Elizabeth Bentley, the only child of Charles Prentiss Bentley and May Turrill Bentley, was born in New Milford, Connecticut, on 1st January, 1908. Her father was a dry-goods merchant. Before giving birth of Elizabeth, her mother was a local schoolteacher.
Elizabeth attended East High School in Rochester. She described herself as "lonely, withdrawn child". Her mother was a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Elizabeth described her mother as "very, very strict... who didn't allow me to befriend girls of my age who were drinking, smoking and visiting nightclubs."
In 1926, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Bentley won a scholarship to Vassar College. According to her biographer, Kathryn S. Olmsted: "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 a 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." (1) A fellow student 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." (2)
Bentley came under the influence of the drama teacher, Hallie Flanagan. In 1927 Flanagan met Konstantin Stanislavsky. On her return to America she established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. In 1930 Flanagan took a group of students to Leningrad and wrote 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." (3)
After obtaining a Vassar degree in English, Italian, and French, Elizabeth Bentley obtained a teaching job at the Foxcroft preparatory and finishing school for girls in Middleburg, Virginia. She also spent her summer vacations studying. Elizabeth took one course at the University of Perugia and another at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1932 she left her teaching job to study full-time at Columbia University.
By this time both her mother and father were dead. According to Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002), this had a dramatic impact on her personality. "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 always drank to excess. Elizabeth would be an alcoholic throughout her life... Not surprisingly, considering her enthusiasm for spontaneous sex in the years before oral contraceptives, there were rumours that she had some illegal abortions." (4) Olmsted quotes one of Elizabeth's boyfriends, Harvey Matusow, as saying: "She used alcoholism to ease her pain, and she had a lot of pain. Matusow speculated that she was a "manic depressive".
While she was living in Florence, Elizabeth became a supporter of Benito Mussolini. Impressed by the dictator's achievements, in 1934 she joined the Gruppo Universitate Fascisti. She also began an affair with Mario Castella, a prominent literary critic more than twenty years her senior. Castella held left-wing views and Elizabeth later claimed that under his influence she changed her views on fascism. (5)
When she returned to the United States she was a strong anti-fascist and joined the American League against War and Fascism. This was an organization that had been set-up by members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Bentley later recalled in her autobiography, Out of Bondage (1951): "Surprisingly enough, from then on my life took on a new zest. I seemed to have cast off the old feelings of listlessness and despair." (6) During this period Bentley joined the CPUSA.
At one of the early CPUSA meetings Elizabeth Bentley met Juliet Poyntz. Another member of the CPUSA, Whittaker Chambers, commented: "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." (7)
Bentley claimed in her autobiography that Poyntz attempted to recruit her as a Soviet spy. 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!" (8)
Ironically, it was Juliet Poyntz who was murdered by Soviet agents. 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." (9)
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." (10)
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." (11)
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." (12) 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".
Bentley was aware of these events but by this time she was so convinced by the arguments being made by the Communist Party of the United States that she agreed to work as a spy. On 15th October, 1938, she met Jacob Golos the head of its Central Control Commission. It was his job to make sure that all members of the party followed party policy that was being directed by Joseph Stalin. The historian, Anthony Cave Brown, compared the commission in his book, On a Field of Red: The Communist International and the Coming of World War One (1981) to the Spanish Inquisition: "As with Tomas de Torquemada and Isabella I of Spain, so with Golos and Stalin." (13)
Kathryn S. Olmsted described their first meeting in her book, Red Spy Queen (2002) with the spy who told her his name was Timmy: "Like any good spy, Golos did not stand out in a crowd. A heavy-set, rather nondescript man in a bad suit and scuffed shoes, he did not make a favorable first impression on Elizabeth. At five feet two inches, he was seven inches shorter than the strapping young woman he hoped to use as a source. She eyed with disapproval his tattered felt hat and shabby car." However, she gradually changed her mind about Golos: "He seemed intelligent and thoughtful. Soon she found herself telling him the story of her life, including her disappointing earlier contacts with the Soviet underground. As she warmed to him, Timmy seemed to grow better looking. He was no longer short and squat but 'powerfully built'; he was not colorless but had 'startlingly blue' eyes that stared straight into hers... Though she was intimidated, she felt flattered by the attention that this powerful Communist was giving her." (14)
Elizabeth Bentley agreed to become a Soviet spy. He told her. "You are no longer an ordinary Communist but a member of the underground. You must cut yourself off completely from all your old Communist friends." Instead she was to mix with fascists in New York City. Her friends might regard her as a traitor, but "the Party would not ask this sacrifice of you if it were not vitally important." (15)
Jacob Golos ran a travel agency, World Tourists in New York City. It was a front for Soviet clandestine work. (16) Soon after he recruited Bentley as a spy, his office was raided by officials of the Justice Department. Some of these documents showed that Earl Browder, the leader of the Communist Party of the United States, had travelled on a false passport. Browder was arrested and Golos told Bentley: "Earl is my friend. It is my carelessness that is going to send him to jail." Bentley later recalled that the incident took its toll on Golos: "His red hair was becoming grayer and sparser, his blue eyes seemed to have no more fire in them, his face became habitually white and taut." (17)
According to Bentley, United States officials agreed to drop the whole investigation, if Golos pleaded guilty. He told her that Moscow insisted that he went along with the deal. "I never thought that I would live to see the day when I would have to plead guilty in a bourgeois court." He complained that they had forced him to become a "sacrificial goat". On 15th March, 1940, Golos received a $500 fine and placed on four months probation. (18)
The FBI continued to follow Golos and on 18th January, 1941, they saw him exchange documents with Gaik Ovakimyan. The FBI also observed Golos meeting Elizabeth Bentley at the offices of the of the U.S. Service and Shipping Corporation. The agents wondered if she might be a Soviet spy as well and she was followed. On 23rd May, 1941, Ovakimyan was arrested and deported. Bentley was followed until surveillance was stopped on 20th August, 1941. (19)
Moscow instructed Golos to be far more careful with his contacts with his network. John Hazard Reynolds was selected to take over the running of the U.S. Service and Shipping Corporation. Reynolds was a millionaire who put up $5,000 in capital. The Communist Party of the United States also donated $15,000 to help run the company. Reynolds employed Bentley as vice president of the company as a cover for her spying operations. However, she did not get on well with Reynolds: "His slightly arrogant manner and his accent said loudly Park Avenue, the Racket Club, and the Plaza." (20)
Golos health began to deteriorate and so Bentley began to take over some of his duties. This included visiting Washington to pick up documents from Nathan Silvermaster who lived in a flat with his wife and another spy, Ludwig Ullman. Helen Silvermaster was highly suspicious of Bentley and she told Golos that she was convinced that she was an undercover agent for the FBI. Golos told her that she was being ridiculous and that she had no choice but to work with her. The Silvermasters reluctantly accepted Bentley as their new contact."
