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Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era Hardcover – August 5, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 372 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (August 5, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060185198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060185190
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,148,959 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The KGB called her Clever Girl, an American spy who passed documents, gathered intelligence, and recruited Communist agents. The FBI might have dubbed Elizabeth Bentley "Pandora," because her grand jury and congressional testimony almost single-handedly blew the lid off a complex network of Soviet spies, thus unleashing the torrent of Communist paranoia that defined the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually abandoned and betrayed by her Party handlers, Bentley "came in from the cold" to start naming names, exposing scores of Communists working within the highest ranks of the federal government. Unlike her more notorious counterparts, Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, Bentley remained an enigma. Was she a devious Mata Hari, knowingly and willingly sabotaging her country, or a gullible pawn, controlled by men she loved and admired? In this compelling and comprehensive biography, Kessler masterfully explores and exposes the myriad, competing facets of Bentley's tumultuous life. Whether she was lover or naif, patriot or spy, Bentley's various crises-of-conscience would ultimately bring down individuals and nearly topple a nation. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

Lauren Kessler ( is the author of six works of narrative nonfiction, including My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey through the Thickets of Adolescence. She is also the author of Pacific Northwest Book Award winner Dancing with Rose (retitled in paperback Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's), Washington Post bestseller Clever Girl, Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Full Court Press and Oregon Book Award winner Stubborn Twig. Stubborn Twig was chosen as the book for all Oregon to read in honor of the state's 2009 sesquicentennial.

Lauren blogs with her teenage daughter at You can follow her on Twitter at LaurenJKessler

Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, salon and The Nation. She is founder and editor of Etude, the online magazine of narrative nonfiction, and directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her writer husband, Tom Hager, her three brilliant and faultless children, five chickens and a cat that thinks it's a dog.

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Manuel H. Rodriguez on August 17, 2007
Format: Paperback
This foolish book attempts to make the case that Bentley initiated the age of McCarthy. According to that thinking, anyone who unmasked a traitor was a McCarthyite- that is beyond stupid. What Igor Gouzenko and Bentley and Whittaker Chambers did was to expose the extent of Soviet espionage in the US. With the publication of Venona and the previously secret KGB files we know now that there were more Americans who betrayed their country than we ever suspected. They were traitors to the US and seriously damged this country. They were the real villains of the age.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By V. Harris on October 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As indicated, I have mixed sentiments about this book. The story is engaging enough, and Kessler delivers it in a readable, comfortable manner. However, it often seems as if she is acting more as an apologist for Bentley, rather than giving a fully candid evaluation.
Bentley's career as teacher, communist, spy, and FBI informant is enticing and worth investigating, but there are some irritating flaws. Most prominent is the lack of footnotes; there is an endnote page, but no numbers in the narrative that correspond with it. There is also the unnerving sense that something is constantly amiss. For all her organizational skill, and apparent value to the Soviet spy network, Bentley is repeatedly duped, manipulated, and outright naive. The author never adequately resolves this paradox, and thus somewhat undermines its historical credibility. In fact, she ( Bentley) almost never seems to understand the implications of her actions, and is striking for appearing so intellectually shallow. Indeed , not very clever at all.
Despite these limitations, it is entertaining, but should be read with the cautionary anteenae in place.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Grace Slabiak on August 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The subject of the book is hard to understand, even with all the facts laid out so admirably. Kessler's writing style commands attention without getting in the way of the facts, but those facts are so twisting that at times even the most diligent student of history may be confused. That's a small quible, however, in an overarching work of vigor and suspense. Well worth a read.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M. E. Wood on January 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is the story of Elizabeth Turrill Bentley. No one suspected a "well-bred, Vassar educated descendent of Puritan Clergy" would join a communist party and run "two of the most productive spy rings in America." That is exactly what Bentley, code name Clever Girl, did. Equally unexpected was her transformation from spy to FBI informant.

It all started in March of 1935 when Bentley was lured to an American League Against War and Fascism meeting by a neighbour. It turned out to be a front for the Communist Party. Kessler's descriptions draw the reader into the setting and give an idea of the atmosphere, as well as Bentley's mentality. Clever Girl attempts to shed light on the motivations of the most important woman to affect the McCarthy Era.

Bentley's early dealings with the party made her feel important and independent. She lived in a one room apartment and was unemployed. She was lonely. Going to meetings may have started off as a social event but it turned into something more. A calling. She was impressionable. In the opening chapter I felt she had been brainwashed and lured into the fold because of her loneliness, desire to have a family and ties with others.

Shortly after joining, Bentley met and fell in love with soviet handler Jacob Golos whom she affectionately called Yasha. Golos was the glue that attached Bentley to the party for years despite him not being as loyal to her. She let him interpret the world for her through his communist eyes. Regardless of what she gave up for him, it is because of her association with Golos she was able to move up through the ranks. After only 6 years (1935-1941), Bentley was running things.

When it was discovered he was no longer in control she had to fight to maintain her status.
Read more ›
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