Eleanor Roosevelt called her “neurotic.” Then-President Harry Truman dismissed her testimony as a “red herring.” Anticommunist newspapers, who found her credible, glamorized her as “a shapely blonde.”
The former First Lady was closer to the mark about the mental instability of former-spy-turned-government-witness Elizabeth Bentley but wrong on her credibility; Roosevelt regarded Bentley’s accusations that several New Dealers were communist spies as baseless. Anticommunists, wrong on her appearance–she was a dowdy 40-year-old–would be proven correct by history that she was telling the truth, and one group, the FBI, knew it immediately.
But one got the sense that conservatives were embarrassed by her. When she died in 1963, National Review mentioned her passing with one paragraph. Her disastrously-titled memoir, Out of Bondage (1952), afforded her only a two-sentence capsule review from Foreign Affairs magazine.
By contrast, another ex-spy, Whittaker Chambers, was lionized by conservatives and cautiously admired by anticommunist liberals. When Chambers died in 1961, National Review devoted an entire issue to eulogizing him. Moreover, Chambers was a true intellectual–(he converted to communism after reading a Lenin pamphlet, and was a gifted translator as well as a writer). His autobiography, Witness, published the same year as Bentley’s, was a best-seller and widely reviewed by such intellectual heavyweights as Sidney Hook and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Although one cannot completely dismiss the sexist nature of the day as to why Chambers was more highly regarded, the truth of the matter was that she was hard to take for both the Right and the anti-communist Left. She fit the accusations that the Communist Party hurled at renegades–a promiscuous alcoholic. Her political biography was always marked by the influence of a male lover
Starting off as a member of a local fascist group while studying for a master’s at Columbia in Italy, she was “turned” by her antifascist faculty advisor she began an affair with.
Stateside, she became an espionage agent for the American Communist Party in 1935, who she amazingly believed was the sole recipient of her work. It took her nine years to figure out the CPUSA’s obvious servitude to Moscow.
True to form, she couldn’t keep sex from entering into her spy work. Her contact was a Soviet intelligence officer–this alone should have alerted her that her courier work was directly serving the Soviet Union–named Jacob Golos, who among his other duties, helped plan the assassination of Stalin’s bete noir, Leon Trotsky.
After Golos died in 1943, her drinking increased and affected her espionage duties. She missed work at the communist-front, the US Serving and Shipping Corporation. Because of this, her career running agents ended; Moscow instructed the spy ring to bypass her and send their stolen documents directly to Moscow.
She showed up drunk at a meeting with her new controller, Anatoly Gorsky, and self-destructively declared her new-found dislike of the Soviet and hinted she might defect.
Her means to do this came typically through a new lover: an FBI agent. She later located her reason for defecting because of the discovery that CPUSA head, Earl Browder, was a “puppet” of Moscow. But the real reason, according to her biographers, was more self-serving; because of her disclosure to Golos that she might defect, the Soviets ordered her to Moscow, which, she, as a communist spy, knew was a death sentence (their plans were later corroborated by Soviet documents). This veiled threat compromised the FBI’s intentions to operate her as a double agent.
But looking past the alcoholism and promiscuity, and her status as a “paid informer” for the FBI beginning in 1952, she was a more considerable figure than previously portrayed.
Chambers, observing her 1948 testimony to Congress from the bleachers—he was slated to testify after her–caught her importance early on.
“I knew that I was simply back-stopping Miss Bentley, that hers was the current testimony. The things that I had to tell were ten years old and I had only to let the shadows, dust and cobwebs conspicuously drape them to leave the stand unscathed.”
Indeed her tenure as a Soviet spy, 1938-1945, was a detailed continuation of Chambers testimony about his own service to Stalin, which he left the same year Bentley began her espionage work.
Golos was so impressed by her that he tasked her with running the communist front, the United States Service and Shipping Corporation, for their spy work. Before her drinking damaged her espionage work, the Soviets were also impressed, and expressed their admiration by giving her the code name, translated into English, “Wise Girl.”
Moreover, she exposed the “Silvermaster group,” billed by historians as one of the most important Soviet espionage rings in history. In all, she outed 150 agents—all corroborated by intercepted Soviet cables to their agents that only the FBI knew about.
Not bad for a “Wise Girl.”