In the late 1940s, Elizabeth Bentley's name was splattered across front pages all over America. She was originally described as a lithe blonde, the embodiment of mystery and intrigue. Later it became apparent that Bentley was a slightly frumpy brunette who was not very mysterious at all. But there was intrigue.
By turning over one stone, Elizabeth Bentley almost single-handedly fueled the big Red scare of the late '40s and early '50s. Her confessions to the FBI and later to various congressional committees fed the torrent of accusations and character assassinations that peaked with the McCarthy hearings. After years of quiet about Bentley's role in the Communist witch hunts, two authors have recently written what they offer as definitive biographies of the "Red Spy Queen."
Kathryn S. Olmsted, an assistant professor of history at Cal Davis, tells Bentley's story in a straightforward manner, much as one might expect in Time or Newsweek. Lauren Kessler, director of the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon, represents what has emerged as a hot trend in publishing, the "literary" nonfiction book. To perform according to the canons of this subgenre, the author must take an almost first-person view of events. Less enthusiastic critics might term this the soap-opera approach. No tear is left unwept, no inner torment unsuffered.
Bentley started her espionage career as a low-level informant on fascist activity. It was after she became the lover of a real Communist spymaster, Jacob Golos, that her spy career gained momentum. As a courier beginning in 1939, she gathered information from real spies, stuffing their documents, microfilm and handwritten notes into her handbag without examining them, to hand over to Golos. When Golos died suddenly in 1943, she took over as head of his networks, reporting directly to Moscow-connected agents.
The Communist brass appreciated her agility, giving her the code name "Clever Girl." But they thought her a rather sloppy operator, and so moved to ease her out, which she resisted stubbornly. Some exasperated agents advocated assassinating her. By August 1945, she feared the Russians were ready to dump her and that the FBI might be closing in. In a spirit of self-preservation rather than out of any surge in patriotic fervor, she went to the FBI. After several sparring sessions with agents, she came out with the whole story, giving names, places and dates.
A fascinated J. Edgar Hoover unleashed his agents in force. Their investigations led to months of grand-jury indictments but no convictions. It was Bentley's word against the accused. But by then, investigative committees in both houses of Congress had become obsessed with what they saw as the Communist menace to America, and Bentley became their star witness. From there, her career as an expert anti-Communist resource continued almost to her death and included testimony in the Rosenberg trial. Still, in the end, her lists of names resulted in only two convictions. Most of the accused pleaded the Fifth Amendment.
The narrative styles of Bentley's two biographers contrast starkly. Olmsted's story always proceeds step by step, with a few infusions of emotion but nothing ultra-dramatic. When Bentley's lover and mentor, Golos, dies, Olmsted simply reports: "That night, Elizabeth was too grief-stricken to focus on the reasons for Yasha's death."
Kessler shuns such a prosaic approach. She writes: "A switch flipped somewhere in Bentley's brain. She was in shock. She was trembling and teary. But part of her knew there was business to attend to." Anyone ready for One Life to Live?
There's one area, however, in which Kessler's work rates particularly superior to Olmsted's: the notes. Kessler collects them neatly in the back of the book, listed page by individual page. On the negative side, Kessler's narrative does not always follow a chronological timeline, occasionally leaping backward or forward. Both books depict Bentley as a vibrant and extraordinary woman. She could not be shaken on the witness stand. She could deliver sparkling lectures on the evils of Communism. Yet she was often broke, frittering away her money on copious amounts of alcohol and fancy vacations. She was prone to outbursts that some labeled as demented.
Still, both authors give her high grades. Olmsted observes: "The real Elizabeth Bentley had been a strong woman who defied limits, laws and traditions. Her cousin remembers her as 'a women's libber before there was women's lib.'" In Kessler's view, "she was in many ways a woman ahead of her time, or perhaps a woman outside of time...she was, for better or worse, the author of her own conflicted and tumultuous time." With two biographies vying for attention, it's obvious that Bentley's time has come.
by Lauren Kessler
(HarperCollins, 384 pages, $26.95)
Red Spy Queen
by Kathryn S. Olmsted
(University of North Carolina Press, 288 pages, $27.50)
Kessler will appear at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Aug. 21.