tv Anne Sebba Ethel Rosenberg - An American Tragedy CSPAN July 31, 2021 7:02pm-8:01pm EDT
>> anne sebba's powerful biography coming seven years after the trial is the first time ethel rosenberg's story has been told with a dramatic and tragic that her psychotherapist over a three-year period. hers is a resident story of what happened when a government motivated by fear trampled on the rights of its citizens. anne sebba is a prize-winning biography lecture and former foreign correspondent and has written several books including woman and later re-cn. a former chair of society of authors and now on the council
anne is a senior fellow at the institute of historical research. she lives in london and is staying up quite late to talk with us this evening and it's a thrill to welcome you tonight at gramercy books to share your extraordinary biography with their central ohio community. >> thank you. i'm absolutely thrilled to be with you. thank you for hosting this event. >> we are excited for the conversation that we will have and with david as professor of history at ohio state university. he teaches courses in 20th century america ranging ranging from world war i through the 60s. he's the recipient of the university's highest recognition for teaching excellence the alumni of distinguished teaching award and he was awarded the college of arts and sciences teaching award.
he directs the history departments world war ii study abroad program. welcome to gramercy books and thank you so much for joining us tonight. >> thank you window. i appreciate the invitation to be here. i very much been looking forward to talking about this book. >> i'm going to get out of everyone's way. thanks to all of you and our audience for joining us this evening. give a warm welcome to anne sebba in conversation with david. >> how low anne, how are you? 's. >> i'm absolutely fine and thank you for taking such an interest in this extraordinary story. >> it's a pleasure to meet you at a pleasure to see you with yet another new book.
it tells us a lot about mid-century history so let's get to it. this is a well thought story in its engage a lot of historians and a lot of journalists and certainly one of the biggest stories of its day. i wonder if you could start us off by talking about how you got interested in it and how you discovered you had something to say that hasn't been said before. i'm wondering whether it was because of your engagement with new materials or whether it's a real clear idea of what you were going to say about rosenberg? >> thank you. i've got lots to say about that. i will deal with the easy for part first and how i became interested in it. although i'm in london i did live in new york in brooklyn for
a couple of years when i was newly married. i started as a foreign correspondent for reuters and in 1978 when i was pregnant for the first time reuters decided being a mother and a foreign correspondent didn't go together. i came to live with my husband and baby at new york. i had time on my hands because i didn't have a job anymore and i discovered american literature. one of the books that sank deep into my psyche at this point was edgar dr. roe the book of daniel and somehow i didn't get it out of my system. i know it's fictionalized and i know it's about a son and a daughter but i happen to have a son and a daughter so it struck a chord. and then i started writing books
and my most recent book which we were talking about earlier was a book about women in wartime paris. when i finished that they said can you write a new graffiti about one of the spies and there really wasn't one that completely interested me but somehow i remembered ethel and i didn't know in detail about her story but what i did know was whenever you mentioned it to anybody they would talk about oh the sub eight's and i began to think maybe they shouldn't be tied together so that rings me onto the second part of your question, what is new about my book blacks so there is new
material. i wanted to bring to it some kind of sentiment and understanding. i wanted to extrapolate that and i wanted to see ethel as the 19 50's, 1940s wartime housewife in her own right and i think that hasn't been done. i didn't know that i would find a clear difference so in a sense you may find something that doesn't fit the narrative because i think you should start with a relatively open mind. but it's partly a feminist interpretation. nec ethel is being portrayed as a victim or a martyr. the ethel i discovered through reading the letters actually is
her own woman and certainly by the end. i found that interesting but there is of course new information. david her brother and i'm sure we'll talk about the family dynamics but for those of you who don't know her brother david was key to the story and perjured evidence in what sense apple to her death in david died in 2014 so finally the grand jury statements were worthy and that's what what made clear that he had lied and he really has no remorse for the lighting but he had seen his sister typing the statement which was not part of his grand jury statement when he actually said my sister has no -- so was the release of the grand jury papers. it was also the letters which
were referred to in the introduction, the personal letters and while i fully expect that some of them were a publication not all of them were. i found them so extraordinary and moving how ethel tried to be a mother from prison. i think the letters that stand out in my mind are the certifications when she refused to see her children in prison and how she prepared for that visit. i'm happy to talk in more detail about that. she was visiting a psychotherapist who had looked after her and flew to california to see her and what she told me about ethel i found relevant torri. the letters and boston university are also extraordinary because the asp the ic's the letters between
