Bentley, Elizabeth, 1908-1963

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Elizabeth Terrill Bentley[3] was born in New Milford, Connecticut, the daughter of dry-goods merchant Charles Prentiss Bentley and schoolteacher May Charlotte Turrill.[4] Her parents moved to Ithaca, New York in 1915 and, by 1920, the family had relocated to McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Later that year, they returned to New York, settling in Rochester.[5] Bentley's parents were described as straight-laced Episcopalians from New England.[6]

She attended Vassar College, graduating in 1930 with degrees in English, Italian, and French.[7] In 1933, as a graduate student at Columbia University, Bentley won a fellowship to the University of Florence. While in Italy, she briefly joined the Gruppo Universitario Fascista [it], a local fascist student group, in Italy.[8][9] She was influenced by Mario Casella [it], her anti-fascist faculty advisor with whom she had an affair at Columbia.[10]

During work for her master's degree, Bentley attended meetings of the American League Against War and Fascism. Although she would later say that she found Communist literature unreadable and "dry as dust",[11] she was attracted to the sense of community and social conscience she found among her friends in the league. After Bentley learned that most were members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), she joined the party in March 1935.[12] Bentley became active in espionage in 1935, when she obtained a job at the Italian Library of Information in New York City; the library was Fascist Italy's propaganda bureau in the United States. She reported her employment to CPUSA headquarters, informing them about her willingness to spy on the fascists.[13] Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who also worked at the library, approached and recruited Bentley.[14][15][16] The Communists were interested in the information Bentley could provide, so NKVD officer Jacob Golos was assigned as her contact and controller in 1938.[17]

Golos (born Yakov Naumovich Reizen), an immigrant from Russia who became a naturalized United States citizen in 1915,[18] was one of the Soviet Union's most important intelligence agents in the United States. When they met, Golos was involved in planning the assassination of Leon Trotsky (which would take place in Mexico City in 1940).[19] Bentley and Golos soon became lovers and, at this point, she thought she was spying solely for the American Communist Party. It was more than a year before she learned his true name and, according to her later testimony, two years before she knew that he was working for Soviet intelligence. Most of Bentley's contacts were in what prosecutors and historians would later call the "Silvermaster group", a network of spies centered around Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. This network became one of the most important Soviet espionage operations in the United States.[22] Silvermaster worked with the Resettlement Administration and, later, with the Board of Economic Warfare. Although he did not have access to much sensitive information, he knew several Communists and Communist sympathizers in the government who were better placed and willing to pass information to him; using Bentley, he sent it to Moscow. The Soviet Union and the United States were allies in World War II, and much of the information Silvermaster collected for the Soviets concerned the war against Nazi Germany; the Soviets were bearing the burden of the ground war in Europe, and were interested in American intelligence. This intelligence included secret estimates of German military strength, data on U.S. munitions production, and information on the Allies' schedule for opening a second front in Europe. The contacts in Golos's and Bentley's extended network ranged from dedicated Stalinists to, in the words of Bentley biographer Kathryn Olmsted, "romantic idealists" who "wanted to help the brave Russians beat the Nazi war machine".[23]

Conflicts with Soviet spymasters In 1945, Bentley began an affair with a man who she came to suspect was an FBI or Soviet agent sent to spy on her. Her Soviet contact suggested that she should emigrate to the Soviet Union, but Bentley feared that she might be executed there.[28] In August 1945, Bentley went to the FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut, and met with the agent-in-charge. She did not immediately defect; she seemed to be "feeling out" the FBI, and did not begin to tell her full story to the agency until November. Bentley's personal situation continued to worsen; she arrived drunk at a September meeting with Anatoly Gorsky, her NKGB controller.[29] She became angry with Gorsky, called him and his fellow Russian agents "gangsters", and obliquely threatened to become an FBI informant. Bentley soon realized that her tirade might have put her life in danger. When Gorsky reported the meeting to Moscow, he said he should "get rid of her".[30]

Moscow advised Gorsky to be patient with Bentley and calm her down. A few weeks later, it was learned that Louis Budenz (editor of the CPUSA newspaper and one of Bentley's sources) had become an anti-communist. Budenz had not yet revealed his knowledge of espionage activity, but he knew Elizabeth Bentley's name and knew she was a spy. Imperiled from multiple directions, Bentley decided to defect and returned to the FBI on November 7, 1945.[31]

Defection and aftermath In a series of debriefing interviews with the FBI beginning November 7, 1945, Bentley implicated nearly 150 people (including 37 federal employees) as Soviet spies.[32] The FBI already suspected many of those she named, and some had been named by earlier defectors Igor Gouzenko and Whittaker Chambers; this increased FBI confidence in her information. They gave her the code name "Gregory", and J. Edgar Hoover ordered the strictest secrecy of her identity and defection. On August 3, 1948, during additional HUAC hearings, Bentley began to receive some corroboration from Chambers. Under subpoena by HUAC, he testified that he knew at least two of Bentley's contacts (Victor Perlo and Charles Kramer) as communists and members of his earlier Ware Group. Chambers also supported her accusation that Harry Dexter White, a prominent economist who had worked in the Treasury Department, was a communist sympathizer. Although most of those accused by Bentley invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify, a few denied her allegations. The most notable was Harry Dexter White, who had heart disease and died of a heart attack days after his HUAC testimony. Others who denied Bentley's charges were Lauchlin Currie, formerly President Roosevelt's economic affairs advisor; Remington and William Henry Taylor, mid-level government economists; Duncan Lee, formerly of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); and Abe Brothman, a private-sector chemist who worked on defense projects. In October 1948, Remington sued Bentley and NBC for libel. Hoping to discredit her, Remington's attorneys hired private detectives to investigate her past. They produced evidence of alcoholism, periods of severe depression, and a suicide attempt as a student in Florence; alleged that her master's thesis had been written by someone else, and she had been sexually promiscuous (by the standards of the day) since college. Bentley did not testify at a Remington loyalty-board hearing, and NBC settled the libel suit out of court for $10,000.[52]

She testified in the trials of four accused spies: Remington's perjury trial, Abe Brothman's obstruction of justice trial, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's trials for conspiracy to commit espionage. Bentley, peripherally involved in the Rosenberg case, was used by the prosecution to develop two points: the actions of American communists in becoming spies for the Soviet Union, and establishing (if only vaguely) a connection between Julius Rosenberg and Golos. She testified that she received calls from a man who identified himself as Julius, after which Golos would meet him. At age 55, Bentley died after abdominal-cancer surgery on December 3, 1963, at Grace-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Obituaries were published in The New York Times and The Washington Post.[70][71]


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