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A Shakespeare Scholar Turned Nazi Hunter

15 October 2017

From The New York Times:

Not all superheroes wear capes, and Elizebeth Smith Friedman should be the subject of a future Wonder Woman movie. In “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” Jason Fagone recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of how the 23-year-old Smith was hired in 1916, along with other scholars, by an eccentric tycoon who wanted to find secret messages in the work of Shakespeare. Those messages didn’t exist, but within a year Smith was recruited into a wartime code-breaking project. (“American history is very strange,” Fagone told me.) Smith met and married the cryptologist William Friedman; helped break up smuggling rings during Prohibition; and spent World War II successfully decoding messages sent between Nazi spies, ruining the Germans’ operations in South America, among other triumphs. Below, Fagone talks about the long odds he faced in filling in the gaps in his subject’s life, the role sexism played in her career and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

After the Edward Snowden story broke in 2013, I started reading about the history of the N.S.A. Like a lot of Americans, I didn’t know a lot about it. While I was doing that, I stumbled across a web page about Elizebeth Smith Friedman at the library where she donated her personal papers — the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Va. It was really just a bare description of her life. She was a poet who taught herself to break codes; she caught gangsters during Prohibition; and, oh yeah, she was married to a godfather of the N.S.A. And I thought, that’s unusual: Married codebreakers. I saw there was an old biography of William from the ’70s, but no books about Elizebeth.

She left 22 boxes of her files. It’s a wonderful archive. You can read her letters from a hundred years ago, her college diary, her original poems, her original code work, letters that she wrote to her kids in code. She and William taught their daughter how to use cipher, and she would write them cipher letters from summer camp.

When I finished going through the boxes, I realized there was this gap where World War II is supposed to be. And it kind of screamed out, because she had documented the rest of her life so meticulously. I was pretty sure the records existed somewhere, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find them. I talked to a historian who had worked on William, and she told me, “Sometimes it’s not that the N.S.A. is evil and trying to keep this stuff from you; sometimes it’s just that they don’t know where it is.” The National Archives is like the warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You can spend months looking for something in there.

. . . .

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

There was this amazing hidden woman behind the development of American intelligence in the 20th century, a genius who solved all kinds of problems and fixed all kinds of messes. She didn’t set out to be a codebreaker. She was a poetry scholar, a Shakespeare scholar and a schoolteacher. But all her life, men from the government — that’s how she put it — “Men from the government keep showing up on my doorstep, and the only way to solve it is to say yes and fix these puzzles.”

Prohibition became law. Criminal gangs got very good, very fast, at hiding their operations with secret messages. The Treasury Department couldn’t read these radio transcriptions. The men from the government would try to get William, because of sexism, but William worked for the Army, so these guys would settle on Elizebeth as the next best thing, hoping to use William’s brain secondhand. But very quickly, she always proved her own mettle, and that she was a master in her own right.

She provided the technical expertise, the tech back end, for J. Edgar Hoover’s Special Intelligence Service, the part of the F.B.I. that was going after spies in South America. After the war, Hoover stuck up his hand and said to the American public: The F.B.I. saved you from this dangerous Nazi spy invasion, and we’ll accept the honors now. And Elizebeth wasn’t able to talk about what she did, because all of her records were top secret and classified.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Here’s a link to The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Non-Fiction