david and his wife ruth and what you see is they are very clear believing communism although they tried to say that they were persuaded to do all this guide julia sent apple. actually when you read the letters they didn't need any persuasion. it's an interpretation of the letters and the grand jury statements and mostly it's saying apple has her own woman. i find ethel and mentally complex and not easy to put one label on her as communist although many people tried to. she's all of those things communists, wife, mother and above all a loyal wife. so she's just more complex and rolling her up into part of rosenberg in my view a spy but
that's far too complex to discuss now. c we will keep working into the family story because that's a great contribution that i think you have made here. ethel is another complicated family situation more of a personality and sort of predictable family dynamics in the sense that every family has these kind of things. i was also really impressed with their hard scrub resistance and their economic difficulties were always the kind of back story or front story for that matter. so talk to me about where she fit in her family especially her relationship with her mother
which was really crucial to the story. go to it. >> i find the family story really of such dramatic intensity, it's really a shakespearean tragedy and it's why i wanted the word tragedy in my subtitle. it's a tragedy at so many levels. ethel was warned in 1915. she had a much older step-brother but that was -- her father has a wife who died. her mother who was semi- illiterate and never able to lift herself out of this intense poverty that you describe grew up in a tenement on the lower east side in that means if they wanted a bath they went to a late goal -- local local
bathhouse or they washed in the kitchen sink. intense poverty. the only window was frozen and ethel didn't have a window. she did eventually and her father barney ran their repair shop which was at the front of the tenement. there were two other sons but the youngest son david was born after a number of miscarriages and difficulties in by all account was a much wanted, much loved adored cheeked curlyhaired little boy who everybody adored including ethel who became a mother. she is to read to david that david wasn't blessed with great brains in ethel was. that's extraordinary thing so ethel the real life changing event was going to school and
high school which was part of the new deal schools and having been there i can see why it changed her whole outlook on life. it had an almost olympic sized swimming pool and olympic sized library so this enabled the ethel who was clearly a bright girl moved up a year to expand her horizons and she decided that she wanted to sing and to act and to play music. all of that was fine except that she had to leave school at age 15 because she needed to to go onto workprint she needed to go on to work because the family needed her contribution. she could have gone to college. college for women was just opening up but it was out of the question as far as her family was concerned.
although she left school at 15 she was really something of a -- she continued her education by going to acting classes in the settlement houses and it was there that she met like-minded people who talked about how to change the world and what was wrong with the world but she had to take a clerical course at her first job was at a packing company and at age 19, she was given 20 and she got involved in the strike. there are two aspects of ethel growing up that i'd like to draw attention to because it's important as they show her extraordinarily -- her extraordinary determination. one of them was she stayed at carnegie hall, not just any old choir but the best choir. they rejected her the first time
around because she had to learn. instead of giving up and saying that's not for me she bought a piano. she put the piano in her front room and taught herself how to play and went back for a second audition and was taken on, probably the youngest. so that exposed her to european classical culture and music and must a broader outlook. the other determination and the other aspect is there was a strike at the company where she was. they wanted their union to be recognized. and ethel clearly took the lead in all of this and was part of those who laid down on the street to prevent them from
coming in. the newly established labor relations board, which examined the dispute found that ethel did not deserve the warder and she was given backpay. there were two events that showed a lot about her personality but they also were responsible for forming her personality. meantime, david her younger brother was at school and he was obviously impressed by his older sister who was really exposing yourself to the world. there was an element of looking out for the success of ethel who met her husband julius in 1936 when she was singing at a fund-raising -- and although
julius was younger ethel and julia somehow embodied an aspirational couple. she sang in italian. she was worried about problems in the world and communism. david always looked up to ethel is somebody who really had not in financial terms but almost made something in the world. the best word he uses his aspirational. >> that is good. you also set into the talent that she had and her greater worldliness as well and ended up being one of the things held against her was she was abducted
and dragged through the court system. it's a sharp contrast between her and julius if i read you right. he wasn't nearly so talented it seems to me so there what was the dynamic between them that you see? >> the thing about apple's singing is that she was self-motivated because of course we are talking about the family earlier and i didn't talk about the fact that her mother was so uninterested. apple's mother tessie was completely underwhelmed by all of this. she just didn't think for women at career mattered at all and all of the love and ambition went into the younger son, and to david.
