self-aggrandizement, but the whole experience has made a difference in my kind of life and it has made it worthwhile for me. I'm a different kind of person than I would have been if I had grown up on the farm in North Carolina or if I had gotten some kind of office job and married as one might have expected. I can't regret the trials and tribulations and so forth, because I feel that my life has been a lot more interesting for me and worth a little bit. I'm glad to have participated. Oh, what I was going to say was that by that time I had made up my mind that in the class struggle that goes on, I'm on the side of the working class." (4)
Soon after arriving back in America she went to work for Walter Lippmann, who wrote the nationally syndicated column, Today and Tomorrow, for the New York Herald Tribune. According to one source, Price decided the CPUSA could make use of the high-level gossip she overheard in Lippmann's office. (5) Party officials put Price in touch with Soviet agent, Jacob Golos. He thought that with her southern background, she would make "her perfect for undercover work". She was given the codename DIR. Golas arranged for and her to meet Elizabeth Bentley, who had a similiar background. In her autobiography, Out of Bondage (1951), she described her as "attractive but not pretty" and quite self-possessed. It was agreed that Bentley would travel to Washington once a month to pick up Mary's information. (6) Mary later claimed that she had to rebuff Bentley's "homosexual advances". (7)
In the 1930s, with the support of Helen Rogers Reid, the owner of New York Herald Tribune, Price's boss, Walter Lippmann, worked very closely with British Security Coordination (BSC). Released BSC documents list Lippmann as "among those who rendered service of particular value". Thomas E. Mahl, the author of Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (1998) has argued: "In late winter or early spring 1940, Lippmann even told the British to initiate Secret Intelligence Service operations against American isolationists. His exact thoughts are unknown. His specific ideas were 'too delicate' for the British Foreign Office to put to paper, but the idea is quite clear. Lippmann was a heavy weight. His suggestions on how to handle the American public reached as high as the British War Cabinet." (8)
William Stephenson, was the head of BSC and worked very closely with William Donovan. In July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Donovan as his Coordinator of Information. The following year Donovan became head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that was given the responsible for espionage and for helping the resistance movement in Europe. Duncan Chaplin Lee was appointed as Donovan's assistant. Price reported this to her controller, Jacob Golos, who urged her to get as much information as possible from him. Golos was disappointed with the information obtained by Price and told her to introduce Lee to the more experienced Elizabeth Bentley. She was not initially impressed with Lee who she claimed was "a rather weak individual" who was "nervous and emotionally upset" and was "troubled with a severe conflict of ideas." (9)
According to Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002): "Lee gave her valuable information in two categories: foreign intelligence and internal spy hunts within the OSS. He verbally described OSS activities in Europe, including a top-secret program to parachute agents into Hungary and negotiate a separate peace with the fascist government there. He also helped the Soviets to protect their other sources. After examining the OSS security files, he told her that two of her agents - including Halperin - were under suspicion. The Soviets ordered the agents to be more cautious." (10)
NKVD files show that Lee (codename Koch) provided valuable information during the Second World War. According to this document (May 1943 NKVD memorandum), "Lee had described OSS cables discussing such vital matters as Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek's intention to hold a conference at Xian with Communist Party leaders to discuss relations between their forces; a report from the American Ambassador to the USSR about rumors in Moscow that Churchill had told Stalin no second front Would be opened until the Soviet Union initiated war against Japan; and a range of reports concerning European political and diplomatic events." (9) It is believed that Lee was one of the first Soviet agents to penetrate the OSS. Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin, the authors of The Mitrokhin Archive (1999), have argued that because of people like Lee, "throughout the Second World War the NKVD knew vastly more about OSS than OSS knew about the NKVD." (11)
In November 1944, Anatoly Gorsky reported to Moscow that according to Elizabeth Bentley, Price had begun a sexual relationship with one of her sources, Duncan Chaplin Lee. "(Price) established an intimate relationship with (Lee), and she did not tell us about it until recently." Gorsky was concerned that this affair might result in Lee's exposure as a spy because his wife, who was also a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), knew about his spying. "(Lee) and (Price) met in two places, at her flat and at his. The meetings were held in the presence of (Lee's) wife, who was aware of her husband's secret work." (12)
The NKVD was concerned about the affair because of what happened to another agent, Victor Perlo, a few months previously. Perlo divorced his wife and became involved in a bitter dispute over the custody of their daughter. In April 1944 Katherine Perlo sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt naming her husband and several members of his group, including Henry Hill Collins, Harold Glasser, John Abt, Nathan Witt and Charles Kramer, as Soviet spies. Although she was interviewed by the FBI the people named were not arrested. Kathryn S. Olmsted has argued: "Possibly, the men of the FBI discounted the tale of an unstable, vengeful ex-wife. Or perhaps the tale of Russian espionage did not seem so sinister in 1944, when the brave Soviet allies were battling the Nazis. In any event, Katherine Perlo failed in her quest to destroy her ex-husband." (13)
