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Saturday, November 29th, 2003


 

Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley's Life in and Out of Espionage

by Lauren Kessler

A review by Steven Fidel

If you were to take the collective literary genius of Graham Greene, John LeCarre, and Alan Furst and mix it together with a commie plot to take over the world, you'd probably come up with something pretty close to Lauren Kessler's Clever Girl. The difference being, Kessler's story of America's top KGB agent is true.

Contrary to the gender prejudice of most spy thrillers, the top KGB agent operating in America in the late thirties up through the mid-forties was a woman. Elizabeth Bentley was a larger than life character, but a spy operating about 180 degrees away from dashing figures like 007 or Mike Hammer.

Bentley was descended from New England patriots. She was frumpy, paranoid, prone to depression, erratic, most likely an alcoholic, and, for most of her life, poor. Yet, she was one of the few Soviet operatives in America who Stalin knew by name. She was awarded the Red Star. She operated two spy networks simultaneously. She knew nearly every spy working out of the Department of State, the Treasury, the FBI, and OSS (precursor to the CIA). She was a heavyweight.

When Bentley intuited she might be on a KGB hit-list (they were going to poison her slowly), she turned into a very powerful tool for the red baiters of the early 1950s. In fact, if there was any one single person who ignited the commie witch-hunts, it was Elizabeth Bentley.

When Bentley lost her faith with the Soviets, she was like a Christian who could no longer believe in God. Adrift, she latched onto the FBI with a vengeance and, up to her dying day, never let go. She pointed fingers, named names, and even tried to act as a double-agent (the only spy gig she ever failed). Bentley, directly or indirectly, brought down scores of prominent figures in the U.S. government who had passed classified information to the Soviet Union. It was a Bentley tip, in fact, that eventually brought the Rosenbergs to trial.

Why did she do it? Adventure, romance, dignity. She loved the clandestine life. She liked working for a cause bigger than herself, and working as an independent woman not doomed to the secretarial pool.

There was another reason Bentley went over to the Soviets, one that's easy to dismiss in the early 21st century. When Bentley became a red spy in the 1930s, she, like thousands of well-educated, patriotic Americans at the time, believed that run away capitalism (e.g., the Great Crash of '29) had absolutely failed the American people. In this sense, she was just as much a patriotic American as the stock from which she came. She was an idealist's idealist. She believed that if people would work together and cooperate with one another, we could all live in a better world. Poor Elizabeth Bentley, like so many others who have come before and after, did not really understand the culture in which she was bred.


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