so i think the lesson apple took away from that is that ultimately you are actually on your own in life. it's a real hard lesson to learn but she had to do what she felt was right. maybe there would be nobody who would come to her rescue however julia's clearly admired her. so here for the first time was a man who really valued her talent and they think that speaks a lot to what she fell in love with. i think it was a very physical passion actually as well on both sides but i have to say ethel being valued and admired must have been very heady stuff and although they became a unit i still think that apple had
learned that ultimately what she made of her life was going to be her decision because her father was weak. he couldn't stand up for her and her mother had never listened to her. had never praised her and never made her feel valued. so that was really very important and by the time julia's and ethel had children themselves in 1943, michael was born in 47, apple was absolutely determined to be the best mother she absolutely could. i think one of the things that really motivated to ethel was distancing herself from her mother's family. it became corrosive once she saw how david and his wife ruth had betrayed them but even before that i think what apple wanted
to do was to be the best mother she possibly could and all the stories about ethel and how she gets down on the floor to play with her children and she wanted them to call her ethel and she was the turbine to feed them and play games with feeding. some of the other mothers thought that this was weak. i think it was just a false total determination. she went to mothering classes to be a better mother so when money was tight she nonetheless decided that this was so important and mattered to her to be the best mother she could and quite different from her mother to encourage your children was singing and music. she went to music lessons so that she could then teach your children to sing and it obviously lasted a cause they remembered it as something that
penetrated into their psyches. >> and the devotion to her ever since speaks to the power of their relationship. i think that much is very clear. let me ask you this. what made the ideas that i think is working for your narrative is whatever i'll she was up to ethel and away to part in the domesticity after the war and i'm struck by how her own aspirations were redirected to marriage and to motherhood and she sees those things with the same kind of enthusiasm and determination to be really good at them that she had shown to
hers and it just takes her out of the murky realm of spying and puts her firmly in the place of american women are what's expected of american women after the war. can you talk about that a little back? >> it's a interesting isn't it the could you have this single-minded girl who really could have gone on to have a career and obviously her life was cut short so she couldn't but i think you see it when julius eventually qualifies and he needed to ethel's help because he flunked one of his classes in spanish. he still found getting work difficult. i don't think he was completely sold on it. he thought that would be vocational but lots of commercial properties wouldn't take jewish engineers so his
friend were getting government work in washington. they both decided to take the civil service exam and ethel of course -- so they went to washington. ethel was the breadwinner at this point. she got a good job and julius was doing some occasional freelance work and then when julius gets the job they come back to new york and ethel gives work so you're absolutely right she is playing the role of the beautiful 1950s housewife. why did she do that in i don't have a total answer to that but i think it was part of her love for julius and the competition arises because what i think she was saying by this decision is i married a man who's going to do
really well and she wanted to show her family that her choice of julius was vindicated and they think it's all part of that that really what drove her i thank was showing them that she had married somebody worthwhile and that explains why she got to him at the end but it certainly explains why she left washington and they came back and they lived in a variety of places. they went to both parents which wasn't successful and eventually to a place of their own a very shabby room in the east village. apple at this point is working for the east side defense counsel hoping that america would join in the world which in 1940 when they do it at this point being a communist is okay.
