We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.


Not many people associate communism with good times, but the subject of Lauren Kessler’s Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered In the McCarthy Era gives new meaning to the term “party life.” A New England native, young Bentley was described as a “plain, dull, lonely girl, listless and pitiable,” who was smart enough to win a scholarship to Vassar but was academically and socially unremarkable once there. After graduating, Bentley traveled Europe—most significantly to Italy, where she witnessed fascism firsthand—and in turn became worldly, learning how to carouse and seduce and at last enjoy the company of others. After returning to the United States in 1934, however, she found the country’s depression reawakening her own. Unemployed and living in a somber New York, Bentley again felt isolated and disillusioned, and fell into an underground communist society through a neighbor whose friendship she desperately coveted. The group’s antifascist stance she supported, but its built-in camaraderie she craved: “Drinking, profane talk, and ‘loose morals’ were seen as positive steps toward breaking the bourgeois code of behavior, making for a social life simultaneously salacious and politically correct….The party answered her questions. The party took away her despair. The party gave her permission to be ‘bad’ and feel good about it.” Ask Kessler about the permanent hangover that followed when she reads at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, at the New America Foundation, 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, 7th floor, free, (202) 986-2700; and at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, at Barnes & Noble, 3040 M St. NW, free, (202) 965-9880. (Tricia Olszewski)