Book Summary – The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life

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The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life by Amy Butler Greenfield

Why I Read This Book 

First off, let us get this out of the way. “Elizebeth” is not a typo.  That is her actual name.

Okay.  I found this book by chance when looking for something interesting to read at the library.  A history buff generally, the subject of code-breaking is one that I do not know much about.  I also was not familiar with this pioneer in the field.  I was intrigued.

As everyone knows, you should not judge a book by its cover, but it has an appealing colorful quality.  Checking the book itself, it is in an easy-to-read and attractive format.  The book has multiple photographs.  It is a young adult book that all ages can enjoy.  You should, too.  

Book Summary 

Clara Elizebeth (maybe to avoid the nickname “Eliza”) Smith was born in 1892.  Elizabeth was the youngest, having eight older brothers and sisters.  

Her mother was her champion.  Elizebeth had a troubled relationship with her father.  He did lend her money to go to college, which was still a rare opportunity for a woman in the early 20th Century.  The book does not tell us much about her brothers and sisters.  

She found her life’s calling by chance.  An oddball millionaire, George Fabyan, found out about her because of her love of Shakespeare.  His wife had the mistaken idea a cipher proved the “true author” of his plays.  Elizebeth, who had the gumption to move to Chicago to try to find a position after a failed loved affair, had bonded with a librarian over Shakespeare.

Elizebeth and the man she would later marry (William Friedman) worked for Fabyan on the Shakespeare project. Both eventually became expert code breakers.  They helped break codes during World War I.  Intelligence would turn out to be as important in 20th Century warfare as the other innovations in modern technology and overall warcraft.  

The couple would make a career in spycraft, working in different branches of the U.S. government in various capacities until the 1950s.  She obtained acclaim as a woman who fought organized crime.  But, she did most of her work in secret.  Others, including the FBI, sometimes took credit for what she and her team accomplished.  

Elizebeth in the 1920s used her talents to fight bootleggers during the Prohibition.  Codes were a big part of the bootlegger’s toolbox, including when using ships to transport large qualities of illegal alcohol.  She later helped to fight Nazi spies.  

After a long time in public service, the couple enjoyed their retirement. They put together a library filled with cryptography materials.  The government was worried about some of the materials still being top secret.  The library was donated to the Marshall Foundation

Elizebeth Smith Friedman died in 1980.  

Code v. Cipher

A code is a system that replaces words and phrases (“Cat” can replace “Lois Smith”) while a cipher replaces individual letters (C-A-T can become B-Z-S).  

The book has many “code break” segments to help the reader learn about codes and ciphers.  For instance, you can learn about a “rail fence cipher.”  

Codes and ciphers were present from early times as was the attempt to break them.  There are many techniques but the best in the business, like Elizebeth, had a special inherent talent.  

Working Mother 

The government knew they had a talented asset on their hands.  They agreed to let her work from home when Elizebeth took time off to have two children.  

Elizebeth was not only a pioneer in code-breaking.  She showed what a woman could do in a field largely dominated by men. The role of women in intelligence has become more well-known in recent years.  See, for instance, A Woman of No Importance about Virginia Hall’s WWII spying exploits.  Elizebeth Smith Friedman leading her own team still stands out.  

The book shows the many different things required for a woman to thrive.  She needed private and public employers to trust her skills. She needed the support of a loving husband, housekeepers, and nurses for her children.  We only know the first name of essential support staff, including an African-American housekeeper named “Cassie.”  

The importance of household help, often people of color, who are low-status workers, continues to be seen today.  The book does not talk too much about Elizebeth’s two children, but with two working parents, the role of nurses and housekeepers in their development was very important. 

Health Concerns 

Both Elizebeth and William Friedman had to deal with serious health problems throughout their lives.  Their health problems luckily did not cause them more difficulty.  

Elizebeth from a young age had a problem with nausea.  She had a very tough pregnancy with her first child.  The book suggests there is evidence that Elizebeth considered retiring because it was believed at the time a working mother was bad for the child.  

William Friedman had a long difficulty with depression.  His job was very stressful including the responsibility of breaking codes as war with Europe and Japan was more and more a possibility.   He had a mental breakdown and the state of psychiatric treatment was still limited.  

William managed to continue working in intelligence though his medical difficulties probably limited his role in World War II.  His wife on his side, including helping when he could barely function, played an essential role in his well-being.  A good support team is fundamental.  

A Real-Life Spy Novel

Amy Butler Greenfield is an award-winning historian and novelist who writes for both adults and children.  Her own summary: “I have a soft spot for history, suspense, quirky characters, and plots full of twists and reversals.”  And, very dark chocolate.  

Her many skills help explain her skillful use of research to write such an engaging book.  Elizabeth Friedman’s work for a long time was mostly classified, but in recent years a treasure trove of material became available.  But, it takes a skill to explain things so well.

Greenfield breaks down her life into a bunch of short chapters, each backed up with source material in the back of the book for those who wish to check things out.  Other books cover this material in more depth but this is an excellent book for the general reader.  

She is helped out by the inherently interesting subject, with a range of subplots, including anti-semitism (Elizebeth’s husband was Jewish).  Again, I strongly recommend it.