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Lauren Kessler: Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, The Spy Who Ushered In The McCarthy Era


Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, The Spy Who Ushered In The McCarthy Era

Author: Lauren Kessler
Publisher: HarperCollins

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Notorious "red spy queen" Elizabeth Bentley had the misfortune to embrace and embody two unfashionable and largely discredited philosophies: Communism and anti-Communism, the destructive distortion of patriotism that Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn helped give a bad name. But Lauren Kessler, author of the fascinating Bentley biography Clever Girl, is quick to point out the differences between McCarthy and Bentley. McCarthy recklessly destroyed lives based on hearsay, conjecture, and his own political ambitions. Bentley, in contrast, knew firsthand of the links between the American Communist party and the Soviet Union, and of the existence of spy rings permeating the federal government, but was stymied by an FBI that could have corroborated her story but chose not to for political reasons. A Vassar graduate of impeccable New England breeding, Bentley had her political consciousness raised during trips to Mussolini's Italy, where she personally witnessed the horrors of fascism. Back in FDR's America, Bentley gravitated toward the Communist party, where she was introduced to a high-ranking KGB operative named Jacob Golos, who became not only her spying mentor, but also the love of her life. His death set into motion her eventual defection from Marxism, in the process destroying what was perhaps her only chance at real happiness. By Kessler's account, it's possible that the lonely, hard-drinking, fiscally irresponsible Bentley was sincere about her conversion to Catholicism and anti-Communism. But it's also apparent that her lover's death and her disillusion with Marxism left a vacuum in her often aimless and unhappy life that only immersion in a larger-than-life cause could fill. The Bentley who emerges in Clever Girl is a riveting bundle of paradoxes who helped run one of the Cold War's largest spy rings, but later had difficulty managing even her own messy affairs. Bentley's naming of names made her a hero to the anti-Communist cause and a pariah to the left, but her notoriety made it hard for her to secure and hold down even a modest teaching position. Although far from intimate, Clever Girl lucidly and engagingly lays out the tragic arc of an unlikely and important life that both reflected the atmosphere and helped shift the currents of international relations.