Silvermaster and Ullman became an important source of material: As Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002), points out: "Every two weeks, Elizabeth would travel to Washington to pick up documents from the Silvermasters, collect their Party dues, and deliver Communist literature. Soon the flow of documents grew so large that Ullmann, an amateur photographer, set up a darkroom in their basement. Elizabeth usually collected at least two or three rolls of microfilmed secret documents, and one time received as many as forty. She would stuff all the film and documents into a knitting bag or other innocent feminine accessory, then take it back to New York on the train. The knitting bag soon bulged with critical documents from the U.S. government." (21)
Another important spy was William Remington. An economist, he also worked for the National Resources Planning Board and the Office of Price Administration of the Office for Emergency Management. In February 1942 he joined the War Production Board. It has been claimed that: "Remington and his wife, Ann, longed to reestablish contact with the Party in Washington, but they knew that open membership would hurt Bill's career. As a solution some Party friends introduced them to a mysterious, redheaded man with an Eastern European accent." (22) The man's real name was Jacob Golos and he passed him onto Bentley.
Over the next two years, Bentley met Remington on a regular basis. She later recalled that he gave her classified information on aircraft production and testing. She claimed that "he was one of the most frightened people with whom I have ever had to deal". Eventually, he refused to meet Bentley and openly joined pro-Communist organizations in the hope that he would lessen his value as a spy. Bentley dismissed Remington as "a small boy trying to avoid moving the lawn or cleaning out the furnace when he would much rather go fishing." Bentley advised Golos that they should drop him but he insisted that they remained in contact as other powerful members of the network might be able to "push him into a really good position." (23)
Bentley knew that Jacob Golos was a dying man: "I knew now that Yasha was a dying man and that the end might come at any moment - it was only by some miracle of will power he was still alive." Golos also began to question the policies of Joseph Stalin. Bentley later said that "he said he fought for Communism and now he was beginning to wonder." (24)
Bentley woke up on 27th November, 1943, hearing "horrible choking sounds" coming from her lover. She tried frantically to wake him from what appeared to be a heart attack. Bentley called an ambulance but the doctors were unable to revive him. When the police arrived she pretended that she worked with the man and had just called in to see how he was because she knew he had been ill. Bentley then travelled to his office and destroyed all the documents in the safe. (25)
Elizabeth Bentley was now put in charge of the group led by Victor Perlo. Other members of the group included Henry Hill Collins, Harold Glasser, John Abt, Nathan Witt and Charles Kramer. Perlo, a strong supporter of Joseph Stalin, he would ask Bentley: "Is Joe getting the stuff safely?" At nearly every meeting he would ask if Stalin had personally seen the documents. (26) Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999), has claimed that according to his Soviet controller, Iskhak Akhmerov, Perlo was his most important agent. (27)
Victor Perlo divorced his wife in 1943 and they had a bitter dispute over the custody of the daughter. In April 1944 she sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt naming her husband and several members of his group 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, and Elizabeth Bentley survived to spy another day." (28)
Anatoly Gorsky took over from Jacob Golos. He had a difficult relationship with Bentley. "In an elaborate pas de deux, the two champion manipulators tried to placate, deceive, and outwit each other. A survivor of the Stalinist purges, Gorsky plainly thought that he could handle this difficult American woman. Like his predecessors, though, he had no idea of the strength and shrewdness of his adversary... Gorsky seemed to view Elizabeth as a child, and, like all bad parents, he attempted to solve this discipline problem with threats and bribes. The bribe came first. At their second meeting, in New York in November, he told her it was a memorable day. The top Communists in the motherland had awarded her the Order of the Red Star." (29)
Elizabeth Bentley immediately took a dislike to Gorsky. In her autobiography, Out of Bondage (1988) "as a short, fattish man in his mid-thirties, with blond hair pushed straight back and glasses that failed to mask a pair of shrewd, cold eyes." She added that there was something about him that made "shivers run up and down your spine." (30) She did not trust Gorsky and suspected that if she ever did go to Moscow to receive the Order of the Red Star she would be eliminated.
