- Expected Jun 8, 2021
New York Times bestselling author Anne Sebba's moving biography of Ethel Rosenberg, the wife and mother whose execution for espionage-related crimes defined the Cold War and horrified the world.
In June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a couple with two young sons, were led separately from their prison cells on Death Row and electrocuted moments apart. Both had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the US government was aware that the evidence against Ethel was shaky at best and based on the perjury of her own brother.
This book is the first to focus on one half of that couple for more than thirty years, and much new evidence has surfaced since then. Ethel was a bright girl who might have fulfilled her personal dream of becoming an opera singer, but instead found herself struggling with the social mores of the 1950’s. She longed to be a good wife and perfect mother, while battling the political paranoia of the McCarthy era, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and a mother who never valued her. Because of her profound love for and loyalty to her husband, she refused to incriminate him, despite government pressure on her to do so. Instead, she courageously faced the death penalty for a crime she hadn’t committed, orphaning her children.
Seventy years after her trial, this is the first time Ethel’s story has been told with the full use of the dramatic and tragic prison letters she exchanged with her husband, her lawyer and her psychotherapist over a three-year period, two of them in solitary confinement. Hers is the resonant story of what happens when a government motivated by fear tramples on the rights of its citizens.
Biographer Sebba (Les Parisiennes) delivers a sympathetic yet opaque portrait of Ethel Rosenberg, "the only American woman killed for a crime other than murder." Convicted of espionage and executed alongside her husband, Julius, in 1953, Rosenberg was "a committed Communist," according to Sebba, but not a Soviet spy. Raised in a tenement house in New York City's Lower East Side, Rosenberg (n e Greenglass) aspired to be a singer and an actress before marrying Julius, an Army Signal Corps engineer, in 1939. Sebba finds ample evidence of Rosenberg's "dogged persistence" and desire to give her life meaning, including her active participation in a shipping company strike and her enrollment in "an advanced and highly theoretical course in child psychology" in order to relieve her anxiety about motherhood and be a better parent than her "cold and domineering" mother was to her. Though Rosenberg likely knew that Julius was recruiting spies including her own brother, David Greenglass, an army machinist who worked at Los Alamos for the Soviet Union, there is no proof, Sebba contends, that she took part in espionage activities herself, despite David's later testimony to the contrary. Though the insights into Rosenberg's family life are intriguing, she often recedes into the background and remains an enigmatic figure. Still, this is a persuasive argument that Rosenberg's death was a tragic miscarriage of justice.