Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking. Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself. She was raised in a small town in the Midwest. She only went to college because she insisted upon it. Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here. Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college, Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests. She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves. Undeterred, Friedman kept looking. Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare. Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War. Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known. Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.
The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice. Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides. This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.
Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there. Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.