Nothing fascinates me more than reading about real ordinary people who are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. For a young Vassar graduate named Elizabeth Bentley, that circumstance involved becoming a spy for the Soviet Union and entering an undercover world filled with danger, intrigue and romance.
She was a New England-bred girl from a conservative family in the 1920s. Growing up in Connecticut’s top-notch towns meant going to school, usually Vassar, getting a job as a teacher and/or getting married, and living a quiet and non-descript existence. But Elizabeth wanted more, and her exposure to new ideas coming from people on the far Left not only titillated her but drew her in to a cause that she truly felt was humane, just and all about improving the world.
Bentley joined the Communist Party, more out of a sense of needing to belong to something bigger than herself, something that was geared towards bringing equality and humanity to a planet that mistreated its poor. But soon she was being drawn deeper into a shadowy world that existed just under the radar, and before long, with the help of some mysterious mentors (including her first “real love,” Jacob Golos), she entered the world of espionage. With Golos to guide her, she soon became a critical director of operations, overseeing many other spies and responsible for getting information to a succession of men and women who then took that info directly to Moscow.
As Elizabeth grew closer to Golos, who turned out to be an undercover KGB agent, she became more emboldened and asked for more spying responsibilities. Soon she was a powerful figurehead in the world of American-based Soviet espionage, and she enjoyed the thrill and the excitement - if not the outright danger - of dodging FBI agents and keeping one step ahead of the “enemy".
But something happened after Golos died, and Bentley was taken under the wing of a less fatherly mentor, a man who gave her cause to question her allegiance to the Communist party and her role as “the Red Spy Queen” who went by the code name “Clever Girl.” She turned, emotionally and physically, on the Party and went informant, going to the FBI with everything she knew and blowing open the massive underground Soviet spy operations in America. Ultimately, the “Clever Girl” paid a price for her cleverness, but her story is nonetheless intriguing and utterly fascinating.
Lauren Kessler, author of ten books including the bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes, delivers a powerhouse biography that brings this mysterious and little-known figure in American history to full-bodied life. Kessler’s impeccable research combines with a flowing, captivating narrative to hook the reader into the story, and her ability to convey both the courage and pathetic weakness, the heroism and the immaturity of Elizabeth Bentley is right on the money.
There are people who live lives of quiet desperation, and people who walk the dangerous line where life is lived on the edge. Bentley did both. Her story is a reminder that there lies within each of us a hero, and a fool, just waiting to be discovered.