Ethel Rosenberg Reviews

On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electrocution for their part in a conspiracy to provide to the Soviet Union top secret information on the development of nuclear weapons. Their co-conspirators received long prison sentences, but the Rosenbergs became the first American civilians to be sentenced to death in peacetime.

At their trial, Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, testified that his brother-in-law Julius had recruited him into a spy ring, and that Greenglass, working in 1944 on the atomic bomb project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, had supplied drawings of a lens mold as part of the espionage that led to the first Soviet nuclear test on Aug. 29, 1949, years ahead of American scientists’ expectations.

The shock of the Soviet blast came at a time of increasing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, now no longer a World War II ally but regarded as a menace to world peace because of its aggressive takeover of Eastern Europe and its employment of espionage networks in the United States and among its allies. At sentencing, Judge Irving Kaufman denounced the Rosenbergs for their perfidy which had put millions of American lives in jeopardy. His view, as Anne Sebba recounts, was seconded by President Dwight Eisenhower, who refused all pleas to grant clemency to the couple who steadfastly proclaimed their innocence. They became a cause around the world with protests at the inhumanity of executing the parents of two young children when other guilty parties, notably scientist Klaus Fuchs (tried in England), had been spared the death penalty. Many Americans supported the Rosenberg verdict, and others attacked what they considered a hysterical persecution of two Jews suspected of espousing radical views but not treason.

Sebba concedes the now overwhelming evidence that Julius Rosenberg was in fact a Soviet spy who recruited others, but like other recent commentators on the case, she regards the evidence against Ethel as nearly nonexistent, trumped up by one of the prosecutors, Roy Cohn, who persuaded David Greenglass to concoct a story about how Ethel typed up her husband’s espionage reports.

Sebba provides a compassionate account of Ethel’s character as a wife and mother, dutifully standing by her husband no matter what, and at the same time doing everything in her power to nurture her two boys, who emerged remarkably unscathed by their parents’ ordeal and who honor their parents’ memory in Sebba’s account of their lives.

In this engrossing narrative, Ethel emerges as a doctrinaire Communist, and yet the opposite of the contemporary attacks on her as an unfit mother. Ironically, Ethel conformed to the period’s American ideal of the wife and mother with fealty to her family while she was attacked for being the spy ring leader who manipulated her husband and was thus unfaithful to her role in society and her ties to her kindred.

Review source: Datebook (8 June 2021)

Read Gerald Jacobs’s review of Ethel Rosenberg in The Critic.

Read Adam Sisman’s review of Ethel Rosenberg in the Literary Review.

Winning the Grand National – Life Imitating Art


The Smile of Triumph

Saturday’s historic Grand National win by Rachel Blackmore on Minella Times, making her the first female jockey to win the race since it began in 1839, was thrilling in so many ways.

‘Now girls can dream’ Blackmore said afterwards in one of many press conferences.

But in fact Enid Bagnold, the novelist, had already had that dream, a dream which she wrote about in her 1935 classic novel National Velvet. Nine years later in wartime Hollywood, with palm trees appearing on the imagined Aintree racecourse, MGM turned the book into a hugely successful film, a box office hit that set the then unknown child actress Elizabeth Taylor firmly on the path to stardom. Taylor was a horse mad English child who happened to be living in America at the time. She was little more than ten when she first auditioned for the role and told me, 40 years later, when I was writing the biography of Bagnold, why getting the part had meant so much to her.  

I have interviewed Elizabeth Taylor twice and in November 2020, mid lockdown, I was asked by the BBC (with full Covid restrictions in force) about my memories of meeting the iconic actress.

Both my interviews were many years ago, ten years apart, but five minutes with Elizabeth Taylor is something never to be forgotten. I had fifty minutes twice. My reflections will appear, with impeccable BBC timing, this Saturday

Rachel Blackmore’s win is a triumph but it is worth also remembering that sometimes Life imitates Art and Enid Bagnold had imagined just this scenario almost ninety years ago, when no female jockeys were allowed. Another triumph, but of the imagination.


The Press Release for Ethel Rosenberg

The Press Release of Ethel Rose

After five years work the moment you read the press release is when you know it’s real … you still don’t have an actual book in your hands, the excitement of which for me has never lessened from that first book, with my name on the spine, many years ago. But the piece of paper announcing to the world what a great book is on its way is almost more important. This is the document that will decide its fate. An advance guard, leading from the front, the harbinger of bestsellerdom, the spearhead that will go ahead of you trumpeting to potential readers what they are about to discover. Read More

How to save Children from Warzones. Not by Boat

How to save Children from Warzones. Not by Boat

It’s a beautiful sunny day as I write this, one of the last of the summer’s blue sky weekends with many families outdoors making the most of the fine weather. But, just before the weather deteriorates and winter descends, everyone knows that hundreds more migrants will attempt to make the dangerous journey from Northern France to Southern England, across the Channel, some of them children apparently literally forced on to boats, not wanting to come and with no idea where they are when they get to the UK, because, it turns out, the organisers don’t get paid until they’ve put their human cargo on that last leg of the journey. Some of these refugees will die in the attempt.

The Home Office estimates that more than 5,600 migrants, most having fled some of the most desperately impoverished and war torn areas of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, have crossed the English Channel from France by sea in small boats already this year. The number has risen sharply over the summer and one young man was tragically found drowned after trying to leave the French coast even though he could not swim. Read More

A Room of one’s own… or not?

Some reflections on needing space to write, written before lockdown…

Published by Aurora Metro

By Anne Sebba

A Room of one’s own… or not?

Sitting, standing, working or simply being alone is a necessary condition for any writer. At least relatively alone. Some journalists are able to block out the background noises of a hectic newsroom and be alone in their heads to find the stillness and stimulation necessary to create. Luckily I trained in such a noisy, frenetic newsroom in the days when Fleet Street was synonymous with such places. I worked alongside reporters, often called firemen, never firewomen, who really did wear trench coats and dangled cigarettes as if they had just emerged from the set of a Hollywood detective movie. There were no remotely female friendly shops or cafes, just smoky pubs, where ‘a lead’ or ‘a scoop’ was discussed. It was the early 1970’s, less than 30 years after the end of World War 2. Yet I failed to realise how close it was to that War until I had to do nightshifts and would park just below St Paul’s in a bomb crater repurposed as a large open car park. On those occasions, the graveyard shift, the news floor was truly silent. But the rest of the time the shouting and bustle, fury and adrenaline (or was it testosterone?) trained me not to be precious about needing silence. But silence is precisely that: precious. Read More