For Elizabeth Bentley, with the Great Depression came the demise of the American Dream. As a young woman caught up in spying for the Russians, she idealistically believed that the security of communism offered hope for restoring opportunity and creating a future for American citizens. Since the USSR was an ally of the United States during World War II, handing over secret documents to Moscow was really advancing the common mission. But after the war, the Soviet Union became the enemy, and Bentley’s idealism turned to fear. She saved her life by ruining the lives of others, but she couldn’t save herself from her personal demons.
Bentley’s parents were a dry goods merchant and a teacher in Connecticut, and they had only one child. They were staunch Republicans and Episcopalians, and her father founded a temperance newspaper that promoted the evils of alcohol. It was a strict and sheltered childhood for the young girl whose unscrupulous life as an adult belied her upbringing.
After high school, Bentley got a scholarship to Vassar where she majored in English and minored in Italian and French. Being an only child did not give Bentley a sociable personality. She was primarily a loner, but she mingled for the first time with people who thought radically differently from how she was raised. Her mother died while she was in college, and when she graduated, Bentley used her inheritance to travel to Europe. She had her first romance on the ship en route.
When she returned to the States, the only thing Bentley was qualified to do was teach, and she got a job at Foxcroft School, a prep school for girls in Virginia. She left Foxcroft in 1932 and attended Columbia University Graduate School until she got a fellowship to the University of Florence. Her dad died before she left for Italy, but he didn’t leave her any money.
Perhaps to compensate emotionally for being orphaned in her 20s, Bentley became very promiscuous. She soothed her depression with alcohol and had to borrow money for her expenses. All of these distractions affected Bentley’s academic standing. She failed a course and was suspended twice. While she was researching her thesis she had an affair with her professor who ordered his assistant to write Bentley’s paper for her, although she claimed she had written it herself.
During the summer of 1934 Bentley returned to New York and enrolled in business courses at Columbia. She lived down the hall from a woman who used the name Lee Fuhr, a Communist who invited Bentley to go to meetings of the Communist Party. Jobs were scarce during the Depression, and Bentley couldn’t find work. The tenets of communism were more attractive in light of this dire situation, and Bentley eventually embraced the new political point of view
As a new member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), Bentley had to go to four meetings a week, take classes in Marxism and Leninism, hand out fliers and go to rallies, and she served in several leadership roles.
I SPY Bentley was able to work at a few part time jobs, but none of them had long term potential. Her life opened up in 1938 when she decided to step up her involvement in the Party, and she met “Timmy” on a street corner. “Timmy” was a Soviet operative. His cover was the head of the World Tourists travel agency, but he actually supplied U.S. passports and other documents for Soviet spies. Bentley knew “Timmy” for six months before she accidentally learned that he was really Jacob Golos (formerly Jacob Raisin), a Russian Jew who had survived a Siberian labor camp and, after becoming a United States citizen, helped found the CPUSA. He was in charge of a network of spies and reported directly to the Soviets. Golos was 18 years older and several inches shorter than Bentley. He had a common law wife and son in Russia and was living with another woman when they met. Even though operatives weren’t allowed to socialize together, it wasn’t long before they became intimate. For the first time in her life, Bentley was in a real relationship and had meaningful work.
When Bentley was unemployed again, Golos decided she was ready for the next step and taught her how to be a spy. He showed her how to properly use a pay phone, how to store important documents in her apartment, how to rig a book behind the door to detect a break in, how to burn or flush down the toilet important documents so they couldn’t be found, and how to lose a tail.
In April 1941, Golos had a heart attack. He recovered, but the FBI was watching him, and he didn’t have much stamina. Having been groomed to take over for Golos when the time came, Bentley was ready to step into his shoes. A new cover company was formed, United States Service and Shipping Corporation (USS&S), and she became the vice president earning $200 a month, with frequent raises up to $800 a month and a very generous expense account.
CLEVER GIRL Bentley also took over as supervisor for Golos’ network, and the Soviets gave her the code name umnitsa, meaning “Clever Girl.” She became a handler supervising individuals, including William Remington who worked at the War Protection Board. She was also in charge of the Silvermaster Group, one of the biggest spy networks in America. Members of Silvermaster Group included her direct contact Nathan Silvermaster who worked in the Agriculture Department, and others who worked at the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury, the most influential being Harry White, the undersecretary of the Treasury.