Bentley claimed that Gorsky sexually harassed her. According to Bentley he stared at her like "a trader about to decide whether to buy a horse" and said, suggestively, "I like you personally; I think we could work very well together." Bentley was overwhelmed with "nausea." (31) However, Gorsky complained to Moscow that Bentley was making sexual advances towards him: "In a meeting with Gorsky where they exchanged Christmas presents, Bentley informed her Russian colleague that he reminded her of Jacob Golos. It was difficult for a young and lonely woman to live without a man, she told him, noting that she thought more and more often about having a family. A flustered Gorsky, plainly hoping to avoid entanglement, immediately cabled Moscow stating that it was urgent to find a husband for Bentley." (32)
Kathryn S. Olmsted has argued that it was probably Bentley who was lying about the incident: "It is impossible to know for certain who was telling the truth. But Gorsky did not have a reputation for sexual adventures, while Elizabeth did. Moreover, he told his version of the event at the time, whereas she told her side much later. In any event, whether he insulted her by propositioning her or by rejecting her proposition, the net result was that she felt insulted. That insult only strengthened Elizabeth's conviction to leave the Soviet service." (33)
On 29th April, 1944, Iskhak Akhmerov, a Soviet agent, sent a report on Bentley that showed concern about comments she had been making: "She is a rather complicated and controversial character.... she knows perfectly well that she is working for us. She, as a rule, carries out my instructions gladly and reports everything about our people to me. However, her behavior changes when I ask her to organize a meeting with (Silvermaster) for me or to connect some of the (American) probationers with our operative. She becomes an absolutely different person and... claims that she is not our operative, that she works for (Browder) ... Sometimes, by her remarks, I can feel that at heart, she doesn't like us (i.e., Russians). She is inclined to distinguish us from compatriots (i.e., American Communists) and bitterly notices only our professional interest in different questions. She says that all of us personally care little about Americans, that the USSR is the only country we love and work for. I tried to explain that she is mistaken." (34)
Anatoly Gorsky discovered that Elizabeth Bentley was involved with a man, Peter Heller, who they suspected was a FBI agent. Gorsky forced Elizabeth to turn over all of her contacts to him. He informed Moscow "Bentley is a serious and dangerous burden for us here. She should be taken home (to the Soviet Union), but how to do it, frankly speaking, I don't know since she won't go illegally." (35) On 27th November, 1944, Gorsky sent a memo about the possibility of another agent, Joseph Katz, killing Bentley. However, he pointed out that this would be difficult as Bentley was "a very strong, tall and healthy woman" and Katz "was not feeling well lately." (36)
In 1944 Bentley left the Communist Party and the following year she considered telling the authorities about her spying activities. In August 1945 she was on holiday to Old Lyme. While in Connecticut she visited the FBI in New Haven. She was interviewed by Special Agent Edward Coady but she was reluctant to give any details of her fellow spies but did tell them that they she was vice-president of the U.S. Service and Shipping Corporation and the company was being used to send information to the Soviet Union. Coady sent a memo to the New York City office suggesting that Bentley could be used as an informant. (37)
On 11th October 1945, Louis Budenz, the editor of the Daily Worker, announced that he was leaving the Communist Party of the United State and had rejoined "the faith of my fathers" because Communism "aims to establish tyranny over the human spirit". He also said that he intended to expose the "Communist menace". (38) Budenz knew that Bentley was a spy and four days later showed up at the FBI's New York office. Vsevolod Merkulov later wrote in a memo to Joseph Stalin that "Bentley's betrayal might have been caused by her fear of being unmasked by the renegade Budenz." (39) At this meeting she only gave the names of Jacob Golos and Earl Browder as spies.
Another meeting was held on the 7th November 1945. This time she gave the FBI a 107 page statement that named Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, William Remington, Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Joseph Katz, William Ludwig Ullmann, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Abraham Brothman, Mary Price, 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. (40) Some of these people, including White, Currie, Bachrach, Witt and Wadleigh, were named by Whittaker Chambers in 1939. (41)
There is no doubt that the FBI was taking her information very seriously. As G. Edward White, has pointed out: "Among her networks were two in the Washington area: one centered in the War Production Board, the other in the Treasury Department. The networks included two of the most highly placed Soviet agents in the government, Harry Dexter White in Treasury and Laughlin Currie, an administrative assistant in the White House." (42) Amy W. Knight, the author of How the Cold War Began: The Ignor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies (2005) has suggested that it had added significance because it followed the defection of Ignor Gouzenko. (43)
As a result of Bentley's testimony the FBI returned to interview Whittaker Chambers: "From 1946 through 1948, special agents of the F.B.I., too, were frequent visitors. Usually, they were seeking information about specific individuals. For some time they were much interested in Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Dr. Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, John Abt and others. At that time, I had no way of knowing that they were checking a story much more timely than mine - that of Elizabeth Bentley. Most of these investigators went about their work in a kind of dogged frustration, overwhelmed by the vastness of the conspiracy, which they could see all around them, and depressed by the apathy of the country and the almost total absence in high places of any desire to root out Communism." (44)
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. (45) 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. (46)