we left out of that history in 1940 when the soviets ribbentrop pact made it difficult to be a communist because the whole idea was to be fighting the fascist and then they made this pact but by 1941 then it's okay. and by 1942 julius has made himself available to the russians probably because there were so many rallies at this point and the american government had to persuade everyone rushes and now our ally. russia is our friend so there were a lot of rallies and showing how courageous the russians were and probably that's where julia's introduces himself and offers all these friends of his from pcn y. who are involved in government
engineering work as possibly able to pass information. i think at this point apple probably knows or whether she knows from it she surely does know that julius is helping. i think she probably admired what he was doing but certainly was totally involved in being a good mother and her first child was not well. he was demanding or is he said himself he was challenging and i think that took up all of her energy. anyone who has had sleepless nights with a demanding firstborn child will identify and she wasn't well herself. she had that problem center back problems and scoliosis got were worse at this point. life was not easy and they had very little money and i think ethel was doing everything she could to keep the family
together by the time they had two sons they had moved so they have a slightly better house so it's an indication to the children they didn't have a bedroom themselves. they had a foldout sofa that they slept slapped on and they gave the bedroom to the two boys. that was really her life and reading parents magazine going to music classes and trying to do everything as a good mother. >> and even engaged in therapy and that place at that time showed the commitment to straightening up her own family especially michael and his behavior. we could probably move towards the trial and execution. i want to do that by talking a little bit about the evidence
that you now know is there. the project is a very important part of what historians now know about the version in the united states during the cold war. also as a backdrop to this prosecution but i wondered if he could talk a little bit about that and before i let you do that let the airline people if you have questions please type them in. >> so let me talk about the trial. that trial took place in march of 1951 less than three weeks and was full of multiple mischaracterizations of justice. i think you'd have to call it a corrupt trial and in essence the judge in joelsch in discussions with the prosecution. the judge really in his oral
indictment frequently use the word treason as indeed the prosecuting attorneys use the word treason. they were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. conspiracy is easy to prove and effect. you could say if you think about it that in a close marriage is built on an element of complicity if not conspiracy. ethel of course was in a close marriage so i think you could say she was complicit to understanding. i don't believe in anyway she was criminally complicit in this introduction of treason meant that when the jury came to decide they came to think about whether in fact they were judging if these people were guilty of treason and treason requires different technical
evidence but that wasn't all. the real reason why the trial was was the only overt evidence against ethel was actually provided by the perjury of her brother david and as i was talking at the beginning he invented this or perhaps his wife invented it and he went along with it. he said that he had seen ethel typing and it turns out he never saw ethel typing and in fact he never saw anybody typing but if it was anybody was his wife ruth. the actual props that were entered is that the trial jell-o box and the original would have been sent to rush and the prosecution made a big deal of this so the jury couldn't possibly forget. and david who flunked many of
his exams was not such a technical whiz that he could possibly have provided that. so the trial had multiple mischaracterizations of justice and the fbi believed that the ends justified the means even though or the means justify the end rather is what i should say. even people who say it was riddled with miss characters of justice but of course they needed to kill them both because they were a danger to america. why did they think of that? the was because of winona which was published in 1995 was a series of messages between moscow and new york. the cables to the kgb which were
decrypted at the end of the war and it was these cables that were considered so valuable they couldn't possibly reveal that they knew them because they had to catch more people so they thought that if they charged both ethel and julius that one of them would, one of them would name names and especially if they threatened them both with a death sentence. it's not known at what point the president knew about that none of but certainly the fbi's new and they knew from these decrypts that julius was involved in an inspired it. in 1995 when it was finally revealed but what did they reveal about ethel which is what interests me.
