Elizabeth Bentley: The True Story That Inspired a Novel

Posted on July 20, 2021

by Karin Tanabe

When I decided that I wanted to write about a woman in the 1950s, who was struggling with motherhood against the backdrop of the Cold War, the idea of her being a spy started to form. I’ll admit that at first, I wanted her to be an assassin with a LOT of anger, but my editor talked me out of that one! So spy it was. 

1948 Press Photo of Elizabeth T. Bentley at House Committee Hearing.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

A friend told me about Elizabeth Bentley, who like us, had gone to Vassar College in New York State. Bentley graduated in 1930 and went on to study Italian, earning a master’s degree in languages from Columbia University in 1933. This background is very similar to the one I give Katharina Edgeworth, my main character, except that I place her as a translator at City Hall and the United Nations after Columbia. 

Bentley joined a Communist Party cell at Columbia and fell madly in love with Jacob Golos, a Ukrainian-born revolutionary who conducted Soviet espionage through a Soviet-backed travel agency. He was also a founding member of Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). In the book, I modeled Katharina’s former love interest, Jacob Gornev, after Golos. 

In 1941, Bentley started working as a courier for the Communist party, making frequent trips between New York City and Washington, D.C., obtaining confidential stolen government documents and transporting them. This work of Bentley’s had a big influence on the plot of A Woman of Intelligence, as this is the work I have Katharina do. Of course, the big difference is that Elizabeth Bentley did this for the Russians, and I have Katharina covertly working for the FBI. 

So while Elizabeth Bentley certainly inspired the book, I did not follow her story that closely. She wasn’t a mother, and she didn’t live a gilded life in New York. Far from it. But I really liked the idea of giving a struggling mother a secret life and a sense of purpose. In the book, Katharina is not only doing something that very few women did, but she is helping her country, while also helping herself. It’s also a job that forces her to have a lot of secrets, and to meet fascinating people, and I really liked the idea of giving Katharina a secret life. In fact, my first title idea for this book was Secret Life of Mother, because I really think every mother deserves to have a life away from her family – secret or not!

Credit: Tim Coburn

Karin Tanabe is the author of over five novels, including A Hundred Suns and The Gilded Years (soon to be a major motion picture starring Zendaya, who will produce alongside Reese Witherspoon/Hello Sunshine). A former Politico reporter, her writing has also been featured in The Washington Post, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, and Newsday. She has appeared as a celebrity and politics expert on Entertainment Tonight, CNN, andCBS Early Show. A graduate of Vassar College, Karin lives in Washington, DC.

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