On January 1, 1908, Elizabeth Terrill Bentley was born in New Milford. Bentley is best known for her role as an American spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ‘40s—and for her defection from the Communist party to become a US informer.
Bentley’s early life included moving from place to place with her family and attending Vassar College and then graduate school at Columbia University. At Columbia, Bentley found a kindred community in the American League Against War and Fascism, and she eventually joined the Communist Party of the United States.
Bentley’s career as a spy is as fascinating as it is complicated, and it took its toll on her. She suffered from bouts of depression, a drinking problem, and continued pressure from her Soviet counterparts. In August 1945, Bentley went to the FBI headquarters in New Haven and turned herself in and, over the next few months, told American agents her story. In time, Elizabeth Bentley defected and implicated almost 150 US citizens in spying for the Soviet Union.
Elizabeth Bentley died in New Haven in 1963 from abdominal cancer. Speculation about her role as a spy as well as her defection and consequent testimony existed both before and after her death. In 1995 the US government made available the transcripts of decoded telegrams from its Venona project, which monitored encrypted Soviet communications. These, as well as materials from Soviet intelligence archives, verified many of Bentley’s claims.