Attempts to establish connection with former Soviet agents ended in failure. Aware that they must know she was working with the FBI she began fearing that she would be murdered. After losing her job with the U.S. Service and Shipping Corporation she was desperately short of money. In August 1946, after what the FBI called "an exceptionally severe night of drinking" she took an overdose of phenobarbital. The FBI wanted her alive because she would be the major source against any future prosecutions. With the help of a FBI lawyer, Thomas J. Donegan, she was successfil in taking legal action against the U.S. Service and Shipping Corporation and she was awarded a year's salary in severance. (47)
On 15th April, 1947, the FBI descended on the homes and businesses of twelve of the names provided by Bentley. Their properties were searched and they were interrogated by agents over several weeks. However, all of them refused to confess to their crimes. J. Edgar Hoover was eventually advised that the evidence provided by Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, Whittaker Chambers and Hede Massing was not enough to get convictions. Hoover's main concern now was to protect himself from charges that he had bungled the investigation. (48)
On 30th July 1948, Elizabeth 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: William Remington and Mary Price. 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". (49)
The following day Bentley named several people she believed had been Soviet spies while working for the United States government. This included Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Donald Niven Wheeler, William Ludwig Ullmann, Julian Wadleigh, Harold Glasser, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. One of the members of the HUAC, John Rankin, and well-known racist, pointed out the Jewish origins of these agents. (50)
On 3rd August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been "a member of the Communist Party and a paid functionary of that party" but left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. He explained how like Bentley he was involved in "the Communist infiltration of the American government." Chambers claimed his network of spies included several people named by Bentley. This included White, Currie, Silvermann, Witt, Collins and Kramer. (51)
William Remington appeared before the Homer Ferguson Senate Committee. He admitted meeting Elizabeth Bentley but denied he helped her to spy. He claimed that Bentley had presented herself as a reporter for a liberal periodical. They had discussed the Second World War on about ten occasions but had never given her classified information. The committee did not find Remington's explanation persuasive, and neither did the regional loyalty board. The board soon recommended his dismissal from the government. (52)
Elizabeth Bentley appeared before the NBC Radio's Meet the Press. One of the reporters asked her if William Remington was a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA)? She replied: "Certainly... I testified before the committee that William Remington was a communist." To preserve his credibility Remington sued both NBC and Bentley. On 15th December, 1948, Remington's lawyers served her with the libel papers. The libel suit was settled out of court shortly thereafter, with NBC paying Remington $10,000. (53)
John Gilland Brunini, the foreman of the new grand jury investigating the charges made by Elizabeth Bentley, insisted that Ann Remington, who had divorced her husband, should appear before them. During interrogation by Bentley's lawyer, Thomas J. Donegan, Ann Remington admitted that William Remington was a member of the CPUSA and that he had provided Bentley with secret government documents. "Ann Remington was the first person from Elizabeth's espionage days who did not portray her as a fantasist and a psychopath." (54) On 18th May, 1950, Elizabeth Bentley testified before the grand jury that Remington was a communist. When he stopped spying we "hated to let him go." The grand jury now decided to indict Remington for committing perjury. (55)
William Remington's trial began in January 1951. Roy Cohn, joined the prosecution's legal team. He pointed out that the main witness against William Remington was his former wife, Ann Remington. She explained that her husband had joined the CP in 1937. Ann also testified that he had been in contact with both Elizabeth Bentley and Jacob Golos. "Elizabeth Bentley later supplied a wealth of detail about Remington's involvement with her and the espionage conspiracy. Remington's defense was that he had never handled any classified material, hence could not have given any to Miss Bentley. But she remembered all the facts about the rubber-from-garbage invention. We had searched through the archives and discovered the files on the process. We also found the aircraft schedules, which were set up exactly as she said, and inter office memos and tables of personnel which proved Remington had access to both these items. We also discovered Remington's application for a naval commission in which he specifically pointed out that he was, in his present position with the Commerce Department, entrusted with secret military information involving airplanes, armaments, radar, and the Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb)." (56)
During the trial eleven witnesses claimed they knew Remington was a communist. This included Elizabeth Bentley, Ann Remington, Professor Howard Bridgeman of Tufts University, Kenneth McConnell, an Communist organizer in Knoxville, Rudolph Bertram and Christine Benson, who worked with him at the Tennessee Valley Authority and Paul Crouch who provided him with copies of the southern edition of the communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. (57)
Remington was convicted after a seven-week trial. Judge Gregory E. Noonan handed down a sentence of five years - the maximum for perjury - noting that Remington's act of perjury had involved disloyalty to his country. One newspaper reported: "William W. Remington now joins the odiferous list of young Communist punks who wormed their way upward in the Government under the New Deal. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and he should serve every minute of it. In Russia, he would have been shot without trial." (58)
Elizabeth Bentley decided to write her biography. She was aware that Louis Budenz had made a considerable amount of money of his book, This is My Story (1947), about his life as an uncover agent. Her book, Out of Bondage, was serialised in McCall's Magazine in June 1951. (59) Some people objected to her making money from her crimes. Others complained that the articles glorified treason and espionage. (60)
