Meet the “Red Queen” Elizabeth Bentley: Vassar Graduate, Russian Spy, Double-Agent

Excerpt from In the Enemy’s House by Howard Blum. 

Image credit: Vassar Encyclopedia

Image credit: Vassar Encyclopedia

Elizabeth Bentley’s confession became one of the puzzle pieces that aided Bob Lamphere and Meredith Gardner as they uncovered the Russian spies aiming to steal secrets of atomic weapons from the United States during World War II. For the full story, pick up In the Enemy’s House.

Elizabeth Bentley was the pampered daughter of solid New England stock, a graduate of Vassar with a pert smile, shy charm, an inquisitive nature, and a very impressionable mind. She fell into espionage in stages, drifting along as circumstances, rather than a hard-driving dialectical commitment, pulled her in deeper and deeper.  In October 1945, she walked into the FBI’s offices and willingly gave up the names of a ring of over 100 Russian spies. The tabloids coronated her “the Red Queen.”

While doing graduate work at the University of Florence, she had a fling with fascism; Mussolini’s strident right-wing rantings gave her, she’d gush, “goose bumps.” But after she returned to the States and began studying for a masters in Italian at Columbia, she did a complete about face. Bentley joined the Communist Party, mostly attracted, she would later explain, by the convivial community and rigid structure it brought to her lonely graduate student life. And for several years, this new infatuation served her well.  Bentley was, as she put it, an “average run-of-the-mill Communist,” her previously empty social calendar now jammed with a hectic schedule of meetings, demonstrations, and working dinners with her tight circle of Party friends.

Image credit: Spartacus Educational

Image credit: Spartacus Educational

Looking to earn some money while she continued her studies,  in 1938 she found a job as a secretary at the Italian Library of Information, just a short subway ride from her apartment up near Columbia. She hadn’t been working there long before she realized that the only information the library dished out was fascist propaganda. A loyal Party member, she approached the leaders of her cell offering to get the goods; she’d give them the proof of what the Library was really up to. They brusquely explained there were more important concerns. But Bentley, her indignation at being duped when she took the job fueling her persistence, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. And in time the harassed Party officials passed her plan on to Jacob Golos.

Golos was the real thing, a Russian-born and Moscow Center trained KGB operative. And he always had his eye out for new talent. He saw something in Bentley’s enthusiasm, her amateur’s eagerness to play spy. So he let her run with her small-time operation against the Italian Library. Under his tutelage, she was listening at closed doors, furtively sorting through her boss’s trash.  

And as Bentley lurked in the shadows, as she discovered the thrill that came with her new covert life, something unexpected happened. Golos had first struck her as “rather colorless and shabby – a little man in a battered brown hat, non-descript suit and well-worn shoes.” But their shared danger proved to be a powerful aphrodisiac. She no longer paid much attention to his scuffed shoes. In her revisionist history, Golos grew in stature. He was now “powerfully built with a large head, very broad shoulders and strong square hands. “His eyes were startlingly blue, his hair bright red.” And, as if to seal the deal, she  decided “his mouth was very much like my mother’s.” With her eyes wide shut, Bentley fell in love with the KGB man.

Image credit: Spartacus Educational

Golos, who had a wife and a son back in Moscow and a mistress in Brooklyn, soon added Bentley to the queue. Only in addition to being his lover, she also served as his courier. Golos ran a widespread network of diverse and valuable contacts, from a chemical engineer who was passing on blueprints of secret industrial processes to a Washington-based cell with high-placed assets in the Treasury Department and even the White House. And Bentley was Golos’s indefatigable legman, to use the jargon of her new profession. In her knitting bag – an inspired bit of tradecraft that even the veteran KGB man admired – she brought back haul after haul of secret documents; after just a single trip to Washington, she’d brag, her bag was stuffed with forty undeveloped rolls of microfilm.

On Thanksgiving of 1943,  Golos, as he’d requested, devoured “a super special meal with all the trimmings.” It turned out to be his last supper; he died that night of a heart attack. And Bentley inherited his networks.

But her new KGB handler soon grew uncomfortable with the double mystery she presented – as a woman and as a possible traitor. At first he was eager to play matchmaker.  “She is a rather attractive person,” the agent runner informed Moscow Center. “If I could give her in marriage to one of our operatives,” he nearly pleaded. “If there is no one [here], why not send someone from home?”

Then Bentley’s behavior grew erratic. She showed up drunk at one debriefing. At another she reported that she had found a new lover, a man she met in a hotel lobby. At still another, she revealed she was considering “an intimate liaison” with a woman.  The KGB handler, now in full panic, didn’t need to wait for any more warning signs. He cabled Moscow: “Only one remedy is left – the most drastic one –to get rid of her.”

Did Bentley know what Moscow Center was mulling? As she tells the story, she simply had, after long, thoughtful walks on a Connecticut beach, reached the conclusion that “Communism…had failed me. Far from answering the problem of suffering and injustice, it had only intensified it.” And so with “shaking knees” she walked into the FBI field office in New Haven in late October, 1945,  and announced, “I’d like to see the agent in charge.”


Bentley hadn’t arrived at FBI’s doorstep lugging the sort of hard, incriminating evidence Gouzenko had stuffed under his shirt. She was asking simply to be taken at her word. Compounding the problem, her allegations were as incendiary as they were incredible. She named more than 80 Soviet sources and agents, and identified a dozen government agencies whose secrets had routinely been passed on to the KGB.

A shaken Hoover, even before her charges could be investigated and substantiated, felt he had no choice but to inform the White House. On November 8, 1945, a special messenger delivered the director’s preliminary report. “Information has been recently developed from a highly confidential source indicating that a number of persons employed by the Government of the United States have been furnishing data and information…to espionage agents of the Soviet government.”