CLEVER GIRL by Lauren Kessler


Elizabeth Bentley and the Dawn of the McCarthy Era
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From spy to snitch to shut-in: a life of an American radical in Stalin’s service.

Joe McCarthy was right, if inadvertently: throw a rock down a postwar Washington street, and you’d be likely to hit a Communist agent. Many of those Red spooks, it turns out, worked in espionage rings organized and maintained in part by a thirtysomething American woman named Elizabeth Bentley, who had been radicalized as a young student at Vassar during the late 1920s and drawn into treason through a love affair with a KGB agent. Bentley both drew on an existing network of agents and recruited others. So effective were she and her paramour that “by the end of the 1930s,” writes Kessler (English/Univ. of Oregon), “the konspiratsia had spread to the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Bureau of Standards, and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland”—as well as the OSS, various branches of the armed services, and many other federal agencies, staffed by men and women who, for one reason or another, were committed to bringing about a workers’ paradise. As federal agents caught on to her work and began sniffing ever closer to her at the end of WWII, Bentley turned herself in—just in time, it appears, to escape being assassinated by the KGB, which had come to regard her as a security risk. She named names to the FBI, helping corroborate the agency’s Venona code-breaking program and providing leads that eventually led to the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Her transformation was complete, Kessler writes, and made without coercion: “As surely as she had been a Party member, a steeled Bolshevik, a courier, and a spy, she would be a warrior on the other side, for the other side.” Kessler wanly concludes that the needy and perhaps unstable Bentley “lived life on her own terms,” though that seems a little too generous, especially given that Bentley lived her last years in unwanted obscurity, and none too happily.

Overwritten and slack, but of some interest to students of the Cold War era and American radical movements.

Pub Date: Aug. 8th, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-018519-8
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2003


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