there are thousands of these cables of which only 3000 were decrypted and only night teen only two of them preferred to ethel and only one of them ethel by name or what they actually say is that she was sympathetic. she knows about her husband's work that she does not work and the two men who were responsible for it decrypt them actually added a memo to that saying they had vindicated not that ethel didn't go to work in a shop or a factory but ethel whose help -- health was not good did not work as a spy. ethel had no codename and we know from these cables, all kgb spies had codenames. ethel did not and she was referred to in one cable by her
own name. nobody pretends that the kgb were actually dealing directly with ethel so it's not a crime to know. it's not a crime to think. what has to be proven is an overt fact that by charging them with conspiracy to commit espionage it was almost impossible to disprove. and depending on the prior view of communism and the cold war we are still arguing about what venona proves there doesn't prove but i think it's very hard to argue against the kgb. and it stars the kgb is concerned apple was not an act of spite that those that believe because she knew and probably approved and as i say in my book we can't know the extent to which she knew everything. she often went away in the
summer and perhaps she was sent away deliberately so she wouldn't be part of it but you know that's conjecture. but she was involved in acts of spying and that's what venona tells us. >> if we are going to take venona is truth and julius was indeed engaged in espionage it seems like we owe ethel the very same thing. in the same way -- i would agree with you and i take that because at some point you have to read the evidence and come to a conclusion. to what extent did she encourage
ruth is the issue that they are deeply exercised over and from reading the boston letters i would feel that ruth and david needed little or no persuasion given the family dynamics and the closeness. it's possible that ethel said while david should make up his mind. it's possible but we don't know that. even if we knew it it's not something that you are electrocuted for. >> let's finish other conversation by talking about you might call it the durability or even predictable afterlife of the rosenberg case. let's talk about the american argument and i'm particularly
interested in why it seems to be ethel who attracts this enduring interest. >> that is so interesting. you are right that it will be nearly 70 years since the electrocution and yet the story that divided america at the time was justified deciding it's okay to be a spy. he decided that actually ethel is more confused.
she clearly loved her husband and was deeply loyal to him and probably believed what he was doing was the right thing but didn't actively partake in it. a complex character. why is someone who is so clever and so bright decide that her highest goal is being the best mother she can be. i think i understand that because there is no greater gift to the next generation than educating and providing your children with the finer things in life. she's indulged in therapy which is not a communistic act. she went to extra classes and mothering.
she was jewish and she did that night but she didn't believe in the spirituality of being jewish. she just is more interesting because we can't know precisely what she knew and how much she continued to believe and it or to protest or to devote her time entirely to the children. you have somebody like sonia plot and the bell jar that they know the one bind it was they executed the rosenberg's. and they had a real understanding of the madness that was engulfing american particularly the women and then of course angels in america the play where apple's ghost meets up with roy cohn and he could have spent the whole hour
talking about the 230 prosecutors who coached david in his perjury and then went off to work. we haven't talked about this real fear of communism. it wasn't existential fear as if russia had the bomb. why -- this was a very scary time for many people and the scaremongering was whipped up into fear of communists and all jewish or communist so there was that element as well. and the misogyny of the judge who in his final speech accused ethel of being a full-fledged partner in the crime and a crime that's worth the murder and he
blamed ethel and julius for the korean war. completely over the top in his indictment and his sentencing. she was only two and a quarter years older than julius therefore she must be the master. you cannot most learn more about history by looking at individual story in this case a full story. it's one thing to teach about mccarthyism and the cold war but to see how it has impacted one woman's life
somehow treating a person's life as expendable. that tells you an awful lot in my mind about the period in the history and how this fear became hysteria and once the government resorts to hysteria. there is no and to the rules that will be broke in. so you know i think we can look at the story with great care. it's good ways to demonstrate the nature of the world they live in but it takes a skillful and thoughtful writer to do that than you are that. so we have this book.
we have many questions in front of us but let me fill out a couple of them that are in front of me in the order that they appear. enjoyed your biography. this heartbreaking bioof ethel rosenberg three women who could not be more different. is there one aspect of their personality --. >> i really don't like comparing but i guess what i discovered certainly in simpson's case and i discussed this extraordinary cache of letters between her and the husband that she was publicly accusing of adultery and probably saying she hated but actually what you see in the letters between the two of them is that she were granted having
to lose him because she didn't want to marry the prince. she had gone too far and he actually became king in 1936 and so the public story isn't always what the private story is. i guess the other thing that comes out in my mind is the world history this year when walked into the rhineland or marge does soldiers into the rhineland and broke the treaty obligations and there was a civil war in spain and many of ethel and julia' friends went off to support the democratically-elected government and so to become a communist in 1936, i can
absolutely see that to become a communist in 1936 was of deep importance and relevance if he wanted to fight the fascists and especially if you are jewish and yet were or are you doing in england? we were worried about the kang and his morals. 1936 is really what unifies those two stories and another piece of dreadful, dreadful symmetry that wallace's birthday was on june the 19th and i've always known about june the 19th and i put june 19 as the date that ethel and julius were electrocuted that historically these are two completely different stories. >> mark ii writes to do speak with the rosenberg sense as part of your research and if so what you'd did you learn from them?