In the articles Bentley blamed her behaviour on Jacob Golos. She argued that she was under the dominant influence of her "husband". It has been argued by Kathryn S. Olmsted that "her self-constructed image helped to defect blame: she had, after all, done only what Yasha (Jacob Golos) had asked her to. How could she know it was wrong? She did certainly follow the lead of her lovers in political matters. Moreover, she had frequently allowed men to take advantage of her - though, ironically, Yasha treated her better than any of her other lovers." (61)
When Out of Bondage was published later that year it received some hostile reviews. Joseph Alsop commented that "it is very hard to decide whether to treat Out of Bondage as tragic, or as ludicrous, or as terrifying or as pathetic." (62) The New Yorker sarcastically suggested that the book read as if the author "had almost as grievous a tussle with Freshman English at Vassar as she had later with her New England conscience." (63) As a result of these reviews the book sold poorly. (64)
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the perjury conviction on William Remington on the ground that Judge Noonan's charge to the jury had been "too vague and indefinite" in defining exactly what constituted party "membership." The court, which did not touch upon the guilt or innocence of the defendant, ordered a new trial to be held. Roy Cohn was convinced that this time they would be successful as he believed the evidence was overwhelming: "He had denied turning over secret information to Elizabeth Bentley - yet she had testified that he gave documents to her and we had produced copies of some of the documents. He had denied that he had attended Communist party meetings in Knoxville - yet witness after witness, all former Communists, had come forth to swear that Remington had attended the meetings. He had denied that he had paid dues to the Communist party - yet both Miss Bentley and his own former wife had said that he did. He had denied that he had asked anyone to join the party - yet his former boss at the TVA had testified Remington had asked him. He had denied even knowing about the existence of the Young Communist League at Dartmouth while he was an undergraduate - yet a classmate had said they had discussed the organization when they were students." (65)
Elizabeth Bentley was drinking heavily during this period and her lover during this period, Harvey Matusow, was worried about the impression she would make in court. He claimed that she was upset at her "frivolous treatment" in the press. "She didn't understand the hostility... She never got to the point where she could handle it." Bentley complained about the way she had been treated by the FBI: "She felt that she'd been used and abused." (66) Bentley told her friend, Ruth Matthews that she "should step out in front of a car and settle everything." (67)
However, according to Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002), she was a very good witness. "Once again, though, despite her emotional problems outside of court, Elizabeth performed well on the stand. As usual, she was somewhat snappish and impatient under cross-examination... But like his predecessors, Jack Minton (Remington's new attorney) could not shake her self-confidence. She again succeeded in creating the illusion of a calm, controlled, and even patronizing witness, a Sunday school teacher somehow dropped into the middle of an espionage trial." (68)
On 4th February, 1953, William Remington was sentenced to a three-year term. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, the Supreme Court denied Remington's application to be heard, and he was sent to Lewisburg Penitentiary. (69) The FBI was pleased by Elizabeth Bentley's testimony and pointed out that she had "conducted herself in a creditable fashion" and recommended continuing her weekly payments for another three months. J. Edgar Hoover approved the recommendation. (70)
Robert J. Lamphere, a senior FBI agent, was not involved in the original investigation but eventually was "put in charge of the voluminous Bentley files and came to know them intimately". Lamphere argued: "Bentley had named more than eighty individuals as Soviet sources or agents, and said that a dozen different government agencies or government-associated groups had had their information stolen and delivered by her to the KGB. Because of the importance of her charges, Director Hoover had felt duty-bound to alert the White House, Cabinet officers and other top officials of her main accusations. But in the process of spreading Bentley's information throughout the upper echelons of the government, many of those whom Bentley had named learned of the accusations and had a chance to cease any questionable activities."
Lamphere admitted: "The problem was that, unlike Gouzenko, who brought out evidence in the form of telegrams and pages from Zabotin's diary, Bentley had nothing to backstop her stories - no documents, no microfilm, not even a gift of Russian origin which might have been traced. So very little in the way of prosecutions could be mounted, based on her recollections. Privately, some of us were exasperated and thought we knew what could and should have been done with Bentley. I believe that very early the FBI could have forced things by moving in aggressively and interviewing everyone connected with her; in this way we might have gotten some of them to break, or to contradict one another's stories. We also could have obtained warrants and searched the Silvermaster home and the apartments of the Perlo group for evidence. No such actions were taken at the time.... That spring of 1946, after the Bentley affair's initial phase, we in the New York office's Soviet Espionage squad felt frustrated: we were near and yet so far. Igor Gouzenko and Bentley had shown that Russians were operating all around us, but we were unable to counter their efforts." (71)
In February 1953, Elizabeth Bentley obtained a post teaching political science at the College of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau in Louisiana. Her boyfriend, Harvey Matusow, later recalled: "She felt like her life could be put together again." (72) She lived in the grounds of the college and gave anti-Communist lectures in the surrounding areas and earned a reputation as a good teacher.
