Like many American spies Elizabeth Bentley was described as all-American, good-looking, and
well-educated. Born in Connecticut and educated
in the humanities at Vassar College and Columbia University, Bentley traveled
to Italy several times during her undergraduate and graduate years in order to
learn the language. Probably because of her exposure to Fascism in Italy,
Bentley joined the American League against War and Fascism, a Communist
underground organization, in 1935. A short time later, she joined the U.S.
In 1938 Bentley began working as a secretary for Jacob Golos, a Russian
émigré who was an American citizen. Also a member of the
Communist Party, Golos worked for the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet
Russia, a front for Soviet industrial espionage. He was also the handler of
Harry Gold, one of the Venona spies.
Golos, however, did not initially recruit Bentley into espionage. Rather a
co-worker, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, had recruited her when Bentley worked,
simultaneously with her position under Golos, at the Italian Information
Library. For a year Bentley used her position at the library to collect and
pass on information on pro-Fascist activity being fronted by the library.
After she ended her job at the library Bentley began doing low-level espionage
work for Golos, and the two became romantically involved. At Golos's instigation,
Bentley took a secretarial job assisting Richard Waldo, a conservative
businessman, and spied on his contacts, conversations, and movements, reporting
the details to Golos. Bentley also began doing other espionage work for Golos.
She carried information, including copies of U.S. government documents, to
other agents and couriers, and she entertained men on his recommendations in
order to spy on them. Later decryption of the Venona cables showed Bentley
appearing in messages under the cover name Good Girl.
In 1945, a year after Golos died, Bentley renounced Communism and revealed her
past in Soviet espionage to the FBI and later to a federal grand jury. She also
provided details of a spy network involving people in New York City and in
Washington, D.C. Many federal government officials, she said, were among the
members. Bentley later went public with her story, testifying in 1948 before a
subcommittee of the Senate Investigating Committee and the House Un-American
Activities Committee. Her testimony launched an entire era of suspicions
regarding communists in the U.S. government, some valid and others unfounded.
Indeed, her place in the history of espionage is perhaps more about what she
revealed in her testimonies than what she did as a spy.
During her years as an ex-communist Elizabeth Bentley published an
autobiography, Inside the Russian Spy Organization, detailing her
experiences in espionage. She died from heart disease in 1963, at the age of
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