Secret agent woman

Jeff Howitt is the news director of the Sacramento-based Capital Public Radio

The ordinary-looking woman on the cover of Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley has a sly smirk and a raised eyebrow that make her look, at worst, mischievous. Can you imagine her spying for the KGB, then defecting and then manipulating the FBI in order to save her life? Well, she did, and her name was Elizabeth Bentley.

Red Spy Queen was written by Kathryn Olmsted, assistant professor of history at UC Davis and an expert on the 20th-century history of spying—ahem, intelligence—in the United States. Olmsted’s first book was an examination of the FBI and the CIA in the years just after Watergate. Her next book, she said, will be about modern conspiracy theories (JFK and so on). But Red Spy Queen revolves around the woman who, according to Olmsted, provoked the so-called Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s.

Bentley was an idealistic New Englander. After an early fling with fascism during a stay in Italy, she was drawn to the Communist Party. Eventually, she became a spy for the Soviet Union, but that was more by accident than by grand design. In the 1940s, Bentley started to become unstable and drank a lot. Fearing that she would defect, her Soviet bosses decided she had to go. Bentley knew what that meant; to save her life, she turned to the FBI. The surest way to get federal protection was to turn in other American spies and Communist sympathizers.

She defected in 1945 and turned in dozens of people. The feds assigned hundreds of agents to Bentley’s case to find out if she was telling the truth. The result was the effective shutting down of Soviet espionage in the United States for several years. Olmsted says the repercussions included the Alger Hiss case, the prosecutions of Communist Party leaders in the United States, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign.

But, strangely, Bentley is much less well known than many other important personalities from the Red Scare era.

Olmsted thinks one of the reasons is gender. At first, Elizabeth Bentley was dismissed as a Mata Hari, a vixen who must have relied on sex. When it became apparent that the real Elizabeth Bentley—a plain-looking person, born to a Republican, Episcopalian family from Connecticut—was no Mata Hari, she became, instead, a figure of fun.

After her FBI case was resolved, Bentley’s life continued to change dramatically. She converted to Catholicism for a while because the church was at the forefront of the anti-Communist movement, and that was where she found apparent friends. Bentley also became bitter because some male ex-communists, such as Whittaker Chambers, were making a lot of money out of their notoriety, but she wasn’t. Bentley died of abdominal cancer in 1963.

In Red Spy Queen, Olmsted tells an unquestionably sad story. The great swings in Bentley’s life, coupled with alcohol problems and depression, lead one to suspect she had an untreated medical condition (Olmsted raises the possibility of bipolar disorder). But, even aside from Bentley’s conscious and unconscious motivations, this is an important history, told here by a local academic who knows how to write an accessible work.