The discussion about Anna Chapman, the alleged femme fatale of the Russian spy ring, shows that our spy narratives have changed very little in sixty years, especially for women. There always has to be a dead drop, a furtive exchange of bags in a subway station, and a femme fatale, preferably with red hair and a Russian accent. That’s how it works, even when it doesn’t.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the news media and the FBI insisted on shoving all the accused female Red spies into familiar roles from film noir, even when these roles were patently inappropriate. In 1948, some newspapers described KGB case officer Elizabeth Bentley, for example, as a “svelte young blonde” in a “form-fitting black dress” who had enticed naïve New Dealers into revealing their secrets. If she was attractive, see, then she must be telling the truth. To discredit her story, her critics called her a frumpy, middle-aged spinster and emphasized her preference for flowered dresses and funny hats. And, they pointed out many times, she wasn’t even a real blonde.
Judith Coplon, a Justice Department employee who passed some documents to the Russians in 1949, fit more neatly into the femme fatale role, though the papers couldn’t decide if lethal women were hot or frigid. Coplon was described by the New York World Telegram as “an attractive dark-haired girl with full lips and a shapely figure” encased in a “black form-fitting sweater” who whispered her not guilty plea “though lips brilliantly marked with lipstick.” Sometimes, according to the press, Coplon’s eyes “stared hotly” and “burned,” while at other times they spouted “cool hate” that “flowed out, like a black river jetting into the eyes of the prosecutors.” She was hysterical, just like a communist; no, she was expressionless, just like a communist. Then there was her “bosom,” which “heaved,” “quivered,” and, best of all, was inadequately obscured by her thin blouse.
Married women received the “black widow” treatment. The Hearst press ran an article headlined “Mrs. Rosenberg Was Like a Red Spider” which explained that Ethel, a “homely girl,” had early on “felt a need to dominate a man.” “There is a saying that in the animal kingdom, the female is the deadlier of the species,” the reporter continued. “It could be applied to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.” Alger Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, was similarly described as a hard-eyed femme fatale who manipulated her mousy husband into doing her ideological bidding.
These stereotypes weren’t confined to the press. FBI documents refer to Priscilla Hiss as “the bitch in the case” and Bentley as a slut (though definitely not a lying slut). Whenever Bentley stopped cooperating with her FBI handlers, they wrote memos about how difficult it was to deal with women in menopause.
However powerful, these narratives of man-eating temptresses and man-hating wives and spinsters often obscured the messier truth. Bentley was neither svelte nor spinsterish; but she was one of the most important Soviet spies ever in North America, and her defection was an unmitigated catastrophe for Soviet intelligence. The silly press coverage about her hair color made it easy to miss her significance. Ethel Rosenberg was merely an accessory to her husband’s crimes, but it was much easier for American officials to execute her if they believed that she dominated Julius. And that she was a menopausal, promiscuous spiderwoman with a heaving bosom.