Bentley suffered from depression after William Remington was murdered in his cell at Lewisburg Penitentiary. On 22nd November, 1954, two of Remington's fellow inmates George McCoy and Lewis Cagle, Jr., attacked Remington in his cell. According to Kathryn S. Olmsted: "William Remington attracted the attention of a group of young thugs in the cell across the hall. They despised this young man of education and privilege who had inexplicably turned on his country and become a 'damn Communist' and a 'traitor.' One morning, as Remington slept, they crept into his room and slugged him repeatedly with a brickbat. The handsome Ivy Leaguer died two days later. He was thirty-seven years old." (73)
People writing about the case have disagreed about the motivation of McCoy and Cagle. Roy Cohn, in his book, McCarthy (1968) argues that "Three fellow convicts crept into Remington's cell while he was asleep and bludgeoned him with a brick wrapped in a stocking. Remington staggered out and collapsed at the foot of a stairs. He died sixteen hours later in the prison hospital. At first there was suspicion that Remington had been murdered for his political views. Later it was disclosed that there had been other motives. It was a tragic end to what might have been a brilliant career." (74)
However, Gary May, the author of Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington (1994) believes that the killers were motivated by anti-Communism. He points out that one of the prison warders told Remington's wife that "the actions of a couple of hoodlums who got all worked up by... the publicity about Communists." May points out that when McCoy confessed he said he hated Remington for being a Communist and denied any robbery motive. (75)
Harvey Matusow appeared before the Internal Security Subcommittee on 21st February, 1955. He claimed the had lied under oath and now wanted to "undo some of the harm" caused by his false testimony. Matusow said he was not alone as Bentley had confessed to him that she did not tell the truth. (76) Later that year he published False Witness. As Ted Morgan, the author of Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America (2003), has pointed out: "Publication was synchronized with a campaign for new trials... at a time when 134 Communist leaders had been indicted under the Smith Act, with eighty-three convictions. Thanks to Matusow, the party could claim that all Smith Act trials were rigged." Matusow admitted that he had named over 200 people as being members of the American Communist Party but admitted that "about 15% was based on hearsay". (77)
Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine said: ''At long last, the shining truth about the false accusers, the half-truth artists, the professional fabricators, the prevaricators for pay is beginning to break up through the dark and ugly clouds of doubt they have so evilly blown up.'' However, Attorney General Herbert Brownell accused Matusow as being ''part of a concerted drive to discredit government witnesses.'' (78)
In the book Matusow claimed he was a FBI agent who had been paid to lie about his former friends and some of these people were in prison because of his testimony, whereas others were blacklisted because of his lies. Matusow also said that Elizabeth Bentley and Louis Budenz were persistent perjurers. (79) John Steinbeck commented in The Saturday Review: "I suspect that government informers, even if they had told the truth, can't survive Matusow's testimony." (80)
He also named Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn as people who had persuaded him to give false testimony. However, these people were not released or removed from the blacklist. Instead, Matusow was charged with "scheming to obstruct justice" in July 1955. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Matusow was released after spending three and a half years in Lewisburg Prison, Pennsylvania. (81)
In January 1957, a photograph of Elizabeth Bentley appeared next to the review of the movie The FBI Story. The girls at the Cathedral School of St Mary in Long Island now realised the true identity of their middle-aged teacher. Some of them managed to get copies of her book, Out of Bondage. One parent complained that her daughter returned home with the comments: "Did you know Miss Bentley was a mistress.... Did you know someone said they found a man murdered in her apartment when she was a Communist." The girl's mother threatened to withdraw her daughter from the school if Bentley remained in post. (82) That summer Bentley was told that she was dismissed.
It took her until the autumn of 1959 before she got her next job at Long Lane School in Middletown. It was a penal institution for girls. She told J. Edgar Hoover, "We have no bars, no wardens and we attempt to rehabilitate the young through kindly and understanding discipline". She added that she hoped that she would be able to "build up good citizens", defeat Communism, and "contribute to a better America." (83)
Like any good spy, Golos did not stand out in a crowd. A heavy-set, rather nondescript man in a bad suit and scuffed shoes, he did not make a favorable first impression on Elizabeth. At five feet two inches, he was seven inches shorter than the strapping young woman he hoped to use as a source. She eyed with disapproval his tattered felt hat and shabby car. After he dropped off "Comrade Brown," the Party leader who had introduced them, he and Elizabeth headed for a downtown restaurant to discuss her case. She did not have high expectations for the meeting.
Yet as she talked with the man known as Timmy over dinner, she discovered that she had underestimated him. He seemed intelligent and thoughtful. Soon she found herself telling him the story of her life, including her disappointing earlier contacts with the Soviet underground. As she warmed to him, Timmy seemed to grow better looking. He was no longer short and squat but "powerfully built"; he was not colorless but had "startlingly blue" eyes that stared straight into hers.
After a two-hour dinner, this intriguing man took her for a long drive. She had opened up to him over dinner about her personal travails; now he began to tell her of his ideological journey. "He told me," she wrote later, "of the misery and suffering he had seen in Europe, and of the greed and selfishness of a few that had made these conditions possible." He talked of the hardships Communists faced as they battled greedy capitalists all over the world. Not everyone could withstand these hardships, he warned. Somewhat cryptically, he compared the Communist movement to an overcrowded buggy going up a steep road. Some people couldn't hold on tight enough, and they fell off. That, he said, had happened to "Mrs. Glazer."
Elizabeth was understandably alarmed by the analogy. What exactly did he mean? "I felt as if someone had hit me in the pit of the stomach," she remembered later. Though she was intimidated, she felt flattered by the attention that this powerful Communist was giving her.
He also gave orders. "You are no longer an ordinary Communist but a member of the underground," he told her. "You must cut yourself off completely from all your old Communist friends." The goal, he said, was to convince Italian fascists in New York that she sympathized with them. Her friends might regard her as a traitor, but "the Party would not ask this sacrifice of you if it were not vitally important."
Suddenly, the documents that had so bored her earlier contact were "vitally important" to the Party. Elizabeth sat in shock as her new spymaster gave her instructions on how to report to him in the future. Before meeting Timmy, Elizabeth had been an underemployed, lonely, would-be informer. Now she was playing a vital role in the movement that would change the world.
She is a rather complicated and controversial character.... she knows perfectly well that she is working for us. She, as a rule, carries out my instructions gladly and reports everything about our people to me. However, her behavior changes when I ask her to organize a meeting with (Silvermaster) for me or to connect some of the (American) probationers with our operative. She becomes an absolutely different person and... claims that she is not our operative, that she works for (Browder) ... Sometimes, by her remarks, I can feel that at heart, she doesn't like us (i.e., Russians). She is inclined to distinguish us from compatriots (i.e., American Communists) and bitterly notices only our professional interest in different questions. She says that all of us personally care little about Americans, that the USSR is the only country we love and work for. I tried to explain that she is mistaken.
