Book Reviews

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to 2003 Book Review List


Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley by Kathryn S. Olmstead


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


Click on title or picture to buy from



Why Spy?

Kathryn Olmstead’s new biography of Elizabeth Bentley, Red Spy Queen, tells the world about an influential woman who’s often overlooked when stories of the cold war are told. Bentley first volunteered information to the FBI about her former comrades in the American communist party, and later was paid for her services. Sometimes she told the truth, and sometimes she lied. By halfway through the book, readers are unlikely to care which is which. The highlight of Bentley’s contribution to the cold war was helping the government make a case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Beyond that, she’s a figure that played a small part in the events of the 1940s and 1950s and her biography offers little of redeeming value to readers.

Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the book (p. 133-4):

“Throughout her congressional testimony, Elizabeth worked to win the support of her interrogators. To accomplish this, she supported their prejudices and exaggerated her own importance. She also emphasized her own naivete. She maintained that as an idealistic liberal, she had been propagandized by subversive teachers and seduced by an older ideologue. The implication was clear: she should not be held responsible for her actions.
But as much as she tried to promote herself as a naïve schoolgirl, Elizabeth could not control her image in the media. During her two days of public testimony, the reporters of America variously described, analyzed, lauded and ridiculed her story. The reporters, who were almost all men, were fascinated by Elizabeth’s status as a ‘lady spy.’ She seemed to be a freak: a woman in a man’s profession, a woman who had betrayed her country. Bentley’s image as a ‘red spy queen’ highlights the gender tensions of the postwar period. The reporters’ struggle to understand her deviance reveals cultural anxiety about changes in women’s roles in the 1940s.
To explain her to their readers, journalists fell back on popular stereotypes of female spies and Communists. Depending on which newspaper they read, Americans learned that Elizabeth was either a sex-starved, man-eating temptress or a sexually repressed, man-hating spinster.”

Olmstead’s 21st century lens leads her to present Bentley as a woman who suffered from gender discrimination. While that may be true, such discrimination wasn’t necessarily what made Bentley’s life miserable. Her own personality and ways of relating to others made her a person that few wanted to be around. If you’re fascinated by the cold war, or spying, or interested in reading about an unappealing individual who spent a brief period of time in the national limelight, go ahead and read Red Spy Queen. Otherwise, take a pass.

Steve Hopkins, January 7, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Spy Queen.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth Avenue • Oak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687