Deciphering the life of a codebreaker

Elizebeth Smith Friedman
(source: NSA)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

3 words: engaging, journalistic, myth-busting

Holy Toledo, people. This book.

I didn’t want to put it down. It just kept surprising me at every turn.

Here’s the situation: In 1916, a young woman visits Chicago, looking for a job. A librarian at the Newberry Library, after talking with Elizebeth Smith, calls an eccentric millionaire, who zooms up in a big car, grabs Elizebeth by the arm and whisks her away. (That part freaked me out.)

Dude was George Fabyan, whose grand estate, Riverbank, is only a couple of miles from our house. So that had my eyes bugging out. But then I read on, and the story of Elizebeth’s life became even more surprising.

Fabyan hired her to work on his highly questionable quest to prove that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. But then, thank goodness, she directed her sharp mind to the other work of Riverbank Laboratories: codebreaking.

And during her years at Riverbank, she began her work as one of the most influential pioneers of cryptography. Thing is, partly because of the highly confidential nature of the work, and largely because of her gender, history has tended to overlook the contributions of Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The thing that had me spitting tacks was learning that J. Edgar Hoover claimed credit for much of the work Elizebeth Smith Friedman did. And she could do nothing about it, because she was sworn to secrecy. Infuriating!

So this book reveals many such truths and grants her the credit she deserves.

It’s also the story of the remarkable partnership she shared with her husband, William Friedman. They met at Riverbank (where they lived in a windmill after their marriage; I find this completely charming) and together wrote important textbooks about codebreaking. The early years of their marriage, when they truly worked in partnership as cryptographers, are a beautiful thing to read about.

Then: war. And another war. During the two world wars, the Friedmans both worked on codebreaking, but they no longer worked together. And the secret nature of the work meant that they no longer worked as partners. This made me sad, and it also seemed like it could have diminished the incredible synergy of their collaborative work. But still, they both continued to break codes that saved American lives during war. It’s pretty amazing that two self-taught people could develop such ability.

This book astonished me on many levels.

  • First: I learned the life story of a woman I wish I’d known about earlier. Why haven’t we heard of her? [rhetorical question, obviously]
  • Second: It tells the truth about the contributions she made, and it reveals the lies of those who claimed credit.
  • Third: It’s stunning to think about the unlikelihood of her being hired to do work that morphed into codebreaking — her natural talent.
  • Fourth: Living so near the place where she began her work makes the story even more exciting.

Give this book a whirl if you like… narrative nonfiction, the early days of codebreaking, really smart women, stories of marriages, WWII espionage, celebrating a woman who never got her due

What’s the biography that most astonished you recently?

by

Reader, librarian, & happy little geek

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