In August 1945 Bentley walked into an FBI office and announced that she was a former Soviet agent. She had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and had been recruited into espionage by Jacob Golos, her lover and employer at United States Service and Shipping Corporation, a cover for Soviet espionage activities. Bentley became a courier for networks organized by Golos, and when he died in 1943 she took over the network organization. Among her networks were two in the Washington area: one centered in the War Production Board, the other in the Treasury Department. The networks included two of the most highly placed Soviet agents in the government, Harry Dexter White in Treasury and Laughlin Currie, an administrative assistant in the White House.
From 1946 through 1948, special agents of the F.B.I., too, were frequent visitors. Usually, they were seeking information about specific individuals. For some time they were much interested in Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Dr. Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, John Abt and others. At that time, I had no way of knowing that they were checking a story much more timely than mine - that of Elizabeth Bentley.
Most of these investigators went about their work in a kind of dogged frustration, overwhelmed by the vastness of the conspiracy, which they could see all around them, and depressed by the apathy of the country and the almost total absence in high places of any desire to root out Communism. I had heard constant rumors about the Grand jury of the Southern District of New York which was reported to be looking into Soviet espionage. I would have been astonished had I known that, in February, 1948, Alger Hiss had appeared before it - six months before I began to testify-and had denied that he had ever been a Communist. This fact I first learned from William Marshall Bullitt, one of the trustees of the Carnegie Endowment, after Hiss was convicted. I would have been equally surprised to learn that the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Harry D. White, had also been questioned by the Grand jury.
Although Truman probably considered the Bentley case an unwelcome distraction, it was an unexpected bonanza for the FBI. Elizabeth Bentley, like Gouzenko, was a "walk-in," a Soviet spy who defected on her own initiative and offered information to the other side. Since 1941, she had acted as a courier between an NKVD agent named Jacob Golos in New York City and his recruits, who were mainly employees of the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. A single woman in her late thirties, Bentley was high-strung, self-obsessed, and had a weakness for alcohol. She approached FBI agents on two occasions (August and October 1945) and hinted at her involvement in espionage. But she had not made a great impression. The FBI agent who spoke with Bentley in mid-October thought that she might be a "psychopath rambling on." But he wrote up the interview and routed it to an agent in the espionage section of the New York office, who eventually reached Bentley and persuaded her to come in again.
On November 7, 1945, Elizabeth Bentley was interviewed for a third time at FBI offices in New York City. Bentley's thirty-page statement, signed the next day, was vague and disorganized (and betrayed her intense anti-Semitism), but she did mention enough names of possible espionage suspects to motivate her interrogators to send an urgent telegram to FBI headquarters. Hoover, in turn took Bentley's information so seriously that he contacted William Stephenson in New York on November 9 to inform him that Bentley had said a former member of his staff at the British Security Coordination, a Mr. Cedric Belfrage, was a spy. Given Hoover's dislike for Stephenson, he must have taken some pleasure in passing on this information.
Philby was keeping the Soviets apprised of developments in Washington. On November 18, he sent a message to the NKVD about the Gouzenko case, giving extensive details of the discussions the allies were having and the alternatives they were considering, but he made no mention of Bentley. The next day MI5 and MI6 received the news that the FBI was requesting a delay in action because of the new Bentley case. Philby duly reported the Bentley defection to the NKVD's London station on November 20.
Although Hoover would insist that the Bentley case was entirely separate from the Gouzenko affair, in fact there were several threads that tied them together. In her initial statement on November 8, Bentley had this to say about Fred Rose, the communist member of Parliament in Canada who had been implicated by Gouzenko in spying for the GRU: "Also during this period he (Golos, her lover and NKVD agent) used to get letters from Canada. I think I know now who they were from. Just before Golos died, Fred Rose, who became an MP in Canada, came down and then went back again. He kept sending messages to me asking me to come to see him. (Bentley seems to have fantasized a great deal about men making advances, but Rose was a known womanizer, so her impression might have been correct in this instance.) As I figure it out, I think what Golos was trying to do was to get material from Canada into this country via Fred Rose because the Russians told me they had no organization in Canada. I think this was in 1939."
Bentley was interviewed almost continuously for the next two and a half weeks, and on November 30, she signed a second, considerably longer, more coherent statement. In her later statement, Bentley altered her recollections about Rose slightly. There was no mention of Rose's visit to New York or messages to her. As for the letters received by Golos, "I subsequently learned that some of the letters that were sent from Canada that I delivered to Golos came from Tim Buck (head of the Canadian Communist Party) or Fred Rose. I am not certain which one."
As early as 1943 Chambers had paranoically envisioned an American edition of the Moscow trials in which the victims, all ex- and anti-Communists like himself, would be fed to inquisitors to divert the public from the machinations of the important conspirators. The Amerasia outcome seemed to bear out his suspicions. It looked as if the Truman administration had placed a higher priority on protecting itself than in rooting out spies.
But the issue of Communist espionage was far from dead. In September 1945 news came from Canada that a major spy ring had been operating in North America. The informer this time was Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet agent employed as a code clerk at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. Gouzenko had soured on the Soviet Union and then defected with a thick batch of documents. These, and follow-up interviews conducted by Canadian authorities, disclosed a large network centered on atomic espionage, with operatives in Canada and in the United States. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatched agents to Ottawa to learn more. Under questioning, Gouzenko implicated several high-level American officials, identifying them by position but not by name. Two weeks later the FBI sent a report on Gouzenko's allegations to the State Department. Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King then visited President Truman in Washington and showed him Gouzenko's interrogation report.
