It’s November 1963, and Catherine Pucci, a college senior graduating with a degree in journalism, arrives at the apartment of Elizabeth Bentley. In her purse, she carries two key items: a letter from her dead mother and a Smith & Wesson revolver loaded with two bullets. One she intends for Elizabeth, the other for herself, but not before she obtains a full confession about the part this apparent stranger has played in the background of her life.
So who is Elizabeth? Stephanie Marie Thornton’s “A Most Clever Girl” reveals her fascinating story as a World War II and Cold War-era spy.
Unmoved by the death threat, an elderly Elizabeth calmly recounts her story to the armed woman in her living room. She joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1933, not in pursuit of idealistic goals of social equality or communal property, but out of desperate loneliness. Her friendly neighbor brought her along to a meeting as a guest, and liking the lively atmosphere and welcoming warmth of the group, she eagerly joined them. Her path in the party was initially innocent enough, editing pamphlets and collecting dues.
Before long, Elizabeth’s career skyrocketed from casual participant to active member as she becomes a spy, funneling information back to the USSR. She believed the information was critical for their communist allies to suppress the rise and spread of Nazi Germany.
Elizabeth’s role as a spy becomes even more complicated as she learns more about her sources and fellow spies, and falls in love with her superior. She not only learns advanced espionage techniques under his tutelage, but eventually how to manage the spy ring in her own right.
Umnitsa, Russian for “clever girl,” is the code name Elizabeth’s handler bestows upon her as he realizes her strategic importance to the Communist party.
“A Most Clever Girl” is based on the true-life story of Elizabeth Bentley, a spy turned double agent whose testimony would eventually draw attention to the many USSR agents during the Cold War who sought to bring discord to the United States.
David Arndt is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.