Golos died Thanksgiving night 1943, and Bentley comforted herself by drinking, most often to excess. The following year the Silvermaster Group and an additional one, the Perlo Group, were taken away from her, and the Soviets weren’t quite sure what to do with her. She was told to report to a new contact, “Al,” Anatoly Gorsky, the first secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C. and the local head of KGB operations.
In 1945, Gorsky ordered Bentley to relinquish all her contacts and to quit working at USS&S. Since some of the contacts knew her phone number and address, she had to move for security reasons. She obeyed orders but then defiantly went back to USS&S because her replacement was doing a terrible job and she needed work. She was acting hostile toward Gorsky, and he tried to get her to go to Moscow. She refused to go without the proper legal documents because she knew that if she did, she would never return. Gorsky’s last attempt at calming Bentley down was to order her to take a vacation, and he started looking for an acceptable husband for her. He appreciated her need for income, so he patronizingly gave her $2000.
Bentley could feel her life getting more difficult, and the intrinsic rewards for spying weren’t feeling so rewarding. It was dawning on her that the Soviet priority was not to create more social equality in the United States, and the FBI was starting to investigate USS&S. Bentley’s life was falling apart, so she took the recommended vacation in Connecticut.
As she later described a life changing experience, Bentley was walking around one day and stopped into a church to pray for guidance. She heard a voice in her conscience that said “You must make amends.” However, Bentley’s habit of exaggerating the facts for effect made fear and revenge more plausible explanations for her change of heart than a voice in her head.
CHANGING ALLEGIANCE In August 1945, Bentley walked into the office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Connecticut using a fabricated reason for being there to test the waters. The agent listened to her for two hours sensing that there was an underlying motive for her visit. Bentley returned to New York and USS&S, and it wasn’t until October that she talked to the FBI again, continuing to misrepresent her intent.
During several subsequent interviews, Bentley finally revealed her story of espionage and named her contacts. During the month of November she worked at USS&S during the day and talked to the FBI at night which resulted in a 107-page statement revealing 87 U.S. citizens and Russians who were spies in the U.S. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was thrilled with Bentley’s report, and by December there were 72 special agents working to verify Bentley’s claims. The only evidence Bentley had to support her accusations was the $2000 Gorsky had given her, and she surrendered it to the FBI.
The FBI gave Bentley the code name “Gregory,” but NKGB intelligence found out about her defection. To minimize the damage she was doing to their networks, all espionage was stopped immediately and all Russian nationals were called home. Now the Soviets wanted revenge, and Gorsky was part of the discussion about the best way to eliminate Bentley permanently. He suggested poisoning her food, but the NKGB never did try to kill her.
One immediate effect of Bentley’s confession was that 24 of the 27 people she named who were still working in the federal government were no longer employed. Then, after two years, the FBI got a lucky break in the investigation. Army code breakers on a top secret decryption project called Venona were finally able to decode Soviet cables that detailed their spying activities in the United States. When the names of the spies in the cables were cross referenced with Bentley’s statement, the FBI finally had the documentation they were looking for. Although the existence of the cables remained secret, the agency had specific information to justify continuing their investigation.
While she was acting as an FBI informant, Bentley continued to work at USS&S until the president, John Reynolds, closed it down in early 1947. Then she got some clerical jobs and started testifying in Grand Jury investigations. Looking for work and testifying would be major preoccupations for the rest of her life.
DAMNING TESTIMONY Bentley testified in front of grand juries, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), and she was the first woman to appear on the television show Meet The Press. Her testimony was responsible for indicting or convicting many alleged spies, and she was an important witness in two high profile cases. Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine, confessed to HUAC that he and Alger Hiss, a lawyer who worked in the State Department and helped establish the United Nations, practiced espionage as members of the Communist Party. Chambers had immunity, but Hiss was convicted of perjury. Bentley corroborated his story. Bentley also testified at the trial of Julius Rosenberg, who was ultimately convicted along with his wife for passing information to the Soviets about the atomic bomb. She said that, although she had never met him, she had received phone calls from him. The judge in Rosenberg’s appeal trial said that it was Bentley’s testimony that connected the Communist Party to the Soviet Union.
