January 1: The Spy “Queen” Who Triggered the Red Scare of the 1950s

Today in 1908, one of the most high-profile American-born Soviet spies of the 20th century was born in New Milford, Connecticut. Elizabeth Bentley was born to a middle-class family — a dry-goods sellers and a schoolteacher — and by several accounts was a clever and intellectually bright young women who seemed to have trouble making friends. She won a scholarship to Vassar College, where one classmate described her as “a sad and lonely girl,” and graduated in 1930 with a degree in modern languages (English, French, and Italian).

Following her college graduation, Bentley furthered her study of languages in Florence, Italy for a few years, where she briefly fell in with a group of college-age fascists who supported the Italian dictator Mussolini. Sheallegedly became so “revolted” by the realities of Italian fascism that when she returned to the United States she pursued membership in the Communist Party of America (CPUSA) . In 1938, she became romantically involved with Jacob Golos, a Russian-born American leader of the CPUSA who convinced Bentley to become a spy and Soviet informant. For years, Bentley met with targets in New York City and Washington, D.C. to acquire information, often concealing microfilm in the innocuous knitting bag she carried with her everywhere. She eventually became a case officer, managing her own network of Soviet agents.

Elizabeth Bentley in 1948, three years after she had turned herself in to the FBI in New Haven. (Library of Congress)

Following the death of Jacob Golos in the 1940s, Soviet spy leaders, suspicious of her American heritage and concerned that her increasing issues with alcoholism would become a dangerous liability, attempted to marginalize Bentley’s role in their spy network. Bentley resented the party’s efforts to take over the spy network she had worked so hard to develop, and in 1945, she decided to abandon the Soviets altogether. Bentley traveled to the FBI headquarters in New Haven, turned herself in, and subsequently agreed to testify before Congress about her Soviet-related activities.

What followed was a media circus. Reporters breathlessly followed every development in the testimony and confession of Bentley, who they sensationalized with nicknames like “the Red Spy Queen.” Historians of the Cold War often credit Bentley’s detailed congressional testimony as the catalyst for the “Red Scare” of the late 1940s and 1950s, the period when many Americans became obsessed with ferreting out closet Communists and Soviet spies in every corner of society. In 1951, Bentley published a memoir about her life as a spy titled Out of Bondage, but after her national book tour was over and the media had turned its attention to other sensational Soviet-related stories, she quickly fell into obscurity. Bentley spent the last several years of her life as a resident language instructor at Long Lane School in Middletown, Connecticut, a penal institution for girls, before passing away in 1963 at the age of 55.

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Further Reading

Elizabeth Bentley,” Vassar College Encyclopedia

Elizabeth Bentley: Spy,” Atomic Heritage Foundation

Michael Warner, “Review of Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley,” CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence

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