Lee's wife discovered her husband's love affair and complained in a series of jealous scenes. The NKVD became worried about these developments and ordered her to stop serving as his courier. Earl Browder told Iskhak Akhmerov that Price's "nerves had been badly shaken" by these events. (14) However, as Kathryn S. Olmsted has pointed out: "Mary Price... continued the love affair, hoping that Lee would divorce his wife and marry her. Distraught over his deteriorating marriage, the pressures of the love affair, and intensified security probes at the OSS, Duncan Lee, by late 1944, had become an extremely reluctant Soviet source. Moreover, he distrusted Elizabeth Bentley, who now acted as his primary courier and contact with Soviet intelligence." (15)
In September 1944 Lee heard that the OSS Security Division was compiling a list of Communists and Communist sympathizers in OSS. Elizabeth Bentley reported that Duncan Chaplin Lee was "on the verge of cracking up... so hyper cautious that he had taken to crawling around the floor of his apartment on hands and knees examining the telephone wires to see if they had been tampered with." (16)
On the 7th November 1945, Elizabeth Bentley provided a 107 page statement to the FBI that named Mary Wolfe Price, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, William Remington, Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, Joseph Katz, Ludwig Ullman, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Cedric Belfrage and Lauchlin Currie as Soviet spies. The following day J. Edgar Hoover, sent a message to Harry S. Truman confirming that an espionage ring was operating in the United States government. (17) Some of these people, including White, Currie, Bachrach, Witt and Wadleigh, had been named by Whittaker Chambers in 1939. (18)
J. Edgar Hoover attempted to keep Bentley's defection a secret. The plan was for her to "burrow-back" into the Soviet underground in America in order to get evidence against dozens of spies. However, it was Hoover's decision to tell William Stephenson, the head of head of British Security Coordination about Bentley, that resulted in the Soviets becoming aware of her defection. Stephenson told Kim Philby and on 20th November, 1945, he informed NKVD of her betrayal. (19) On 23rd November, Moscow sent a message to all station chiefs to "cease immediately their connection with all persons known to Bentley in our work and to warn the agents about Bentley's betrayal". The cable to Anatoly Gorsky told him to cease meeting with Donald Maclean, Victor Perlo, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. Another agent, Iskhak Akhmerov, was told not the meet with any sources connected to Bentley. (20)
On 30th November, 1945, Elizabeth Bentley was asked the sign a statement that accused Price and others in her network of being spies. According to the FBI she at first refused to sign: "She characterized the Americans' activities as being motivated by an ideology and that they felt that the information they obtained was to help an ally." Bentley was told that it was too late to back out now. They reminded her that the Second World War was over and the Soviet Union was no longer U.S. allies. Bentley eventually agreed to sign the statement. (21)
After the war Mary Price became a supporter of the Henry Agard Wallace. "I was very disturbed about the Truman, the Cold War fight and I was alarmed about it, it seemed like facism to me and I had made up my mind against facism, that I would do what I could.... I remember quite well that they call me up from New Orleans and said that Wallace was going to make a speaking tour of the South and to see about what kind of support and reaction he would get. He was trying to make up his mind about whether he should run or not. They suggested that since the affairs of the committee for North Carolina were not in a very active point at that time, that I organize that speaking tour for Henry Wallace.... So, I went off on this and we had large public meetings in Atlanta, in New Orleans, in Louisville and in Norfolk. I think that's all of them and they were fairly successful." (22)
As the Progressive Party nominee, she was the first woman to appear on the ballot as a candidate for Governor of North Carolina. She used the election to campaign for Civil Rights: "This was the beginning, really, of the civil rights movement in the South, civil rights as we knew it. This Wallace campaign of the Progressive party in the South was really the first serious one. The Southern Conference had done a grand job and the Atlanta organization whose name we were trying to think of that I know so well, Ralph McGill and so forth, had done excellent work on this, but there had not been a serious proposal of having integrated organizations, of not having meetings if they could not be interracial and make that a prime objective.... Anyhow, I was pleased, even though my light was small, to try to let it shine." (23)
On 30th July 1948, Bentley appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The senators were relatively retrained in their questioning. They asked Bentley to mention only two names in public: Mary Price and William Remington. Apparently the reason for this was that Remington and Price had both been involved in Henry A. Wallace campaign. Bentley was also reluctant to give evidence against these people and made it clear that she was not sure if Remington knew his information was going to the Soviet Union. She also described spies such as Remington and Price as "misguided idealists". (24)
The following day Bentley named several people she believed had been Soviet spies while working for the United States government. This included Mary Price, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Ludwig Ullman, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Harold Glasser, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie.
