CLEVER GIRL: Elizabeth Bentley and the Dawn of the McCarthy Era
Kessler (The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes) gamely attempts to create a true-life romantic spy-thriller from the life of Elizabeth Bentley, who in 1945 confessed to being a Soviet spy, implicated Julius Rosenberg and many others and set America off on its journey through McCarthyism. Unfortunately, Kessler's attempt to draw tension and romance from Bentley's life fails amid a clutter of cameos, unexplored details and a superficial rendering of early Communist history in the U.S. Bentley is certainly an intriguing subject. A descendant of Puritans and educated at Vassar, she joined the Communist Party while a graduate student at Columbia in the Depression. She soon became a covert agent and fell in love with her KGB contact, Jacob Golos. When Golos died in her apartment and Bentley's position with the Russians deteriorated, she reached out to the FBI. Kessler is a fine writer, but her subjects just don't cooperate. Bentley's "romance" with the homely, secretive Golos is hardly romantic, and much early American Communist history is still obscured beneath the shroud of secrecy under which it operated. Finally, Bentley appears to have left little behind to aid in reliably reconstituting her life. Despite Kessler's best efforts, the result falls short as spy thriller, as biography and as history. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Sandy Dijkstra. (Aug. 8)
Forecast:There seems to be a minor revival of interest in Bentley. Last October, the University of North Carolina Press published another biography, Red Spy Queen by Kathryn Olmstead.