In April 1951, in what FBI Director J Edgar Hoover called “the trial of the century”, Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and sentenced to death by electrocution. Ethel was 35 years old and the mother of two little boys, aged eight and four. To this day, she is the only American woman ever executed for a crime other than murder. At the time, 70 per cent of the American public supported this double death sentence, but the case also sparked international outcry, not to mention increasingly frantic legal appeals. Even the interventions of Einstein, Picasso and the Pope failed to sway the American government. At 8.02pm on June 19 1953, Julius was sent to the electric chair, followed a few minutes later by his wife. There is now no doubt that Julius recruited Communist agents and passed information to the Russians, but recent evidence has proved that the always flimsy case against Ethel was based on nothing more substantial than personal prejudice, anti-Communist paranoia, and outright lies. On trial, essentially, were not her actions, but her political beliefs and reputation. Two new and very different books invite us to reflect specifically on the role in which Ethel was cast by others in the tragedy that engulfed her. Even the interventions of Einstein, Picasso and the Pope failed to sway the American government The Vixen, by American novelist Francine Prose, is an absurdist spy thriller with sombre intent. The story opens on the night of the execution with Simon Putnam, a naïve young Harvard graduate, and his parents glued to the television set in their Brooklyn apartment, while the comedy show they’re watching, I Love Lucy, is constantly intercut with real-time updates from the courthouse and prison. The twin dramas playing out on the screen are horribly and hilariously counterpointed. “Flash on the famous photo of Ethel and Julius in the police van. How sad they look, how childlike . . . Then back to Lucy. Ricky is plotting to kill her. He’s throwing her a surprise birthday party!” Like the Rosenbergs, Simon and his family are Jewish. His parents have worked hard, as Ethel did, to escape the cramped poverty of New York’s Lower East Side. Assimilation into American society feels precarious and provisional. At the glitzy publishing company where Simon has just secured a job as a lowly editor, he does not want it known either that he is Jewish or, worse still, that Ethel was a childhood friend of his mother’s. One year on, Simon’s charismatic boss assigns him to edit a steamy bodice-ripper entitled The Vixen, The Patriot, and The Fanatic, in which a thinly disguised Ethel — now Esther Rosenstein — is a reckless, raven-haired seductress trailing “the crazed perfume of estrous animal passion.” Appalled by the atrocious drivel he is being asked to edit, Simon is torn between personal ambition and ethical qualms, haunted by the real Ethel’s dying request “that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies.” When Simon eventually meets Anya Partridge, the bewitching author of this literary travesty, things get a whole lot more complicated. Prose has a lot of fun with the tropes of the cold war spy genre. There are fox furs; there are typewriters with damaged keys; there is much downing of alcohol on the rocks. Clandestine meetings take place in department store basements, psychiatric hospitals and fairgrounds. It is Prose’s novel that perhaps gets most deeply to the contemporary relevance of Ethel’s story The Jell-O box, a key piece of evidence in the actual trial, provides a particularly delicious plot twist. Roy Cohn, the corrupt and unscrupulous assistant prosecutor who in real life secured Ethel’s death sentence (and later acted as an attorney for Donald Trump) also features, dripping with lust for Esther/Ethel and the desire to destroy her. If it were purely comedic, The Vixen would be in poor taste, but the novel prods us to keep its serious core in sight. The ludicrously sexualised version of plain Ethel is not so far from the character that was depicted in contemporary accounts of the trial. Inez Robb, writing for the Minneapolis Star, described Ethel as “innocuous and vacuous until you come to her eyes . . . large, dark and extremely intelligent. There is no way to camouflage them or the mentality that lies behind them.” Nutty fiction and sober fact are woven into an increasingly provocative fugue on the nature of betrayal, delusion, the perils of fake narratives, and responsibility to the truth.
The traducing of Ethel’s character is also central to Anne Sebba’s gripping biography Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy. Sebba’s painstaking research pulls back the veil of historic projections to reveal an unloved daughter, fiercely loyal wife and passionately devoted mother, who’d dreamed of becoming an opera singer but had to settle for secretarial work. The FBI framed a case against Ethel, Sebba argues, despite knowing “that actual evidence of ‘espionage’ was non-existent”, in order to pressurise her into giving them names of other spies. Confession would have saved her life, but Ethel refused to confess to crimes she insisted she hadn’t committed or to name others. “She called our bluff,” according to the deputy attorney-general, William Rogers. Sebba shows how Ethel was also the victim of ingrained misogyny, portrayed for the jury and general public as a political Mata Hari, dominating her husband and neglecting her maternal duties to pursue a treasonous career as a spy. President Eisenhower’s refusal to show clemency was in part driven by his ideas about how women should behave. The tragic irony being that Ethel’s actual behaviour was in most regards exactly what he thought it should have been. Her anguished letters from prison about her inability to care for her two adored sons make harrowing reading, as does the state’s vindictive treatment of her children, who were not allowed to see their mother for almost a year after her arrest. Having orphaned the Rosenberg boys, the authorities then sought to block their adoption and incarcerate them in turn in a children’s home. Sebba’s heart breaking biography leaves little doubt that Ethel’s trial was “riddled with miscarriages of justice”, based as it was on the false testimony of her co-accused brother David and a deadly game of realpolitik in which she was the pawn. But it is Prose’s novel that perhaps gets most deeply to the contemporary relevance of Ethel’s story. Who was seduced and lied to by whom in 1951-53? Who is being seduced and lied to now? The Vixen plays constantly with the boundaries between fact and fiction; by pushing the fictional absurdity to parodic extremes, Prose underscores the tragic absurdity of real events.
With state abuses of power, conspiracy theories and misinformation high on the contemporary agenda, both of these excellent books make timely calls on our attention.
The Vixen by Francine Prose, HarperCollins £20/$25.99, 336 pages Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy by Anne Sebba, W&N £20, 304 pages/St Martin’s Press $28.99, 304 pages Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘The Jewish Journey: 4,000 Years in 22 Objects’ (Ashmolean Museum)
Review source: Review by Rebecca Abrams in the Weekend FT Life and Arts (21-22 August 2021)