Spy of the month icon

Elizabeth Terrill Bentley

Known as the "Red Spy Queen," Elizabeth Terrill Bentley appeared to be a well-educated all-American woman. Originally rumored to be blonde and vivacious (a Mata Hari figure), her appearance and demeanor were in fact plain and ordinary., She was one of the pivotal instigators that ushered in the McCarthy era and fueled the big "Red Scare" of the late '40s and early 50's. Her confessions to the FBI and various congressional committees fed the flood of accusations and character assassinations. During the "golden age" of Soviet espionage Bentley ran what some consider to be the most productive spy rings in America.

Born in Connecticut in 1908, Bentley had a troubled life and was raised by strict parents. Her father was a dry-goods merchant and her mother a "strict, but inspiring" schoolteacher. The frequent family moves contributed to Bentley becoming a lonely, withdrawn child. She later described her childhood home as "cluttered up with lonely people." After high school she won a scholarship to Vassar, graduating in 1930 and earning an M.A. degree from Columbia University in New York. One former classmate remembers Bentley as an indifferent student, earning only a "C" plus average. Bentley was also described as being "kind of a sad sack, plain, dull and pathetic." During the time she was in college Bentley traveled to Italy several times to learn and practice the Italian language. Throughout her life, Bentley would have "blue periods" where she would weep and beg for help. She often drank so much during these bouts of depression that she was unable to leave her home for weeks at a time. She also displayed many instances of public drunkenness. Her doctors and friends suspected her health problems were the result of too much alcohol. One of her boyfriends indicated Bentley used alcohol to ease her pain, and thought she was probably a manic-depressive.

In 1935, because of her exposure and abhorrence to Fascism in Italy, she joined the American League against War and Fascism, a Communist underground organization. Shortly thereafter she joined the Communist Party, and in 1938 began working as a secretary for spymaster Jacob Golos, a Russian émigré who was also an American citizen. Golos was the Chief of Soviet Espionage Operations in the U.S., working for the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia, a front for Soviet industrial espionage. He was also the handler of Harry Gold one of the atomic bomb spies. Golos, however, did not initially recruit Bentley into espionage, this was done by a co-worker, Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Poyntz recruited Bentley at the Italian Information Library to work under Golos. For a year Bentley used her position to collect and pass on information regarding pro-Fascist activity. After she ended her job at the library, Bentley began conducting low-level espionage work for Golos, and the two became romantically involved. In 1939 Bentley became a courier, gathering information to include copies of U.S. government documents from real spies. She transported the information by stuffing documents, microfilm and handwritten notes into her handbag. Golos suffered a heart attack in 1941 and died suddenly in 1943, leaving the head of the spy ring unmanned. Bently took over as head of his networks, reporting directly to agencies connected to Moscow.

The Communist brass appreciated Bentley's agility, giving her the code name "Clever Girl". However, they also thought she was a rather sloppy operator and proceeded to try to move her out. She resisted stubbornly, and some exasperated Soviets agents even advocated assassinating her. By August 1945, over a year after Golos died, Bentley feared the Russians were ready to dump her and the FBI might be closing in. In a spirit of self-preservation rather than any surge of patriotism, she decided to renounce Communism and revealed her espionage history in Soviet espionage to the FBI, and later to a federal grand jury.

In 1948 Bentley appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and provided details of a spy network involving people in New York City and many federal government officials in Washington, D.C. She named more than 30 people as either Communisits, or Fellow Travelers who willingly supplied secrets to the Washington or New York espionage network. Much of her testimony could not be corroborated, most of the people denied ever having met her, and no one was ever indicted for spying based solely on her testimony. However, the information she provided was used with other information that eventually led to the arrest and conviction of Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg for spying. The majority of the accused she named, pleaded the Fifth Amendment at the HUAC. Her place in the history of espionage is perhaps more about what she revealed in her testimonies (naming names), rather than what she did as a spy.

Elizabeth Bentley published her autobiography, Inside the Russian Spy Organization, about her experiences participating and running an espionage ring in the US. Her career as an expert anti-Communist resource continued almost until her death. In later life, she also taught classes at a reform school and died from heart disease in 1963, at the age of 55.


 

References:

Nova Online, January 2002, Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/venona/dece_bentley.html

The National Archives Learning Curve, August 16, 2002, Elizabeth Bentley. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAbentleyE.htm

The University of North Carolina Press, 2002, Red Spy Queen. http://uncpress.unc.edu/chapters/olmsted_red.html

Willamette Week Online, August 20, 2003, clever girl, red spy queen, http://www.wweek.com/flatfiles/Books4245.lasso

Spies, A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Deeds & Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today, Jay Robert Nash, M Evans Company Inc. NY, 1997