>> yes is the answer. i live in england so obviously i was around the corner but i took several -- and i did talk to them. i didn't really want this to be enough to write his biography wanted that independence. i thought i would be accused of not being independent if i spoke too much but i did want, i thought they could help me because you know they have memories and the new people and thanks to them i did meet the psychotherapist who i mentioned in the beginning elizabeth phillips. and subsequently having written the book that i wanted to write i did show it to them because i wanted to have copyright to
quote from the prison letters which i found extremely moving and revealing. at that point the book having been written i had a lot of conversations with them. >> i was really impressed that you managed to pull in the psychotherapist and you say she was in her 90s when he spoke with there? >> i think she is 99 almost to be 100 she still live in one of the most inspiring people i have met. it just made me feel that she believed apple probably would have gone down that path herself and become some kind of therapist psychotherapist or analyst. you know it just reinforces the sense of what the laws that she would have had.
>> i don't remember seeing her name and other materials. >> they are was one of the hook written about ethel 40 years ago before a lot of information came out and in a sense that author had an advantage because more people were alive. i felt 40 years was an good time for this story. >> certainly and victor bling of new material is one of the things that has kept the story going a little bit particularly as you noted in the grand jury testimony of david. he couldn't write about it until 2014 or 2015, right? keeping the story alive as new material was coming out. you have any sense of any more? >> i was going to say i think
any for his arrogant who insists that theirs is the finished version. the version that you right at that moment in time with the best access to the knowledge that is available and in a biography is objective, of course it is unless you are going to write 900 pages. you have to decide what you were going to include. the theme is relevant and the theme is truthful and isn't based on hearsay. and of course there will be new information. every story has new information so i would be a fool if i didn't submit that. >> i always say historians should never say never. >> we have no more questions so linda do you want to return?
>> i'm back. it was an extraordinary conversation. thank you so much anne and david. it's an extraordinary book and i encourage everyone to -- who hasn't read the book to read the book. i know an art chat box nikki snyder are virtual media editor for handling the technology here is going to put a link into the chat box where we can click on and get anne's book. thank you everyone for joining us this evening and just want to say everyone we are open seven days a week and continue to rouse and curbside pickup and all the things that one wants in
elaine of robbers discussed her new book. during a virtual program by the newbury library. she does her cover researching family history on the land rights of indigenous people freed african-americans a white settlers during reconstruction. >> the confederacy and their distrust. they made an alliance with the
trees are called the trees of 1866 and they serve as the surrender as well as their reconstruction documents and i will tell you more about that. one of the most extreme items is secession of land. they are forced to give up a majority of the land that they had really just moved on 30 years earlier. the other three big items in these trees in our discussion today was to emancipate the people and to adopt them as citizens and they had to give them land. the chickasaw and choctaw nations had to give them specifically 40 acres of land. during reconstruction or black history in general african-americans in the u.s. didn't get it. this is united states coming
into indian nations that are supposed to have the right to create drama and be completely sovereign and just about every of the way in the u.s. is saying we are going to force you to free people but we ourselves are going to force it to adopt citizens and give them the accompanying rights of citizenship something we in 1866 have not yet done and give them land. now was this right? legally no. the nation had emancipation 19 -- 1863 so they decided to do this without direct coercion. the creek seminoles chickasaw and choctaw had they emancipated slaves without american emancipation? did they give them rights and citizenship? probably not. would they have given them land? probably not but this land to