The hunt for subversives was on. In October Secretary of State James E Byrnes, distressed by Soviet belligerence at a diplomatic conference in London, began a quiet purge of the State Department. Anyone suspected of being pro-Soviet was either dismissed or demoted. Extra-departmental officers were brought in to "ferret out some of the difficult cases." The FBI also began top secret investigations, discreet inquiries of State Department officials that included background checks, wiretaps, and direct surveillance.
Then, in November, another witness emerged from obscurity to make sensational allegations. Elizabeth Bentley, a thirty-seven-year-old ex-schoolteacher with a degree in languages from Vassar, was a troubled, unhappy woman who had joined the Communist Party in 1935 and gone underground in 1938. She eventually became a courier for the apparatus Chambers had helped develop in Washington. In 1944 Bentley defected and after some months of lonely anguish confessed to the FBI. The picture she gave of the underground was far more extensive and detailed than anything Chambers had yet disclosed she implicated more than eighty agents-and was minutely confirmed by later documentation." The FBI matched her allegations against Chambers's and Gouzenko's, and wrote up a seven ry-one-page report, "Soviet Espionage in the United States," implicating dozens of government officials. Although Chambers was tipped off about Bentley's revelations by anti-Communist journalists in New York and Washington, he knew few details of her testimony.
The war between the stereotypes - "Red Spy Queen" versus "Comrade Woman" - exposed the fears of the men who relied on them. The first few years after World War II were a time of great change in gender relations in the United States. During the war, as 13 million men joined the military, the government and the media had urged women to take defense jobs. More than 6 million women had responded, increasing the size of the female labor force by 57 percent.
As Elaine Tyler May says, women's war work "demonstrated that women could do 'men's work' and survive without men." This was frightening to many men for economic and cultural reasons. Economically, of course, men feared that women would refuse to give up their jobs at the end of the war. But many men also had cultural concerns: they worried that American women were becoming too independent.
Popular culture reflected this fear of strong women. Increasingly in the 1940s, the media portrayed assertive women as scary and unnatural. As Susan Hartmann notes, in contrast to the competent, decisive career women of the late thirties and early forties, women characters in mid-forties movies increasingly tended to be treacherous or helpless. The archetype of the treacherous woman was the film noir villainess. These "spider women" were dangerous precisely because they flouted traditional sexual morals and gender roles. Of course, the image of the evil woman did not arise suddenly in the postwar period; tales of wicked, seductive women like Eve and Salome appear in ancient literature and the Bible. But fears of the femme fatale are most common - and frantic - at times when a society is experiencing changes in the balance of power between men and women.
The forties femme fatale image explains why some reporters were so determined to change Elizabeth's hair color. They wanted her to match a familiar figure: the "Bad Blonde," in Nora Sayre's phrase, who by 1948 was a stock character in film noir, detective fiction, and the early anti-Communist films.
Assertive women were doubly threatening in the early years of the Cold War because female assertiveness was seen as a Communist characteristic. As Susan Douglas writes, if the United States was going to triumph over the Communist menace, "then our women had to be very different from their women." "Their" women took masculine jobs and regarded their personal appearance as relatively unimportant; "our" women stayed at home and were extraordinarily feminine. Our women were chaste; their women scoffed at traditional sexual morals. Our women deferred to their husbands; their women bullied them. As Morris Ernst, the intensely anti-Communist co-counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted in his Report on the American Communist, "The tendency seems to be that in Communist marriages the wife is the more dominant partner." Elizabeth was dangerous because she was not only a female criminal but also a Communist female criminal.
Elizabeth was the first "red spy queen," but other accused "lady spies" would receive similar treatment from the media. The cultural construction of the "spy queen" in these cases reveals similar tensions about masculinity and changing gender roles in the early years of the Cold War.
Just a few months later, for example, Priscilla Hiss would be vilified by reporters, prosecutors, and even alleged friends. Like the women in film noir, like some conservatives' fevered notions of Elizabeth, she was portrayed as the evil temptress who had led her husband down the road to treason and betrayal - or possibly even framed him to make it appear that he had gone down that road. In the eyes of Alger's friends, the brainy, Bryn Mawr graduate was "domineering," "hard," and, yes, "a femme fatale." But Alger's opponents also saw Priscilla as the source of his problems. Richard Nixon, whose disgust for Priscilla seemed to grow over time, expressed anger in his own account of the Hiss-Chambers affair that he had not questioned Priscilla more intensely because she was "if anything, a more fanatical Communist than Hiss." In 1986, Nixon wrote in the New York Times that this was a common pattern for Communist couples: "the wife is often more extremist than the husband."
Ethel Rosenberg's case also demonstrates the anxiety about women's changing roles in the early Cold War. As a woman, Julius's wife was supposed to be more emotional, more committed to her family and children, and less interested in politics. Thus her stoic appearance made her seem even more evil than the alleged atomic spy who had married her. "There is a saying that in the animal kingdom, the female is the deadlier of the species. It could be applied to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg," intoned the World-Telegram and Sun. The Journal-American told its readers that Julius's "deceptively lumpish" wife had been "even more immersed in communism and its requirements for regimentation" than her husband." Before turning down her application for clemency, President Eisenhower wrote his son that the "strong and recalcitrant" Ethel had "obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring."