forgottennewsmakers

Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

BESSIE STRINGFIELD (1911 – 1993) First African American Woman to Ride a Motorcycle Solo Across America

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Feminists, History, Motorcycles, U.S. Army, women on June 14, 2017 at 2:42 PM

The only place Bessie Stringfield truly felt at home was on the seat of her motorcycle. At a young age, her life was defined by where she was headed next. Her first trip was when she was five years old. Betsy Leonora Ellis and her parents, a domestic servant and her employer, left Jamaica for Boston. Shortly after arriving in America, Stringfield’s mom Bessie Stringfielddied. Her father didn’t know how to cope with the responsibilities of a child, so he abandoned her. Stringfield’s next stop was a Catholic orphanage where she stayed for a few years. There weren’t many people willing to adopt a black child, but she didn’t stop praying for a new family. Finally God answered her prayers. When the owner of the orphanage handed Stringfield off to her wealthy Irish Catholic mother, she used a racial slur to describe the little girl. But the new mom didn’t show any prejudice against her daughter’s ethnicity. In her new house, Stringfield had her own room and all the things other children had.

When she became a teenager, Stringfield tried riding the motorcycle of an upstairs neighbor, and she wanted one of her own. Her mother reminded her that nice girls don’t go around riding on motorcycles. Stringfield was persistent and asked for a motorcycle for her 16th birthday. Her mom couldn’t refuse her and gave her a 1928 Indian Scout. Never mind Stringfield had no idea how to ride it. God had answered all her prayers so far, so Stringfield, “…wrote letters to the Man Upstairs, Jesus Christ. I put the letters under my pillow and He taught me. One night in my sleep, I saw myself shifting gears and riding around the block. When I got out on the street, that’s just what I did” (qtd Ferrar 31).

BORN TO BE WILD                        Right after high school graduation, Stringfield took off on her bike to explore all around New England, coming back to Boston only for short visits. It didn’t take long for her to want more adventure. She started what she called her “penny tours.” She spread out a map and tossed a penny onto it. Wherever it landed would be her next destination. In 1930, at age 19 she took six months to ride solo across the country. This was the first of eight cross-country trips, and she eventually rode through all lower 48 states. Later that year she exchanged her Indian for a Harley Davidson, the first of 27 Harleys she owned. The only things she carried with her on the road were her leather jacket, a money belt and extra clothes that fit into the saddlebags.

Stringfield understood how unusual it was for a single, African American woman to travel alone on a motorcycle. “All along the way wherever I rode, the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle” (qtd Ferrar 31). She said she was never afraid on the road because the Man Upstairs was always with her. She used The Negro Motorist Green Book to find safe places to stay and eat in the Jim Crow south. When she couldn’t find black folks to stay with she slept on her motorcycle in gas stations. She rested her head on the handlebars with her jacket as a pillow and her feetBessieStringfield2 on the rear fender. She did encounter racism, but it didn’t stop her from going anywhere. One time at Stone Mountain in Georgia she was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The only way to avoid them was to jump on her bike and escape faster than they could chase her. She was afraid, but afterward she felt invincible. Her bike was like wings carrying her to safety.

FOR LOVE AND MONEY              Just because Stringfield traveled alone didn’t mean she didn’t find romance. She made the effort to do her hair and makeup every day and attracted men everywhere she went. She had six husbands who tried to tame her, and she divorced them all. All except one were about 20 years younger. She and her first husband had three children, but all of them died young. Her third husband, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, asked his wife to always keep his last name because she was going to make it famous. Stringfield obliged.

Stringfield needed a way to pay her expenses, so she turned her hobby into a moneymaker. She was hired at carnivals and fairs as a stunt rider and billed as the Negro Motorcycle Queen. Her stunts included riding side saddle, standing on one foot peg, laying down on the bike, jumping from one side of the bike to the other while riding, and the Wall of Death, where she got up enough speed to ride sideways and upside down in a round cage.

Stringfield ended up in Opa-locka, Florida, a suburb of Miami, and started spending more time there. The local police captain, Robert Jackson, didn’t know what to make of her. He challenged Stringfield to get her bike up to speed, slip off the back and run to catch it and get back on. She did it easily and earned his respect and the right to call him Captain Jack.

On a hot day during World War II, Stringfield went into a movie theatre to cool down. She watched a newsreel showing women helping the war effort. Stringfield was inspired to find a way to serve her country with her talent. As a civilian she joined a black motorcycle dispatch unit of the army as the only woman. She had to pass a grueling training which included riding up a sandy, ninety degree hill and then making a hairpin turn on the crest, and learning how to weave a bridge with tree limbs in order to cross over a swamp, a skill she never actually needed to use. Her trainer was Captain Jack. From 1941 to 1945 Stringfield delivered classified documents to military bases across the country. Even with a military crest on the front of her motorcycle, she still encountered racism. One time a man in a pickup truck ran her off the road and knocked her off her bike. She took these incidents in stride as part of the ups and downs of the experience.

SETTLING DOWN              After the war Stringfield spent time in Europe riding around the allied countries before heading back to Florida. In the late 1950s, she finally settled down, buying a house and working. Her first job was as a private cook, but then she went to school to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Having steady employment did not keep her from riding. She founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and used her house a place for riders to hang out together. The local press dubbed her the Motorcycle BessieStringfield4Queen of Miami, and she was often seen leading parades with one of her poodles riding on each knee. On Sundays she rode her motorcycle to mass at the Catholic church.

In the late 1980s Stringfield’s favorite bike, a Harley 1978 FLH, was vandalized in an attempted robbery. She didn’t have enough money to repair it, and she considered selling her house to buy a new one. She said, “It’s got to be blue and it’s got to be new. I never bought anything used – except husbands” (qtd Ferrar 32). Instead, she borrowed or rented a Harley when she wanted to ride.

During her lifetime and posthumously, Stringfield received the recognition she deserved for her accomplishments and bravery as a motorcyclist. The Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio opened in 1990 and featured Stringfield in their inaugural exhibit. In 2000 the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) named an award after her, given to women who distinguish themselves as leaders in motorcycling. She was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2002.

Stringfield was 81 years old when she died from complications of an enlarged heart in 1993. She was adamant about not having a service, but people from the community congregated to honor her anyway. There were other bikers in attendance, and one man came all the way from Texas to pay his respects. In reflecting on her untraditional life Springfield said, “I spent most of my life alone, lookin’ for a family. I found my family in motorcycling” (qtd Ferrar 32).

QUESTION: What is the most adventurous thing you can imagine doing? What is keeping you from doing it?

© 2017 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Ferrar, Ann, Hear Me Roar, Women Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road. New Hampshire: Whitehorse Press, 2000.

Gill, Joel Christian, Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Talented Tenth. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2016.

http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/bessie-stringfield-motorcycle-queen

https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=165444982&ref=acom

Camacho, Maria A. “Bessie Stringfield.” Miami Herald 20 February, 1993: B4. nl.newsbank.com

 

 

 

Advertisements

CLARENCE KING (1842 – 1901) White Geologist, Black Husband

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Civil War, Geology on June 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Clarence King

Clarence King’s ancestry went back to Alfred the Great, the Magna Carta, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  There was no doubt about King’s Anglo roots.  But people believe what they want to, and pale, blue-eyed King lived a double life as a white man and a black man, which spanned the breadth of New York society.

King’s mom was only 15 years old when she got married, and her 21 year old husband was already an established businessman.  King was born while his father was in China on business, and he was raised with the help of a colored nanny.  When King was only six his dad died in China.  The family also lost two baby girls leaving only mother and son.

A pattern of financial troubles and sickness that would follow King for the rest of his life started in 1856 in Canton, China when the family business was destroyed by mobs who hated foreign-owned businesses, and King’s mom was left almost destitute.  Three years later, 17-year-old King dropped out of high school before graduating, giving the vague reason as “illness.”  He moved to Brooklyn to work for a flour merchant.  He and his mother always remained close, but she remarried a widow and had a second family.

King might have been considered bi-polar.  He was prone to depression, a source of future illness, and yet very sociable.  His friends characterized him as smart, compassionate, well read, an excellent conversationalist and story teller, and a good writer.  Politically he was a staunch abolitionist.

THE CALL OF THE WILD             With the financial help of his step father, King went to Sheffield Scientific School which offered the best scientific training in the country.  He received a Bachelor’s degree in 1862.  After graduation, he and some buddies immediately set off for Lake Champlain to row from New York into Canada.  Not realizing that a draft had been instituted to fulfill the Union quota for soldiers, they were surprised to be stopped at the border as suspected draft dodgers.  They managed to convince the inspector that they were not avoiding the draft and finished their trip.  King was adamantly against slavery, but he was also a pacifist.  When the adventurers returned home, King headed to California to do some mountain climbing and feed his curiosity about geology, conveniently escaping his need to enroll in military service.

King, along with two friends, may have avoided the dangers of war, but he had some harrowing experiences that were equally as life threatening.  Near Fort Kearney, Nebraska King hired a guide to take him on a buffalo hunt.  After chasing a bull for almost two miles, King shot the animal, and it turned and charged King’s horse which fell on top of him.  A buffalo herd a mile and a half long rushed by him, parting just enough to avoid the horse which had King pinned to the ground, keeping him from being trampled.

King and his best friend James Gardiner found ways to earn just enough money to make their way to San Francisco, and King joined the California State Geological Survey as an unpaid assistant geologist.  King and the others on their expeditions worked in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and named Mount Tyndall, Mount Whitney, Mount Gardiner and Mount Clarence King after themselves.

NOT FOR LOVE OR MONEY             After a trip to Nicaragua in 1865, where King got malaria, he stayed at mom’s house to recover before going west again.  He returned to New York a year later when his stepfather died, leaving his mom with three children to raise, several servants to support and no money.  King borrowed money from Gardiner to help with the immediate needs.

In 1867, King was appointed U. S. Geologist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, and he successfully lobbied for federal funds to conduct his survey.  His salary was $250 a month, and he hired Gardiner as a member of his crew.  Despite the rugged environment, King preferred to dress the part of boss by wearing linen with silk stockings and low shoes.  During their first season, King and his team surveyed 12,000 square miles and collected over 3,000 specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils.

In Virginia City, Nevada, both King and Gardiner fell in love, and in April 1868 King announced his engagement to Ellen Dean, a teacher.  But in September when Gardiner married Josie Rogers, something was wrong, and King didn’t even show up to his best friend’s wedding.  A few months later when they all convened back in Washington D.C. King was acting despondent.  He wrote in a journal that loyalty to mother and God trumps passion.

After a third season surveying along the Fortieth Parallel, King earned his reputation as a captivating storyteller.  He had essays published in the Atlantic Monthly, and in 1872 he published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, tales of his adventure peppered with social commentary.  It was so popular that it went through nine printings in two years.

The book may have made King popular, but apparently it did not make him rich.  He needed money to help his family, so he testified as an expert witness for a California mining company for $5,000.  Then in late 1873, he ended up back in New York to set up the survey laboratory.  He was resigned to being city bound and would express his restless in a different way, the beginning of his double life.

AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY             By day King worked hard at the tasks at hand, but at night, either alone or with a friend, he went “slumming” around the neighborhoods of the poor and ethnically diverse.  He was not looking for sexual experiences or to gawk or assert his superiority.  King saw especially the African American neighborhoods as a frontier to explore, and in the cover of darkness he could experience cultures forbidden to him in his mainstream life.

King was recognized for his contributions in geology when the United States Senate confirmed his nomination as the first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in April 1879, a position he held for almost two years.  In 1881 King resigned in order to oversee several mining interests.  When most of them became losing propositions, he went to Europe to find investors.  He was nominally successful, but he did amass an impressive art collection which he either lent to friends or placed in storage in New York.

When he returned to New York in 1884, he rented rooms in various elegant residential hotels and belonged to several social clubs.  This arrangement allowed him the maximum freedom to come and go for long periods of time, often without telling his friends when he was leaving.  Although he had embedded himself in New York society, he was not at all attracted to the women of that class.  He preferred more “natural” women who were not obsessed with fashion, as he put it, with whom he could have a deeper conversation.  On one trip to California he had a relationship with a Native American named Luciana who came very close to his ideal.  Back in New York, King was haunted by her memory, and his friends gave up trying to find dates for him.

TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH             Sometime in late 1887, King met a woman named Ada Copeland, probably while he was slumming around New York at night.  There is no record of their meeting or courtship.  She was an African American who had migrated from Georgia to New York as a single woman and lived with a widowed aunt doing laundry in their home until she got a job as a nanny.  She was probably in her mid to late 20s when she met King, but she didn’t have a birth certificate to confirm her age.

The couple fell in love, but since interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the country, King introduced himself as James Todd, a Pullman car porter from Baltimore.  This was the only identity she ever knew.  King’s proficiency at storytelling served him well, and Copeland never doubted his veracity.  Despite his light complexion and eyes, by choosing that profession, it was assumed that he had black blood in him, and the presence of any amount of black blood, despite appearances, was enough to be considered Negro.

Ada Copeland became Mrs. James Todd in September 1888 in a small religious ceremony at Copeland’s aunt’s home.  Since they did not get a civil marriage license, they only had a common law marriage which had legal ramifications later in life.  There were only a few guests at the ceremony, and none of the groom’s family or friends attended or even knew about it.

Being married allowed Todd to move up in status and it allowed King to have a real home somewhere.  He set her up in an apartment in Brooklyn giving her an unusual amount of independence and privacy for a black woman.  But for King, supporting his mother’s household and a wife became very expensive, and the demands on his wallet were exacerbated when he and Todd had children.  There was a boy, Leroy, who was born only a year after they married and then died when he was about two.  By 1897 the family had grown to two girls and two more boys.  All of the children were called “colored” on their birth certificates.

Children made for a happy family, but it added to his burden of debt.  King borrowed money from John Hay, one of his dearest friends he met when he worked in Washington, D.C.  When they met, Hay was the assistant secretary of state, and then became President Lincoln’s private secretary.  King appealed to Hay for a loan, something he would do many times, and within the first year and a half of his marriage, King was $43,000 in debt.

FOR RICHER OR POORER, IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH             Both King’s private and professional lives were very full.  He received an honorary doctorate from Brown University, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in Europe dealing with mining projects.  He had perfect alibis for whenever he wasn’t around.  His wife believed he was traveling across the country on a train working as a porter.  While he was gone, he wrote passionate love letters to her, and there were joyful reunions upon his return.  His friends and business colleagues thought he was with his mother or had disappeared for a while because of his depression.  When he did visit his mother, he kept the truth about his indebtedness from her.  When he confided his fears and feelings about life to his friends, particularly Hay, he talked about everything except his family.  He kept that a well guarded secret.

King’s financial situation continued to worsen.  In 1886 he had organized the national Bank of El Paso and, as the main stockholder, he appointed a friend as the bank president.  In 1893, the friend’s bad management caused the bank to fail, and King lost everything.  The burden of living a double life and increased debt started taking its toll.  That fall, a disheveled, bearded King was arrested at the Central Park zoo for disorderly conduct.  He had gone into a wild rage, but he was released on bail posted by a former classmate who worked at the facility.  King was then examined by two doctors who diagnosed him as exhibiting acute symptoms resulting from a non-specific mental disturbance.  The doctors and three friends sought help in dealing with King, and a judge committed him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane.  The cost of his treatment was paid for by two friends who visited him almost every day.

In January 1894, after two months in Bloomingdale, King was declared “recovered” from “Acute Melancholia.”  He had had no contact with his wife while he was institutionalized, and then almost immediately left for a business trip to the Caribbean.  He didn’t arrive back in New York until May before heading out to California again.  To help alleviate some of his financial burden, King started selling off some of f his art collection.

Life for the “Todd” family got easier while it got worse for King.  Todd spent the money she received on the family, moving up the ladder into more middle class neighborhoods and adding a nanny, music teacher, cook, maid and laundress to the payroll.  King had a mild heart attack in 1897 while in Colorado.  Perhaps he suspected that something would happen because in his correspondence to his wife he admonished her to keep their relationship a secret and to burn his letters.

King went to Arizona next where he contracted whooping cough, and the doctor found a spot of tuberculosis on his lung.  He kept traveling, exacerbating the condition, and when he went back to New York to visit his family and his mother, there was a feeling that it might be the last visit.  King told Todd to move the family to Toronto and to buy a house with the money he had gotten from friends, which she did.

Again King went to Arizona for the climate.  He had another heart attack and ventured to Pasadena, California to find a doctor who could help him.  He had lost 40 pounds and was plagued by headaches caused by fever.  Hay continued to send money to support his friend.  King, sensing the beginning of the end, started to evaluate his life, wondering why someone as intelligent as himself was such a financial failure, a question his friends had been asking themselves for a long time.

TIL DEATH DO US PART             King went once more to Arizona in a desperate attempt to recover.  He admittedly knew that was impossible, so he finally unburdened himself and wrote a letter to Todd revealing his true identity and the deception he had kept from her for 13 years.  He suggested she write his real name in her Bible in case she forgot it.

On December 23, 1901, Todd celebrated her 41st birthday in Toronto.  On December 24, King died in Arizona, one month before his 60th birthday.  He had told his wife that he had provided for the family after his death, but the only will he had was written before he got married, making his mother the beneficiary.  Because King and Todd only had a common law marriage, she was not entitled to anything.

For all of King’s accomplishments and failures, his life choices were a living illustration of what he believed: “People are looked at in only two ways, with the brain and with the heart.  If you take the former method you initially classify and judge people by their differences with other people usually yourself.  If you see them with the heart you have your conceptions on the similarities between them and some other people usually yourself.”1

QUESTION:  What do you believe in so strongly that you would have it influence your life choices?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

1Sandweiss, p. 173.

Sources:

Sandweiss, Martha A., Passing Strange, A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.

http://books.nap.edu/html/biomems/cking06.pdf

http://www.summitpost.org/mount-clarence-king/150502  (A description of Mount Clarence King)

ELIZABETH BENTLEY (1908 – 1963) Communist Spy & FBI Informant

In American History, Cold War, Espionage, Feminists on April 25, 2011 at 9:13 PM

Elizabeth Bentley

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

Sources:

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.

http://homepages.nyu.edu/~th15/who.html

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Bios/Rosenberg.shtml