Part of Bentley’s personality that made her a good spy also served her well on the witness stand. She stayed very calm and confident under intense scrutiny, often contradicting a cross-examiner if she felt it was necessary. As valuable as she was to the FBI, however, she had no friends or reliable income. She was characterized as a psychopath in rumors around Washington and received death threats. Underlying her strong public persona was a woman who needed to self medicate her insecurities with alcohol, and the bottle became the most reliable thing in her life.
Bentley tried to mitigate her financial circumstances by writing her autobiography. She holed up in a rented room in Westport, Connecticut while she poured her life out onto paper. She reinvented herself as she wanted people to think of her: a woman who worked as a spy because she was in love with Golos and blindly idolized and obeyed him. She conveniently failed to mention her own idealistic drive, the alcoholism and her numerous affairs. The book, called Out of Bondage, was serialized in McCall’s magazine before it was released. The magazine articles were more popular than the book, and the fabrications and unsubstantiated allegations made it difficult to determine what was fact and what was fiction.
SEEING THE LIGHT In 1948, Bentley discovered another form of relief. She had a religious awakening, and on November 5 she was baptized into the Catholic Church by Monsignor Fulton Sheen. She considered this her ultimate break with communism. Not everyone believed that Bentley’s new found faith was sincere, however, since there were many people in the Catholic Church who were anticommunist and could help her.
Monsignor Sheen did, in fact, help Bentley. She never got paid for giving testimony for the FBI, so she needed a job. Sheen got her a teaching job at Mundelein College, a Catholic women’s college in Chicago, for $3,500 a year. Openly living with a man out of wedlock and alcoholism did not make her a good role model for her students, and she agreed to resign.
OLD HABITS DIE HARD For Bentley there were other jobs, more boyfriends, and new opportunities to testify, but nothing could make her happy or pay her bills. She knew how much the FBI valued her in exposing and bringing down Communist infiltrators, and she used that to her advantage. She created reasons for them to continue to need her by embellishing her stories with new facts and allegations, and when she got really desperate she would threaten to stop cooperating. In order insure that Bentley would continue to be a favorable witness, the FBI would capitulate to her demands by giving her money, driving her to appointments, reducing a hit and run traffic violation and getting rid of a violent suitor. When she owed the Internal Revenue Service $3,700 in taxes for creative distribution of her book royalties, she threatened to “blow the lid off the administration” if she didn’t get help. Once again her contacts rallied and she got her IRS debt reduced to $1,000, the U.S. attorney got her reinstated to a teaching job, and the FBI chipped in $100. In return for their generosity, the government agents had to deal with an increasingly irrational and ungrateful woman,
Bentley had a hard time making the connection between her behavior and reputation and losing teaching jobs, and in a disillusioned moment, she left the Catholic Church. She desperately turned again to the only source she could trust. Bentley wrote a letter directly to J. Edgar Hoover essentially asking for a character reference to help her get another job. He responded with a letter that simply confirmed that the testimony Bentley had given was true, not a glowing recommendation.
In the fall of 1959, Bentley did get one more opportunity to work, at the Long Lane School in Middletown, Connecticut. At this reform school for girls, Bentley had more in common with this population of misfits than any previous student body. She continued to write directly to Hoover, and he answered her letters not as a friend, but in case the FBI needed her to testify in the future.
In 1960, while teaching at Long Lane, Bentley received a master’s degree in education from Trinity College. For three years her life was the most stable it had ever been, and she enjoyed her privacy away from public scrutiny. The week before Thanksgiving 1963, Bentley went to the doctor complaining of severe stomach pains. On December 2 she had exploratory surgery, and the surgeons found her abdominal cavity was so full of cancer there was nothing they could do. They closed her up, and she died the following day, one month before her 56th birthday. Even though there were lengthy obituaries written about her in the New York Times and the Washington Post recounting her valuable contribution to the government’s effort to eliminate communism in its ranks, only a handful of colleagues and FBI agents attended her funeral.
QUESTION: Have you ever done something you really regretted later? How did you deal with it?
©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Kessler, Lauren, Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Sy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.
Olmsted, Kathryn S., Red Spy Queen, a Biography of Elizabeth Bentley. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.