Mary later commented: "My reaction was that this was a put up job to discredit the Progressive Party, when the reporters came to see me in the office in Greensboro, my to my surprise, to tell me about this Elizabeth Bentley before the House Un-American Committee in Washington. She had said that she was an agent of the Soviet Union and she had been assisted by me. She got much publicity, you know... I had gotten hold of legal advice and they advised me not to talk about it, that it was better for me not to be open and tell what I . . .to express myself but to be very careful about what I said." (25)
Mary Wolfe Price moved to Europe where she did "research for the Czechs, getting information that they needed." While in Switzerland she met Charles Adamson. "He was from Georgia, which meant that we had the same southern background and talked the same language. He appealed to me because he had a trade union interest... He went to work in Akron at a Goodyear plant. Instead of being trained to be on the executive staff, it was the time when the CIO was being organized and the rubber workers were forming a union and he sided with the workers and that sort of ended his career to be on the executive staff of Goodyear." (26) Mary married Adamson in 1951. On their return to the United States they moved to to Washington, where she worked for the embassy of Czechoslovakia.
Mary Wolfe Price died in California in 1980.
My father was very interested in politics. He was a registrar. When my grandfather, the tobacco manufacturer, was alive and in business, he had what we called the "office" in the front yard of our place where he ran his tobacco business-goodness, I've lost the train about what I started to say about the office. Oh, it was in the office where the voting in the precinct and the registration took place; my father was the registrar. So anybody in that precinctcame to our front yard to register and vote. I remember that most vividly because - I remember, you know, how things stick in childrens' minds without having any logical reason about why they did-but I remember my father coming in to the house one day saying that a Negro had come up to register. And he was very much confused about what to do about it. He's thinking, of course, he couldn't permit a black man to register, but on the other hand, he admitted he was better qualified than some of the people that had been there to register. I remember, and it must have been so for it to have stuck in my mind all these years, that he was really chagrined with himself about it. But he went through the business of making it so difficult for the man to register that he couldn't do it. Now I consider my father to have been an honest man, and I'm just telling you that story for what was going on, the approach about it because I'm sure that he was ashamed about doing that. But this was something that he thought he had to do.
From Stockholm, we went to Helsinki in Finland and stayed there a few days, which was mostly memorable, as far as I was concerned, by the Finnish baths. Something entirely new experience. Then we went by train from Helsinki to Leningrad and stayed in Leningrad for about a week. Leningrad, as you know, is a beautiful city with a tremendous history. Part of the tremendous history is the Russian revolution, the historic sites there. The Hermitage museum was really the best museum I had ever, ever been to-an enormous collection of the French impressionists and of the great artists of all around. There's no sense in my talking about the history of the Hermitage. It's well known. But that was a very stimulating and awarding trip there to Leningrad. Then we went on by train to Moscow, and there again, there were all sorts of things. There was a friend of Mildred's who had worked for the YWCA in Moscow. She had left for reasons I don't quite recall. But anyhow, she left Mildred introductions to some of the people that she had known in Moscow, including a woman who had worked in the office or something or other and had been connected with Lenin. We went to see her in her small apartment where she lived. Remember, I was rather young., and I was uninformed. This was a very stimulating system. Then the Pushkin museum, the modern art museum in Moscow is wonderful. We lived across the Moscow River. We could see the Kremlin across the river, but I never went in the Kremlin. Whether it wasn't possible to get tours; it was not as open in the Soviet Union as it is now. It was not as easy to go to these places. One had to have an in-tourist guide who went with us all the time, someone who could translate for us and arrange the trips that we wanted to make. There was very little of my being able to go out alone, not because of restrictions but because even though I tried hard to learn some Russian before I went, I did not have really enough to manage. I can remember, though, going somewhere or another and written out the name of the place where I wanted to go, and how very kind the people on the streetcar were about being helpful and showing me where to get off, and exactly showing it. So I got a friendliness towards the Russian people because of their friendliness to us. It developed further in the course of that six-weeks tour that we had. We went from Moscow over to the Volga, and there again, my memory falters about the river port on the Volga where we got the steamer and went down the Volga River for about four or five days, down to what was called Stalingrad. I believe it had some other name at that time, but I can assure you in the course of later years, I remembered very well that stay in Stalingrad because it was a developing, industrial city there on the Volga River. It was a most interesting experience to be there.