Updated: Oct 23
A Codebreaker, an actress, and an amputee spy
An old rhyme names “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.” A similar rhyme might describe three women who played a tremendous part in winning World War II and changing the world: A codebreaker, an actress, and an amputee spy.
Three recent books tell the important stories of women whose impact is still felt today.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes for a Living
Jason Fagone’s nonfiction book chronicles the story of America’s first codebreaker, Elizebeth Smith Friedman. In The Woman Who Smashed Codes for a Living: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, Jason Fagone tells the previously untold story of a woman who, along with her husband, became the backbone of the fledgling National Security Administration.
Elizebeth Smith was a college graduate hired right out of school by an eccentric rich man named George Fabyan who ran an early kind of “think tank.” Her job was to prove that Shakespeare didn’t write the works of Shakespeare; Francis Bacon did. It is at the Fabyan estate that Elizebeth meets her future husband, William Friedman, who was also working at the compound.
Elizebeth’s work counting words, looking for quirks in handwriting, establishing patterns in Shakespearian manuscripts prepares her for codebreaking. Jason Fagone illuminates the process that codebreakers go through. Elizebeth has an uncanny ability to see patterns, and she applies her skills to the nascent art of codebreaking to catch bootleggers and smugglers during Prohibition. As her work proves invaluable to the military, she is assigned to a secret team working to stop Nazi activities by deciphering their messages.
It’s amazing that while many people have heard of the German code “Enigma,” until this book, few people knew that it was a woman, one of the first in the field of codebreaking, who decrypted it. Her husband, William, eventually broke the Japanese cipher machine, “Purple,” but doing so shook his sanity and his physical health.
The book is more than about Elizebeth’s life. It’s about the effect of war, the power of the military, the questionable tactics of the military, and the strain of working in a secret field…so secret that husband and wife couldn’t even talk to each other about their projects. It’s about the brilliant minds of people and the willingness to contribute their brainpower to a common good. It’s about monumental accomplishments that were never applauded or appreciated and even covered up. Yet Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the first of many women codebreakers who changed the course of World War II and who helped to protect us, even now.
An extraordinary woman, to be sure
In an NPR review, Genevieve Valentine says this:
“In the end, this might be what The Woman Who Smashed Codes is really about: a study of the sort of extraordinary events that consume the world, and the abilities — and limits — of a few extraordinary people. Bursting with details in everything from dinner parties to spy rings, Fagone’s book offers the story of a fascinating woman in perilous times, and asks some uneasy questions about the present. . .”
When I finished this book, I was ready to go buy a book on elementary codebreaking because I was fascinated by what goes on in a mind that can see patterns in thousands of letters. Could I decipher even the simplest of codes?
But in addition to my fascination with Elizebeth’s skill, I was cheering this patient, quiet, determined, brilliant woman who didn’t want fame. She cared only about the safety of her country and the lives of people around the world.
Buy The Woman Who Smashed Codes from Amazon
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The Only Woman in the Room
You may have heard of Hedy Lamarr. You might know of her legendary beauty and her film career in the 1930s and 1940s.
But you might not know that this woman was not just a beauty. She had a remarkable brain and an amazing back-story.
Hedy Lamarr’s real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She was born in Vienna, Austria to a father who was interested in science.
Her beauty was perfect for the theater where she captured the love of audiences, and a wealthy, powerful arms manufacturer named Fritz Mandl, who did business with anyone who would pay — including Hitler.
The marriage was not a happy one. He was controlling and abusive and “overlooked” as just a pretty woman. She was often “the only woman in the room” when Fritz met with military men and manufacturers, and she picked up lots of talk about torpedo systems and the necessity of submarines hiding their radio signals.
Escape with Nazi knowledge
Hedwig plans and executes a brazen escape to America. On the ship over, she meets movie moguls, signs a contract, and changes her name to Hedy Lamarr. She did well in films and became a major star for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Lamarr made a living doing movies, but she made a life working on radio signals. She constantly researched and experimented, eventually pairing up with a musician and friend, George Antheil. Her goal was to use her insider knowledge to help the U.S. Navy develop a system to keep our submarines hidden and still communicate. Together, they created a system of radio signals that changed frequencies and were issued a patent on their invention.
Hedy Lamarr laid the groundwork for something you love: the modern cellphone.
Read Hedy Lamarr’s story in Marie Benedict’s historical fiction book, The Only Woman in the Room.
Buy The Only Woman in the Room from Amazon
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A Woman of No Importance
Who would believe that an American woman spy with a wooden leg would do what no man could?
Virginia Hall was determined to live a life of Civil Service, but before World War II, the most a woman could expect was a life as a secretary or clerk in an embassy. She was assigned clerical posts in Poland and then Turkey. In Turkey, she was involved in a hunting accident that resulted in the amputation of her left leg below the knee.
Her career, however, was far from over. Determined to work against Hitler, Virginia signed up for a newly formed, ultra-secret division of British Intelligence after being rejected from every other agency she applied to. (Who, after all, would hire a WOMAN, and a disabled woman at that?)
The British were desperate for people willing to get into Nazi-occupied France and work undercover. Few were game to sign up for what was probably a suicide mission. At first, Virginia was just assumed to be a shot in the dark, “a woman of no importance.”
Virginia was not deterred and was one of the first people that the British were able to get into France. Her job was to coordinate, recruit, support, and network the French Resistance.
Incredibly, Virginia Hall’s strength and courage amassed a national network of resistors, helping to defeat Germany and change the course of the war. But it wasn’t without terrible expense. One in five of the woman who helped Virginia feed refugees or shelter prisoners were executed. Many of her friends and accomplices were killed or imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis.
Harrowing. Horrific. Heart-rending. A Woman of No Importance is a worthy read that showcases not only her strength but the blindness of the hierarchy to recognize that a woman could have more skill and more courage than any other man in the field of espionage.
Read this nonfiction book and you’ll be both inspired and enraged. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell.
If you like finding book back-stories, discovering new "reads," or getting honest responses to both novels and nonfiction works, read more on Book Talk.
Buy a Woman of No Importance from Bookshop.org.
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