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From the Publisher

Nathalia Holt interviews Jason Fagone about his book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Nathalia Holt: What drew you to this story?

Jason Fagone: Well, it’s one of these amazing American origin stories. A hundred years ago, a young woman in her early twenties suddenly became one of the greatest codebreakers in the country. She taught herself how to solve secret messages without knowing the key. Even though she started out as a poet, not a mathematician, she turned out to be a genius at solving these very difficult puzzles, and her solutions ended up changing the 20th century. She helped us win the world wars. And she also shaped the intelligence community as we know it today.

NH: William Friedman has long been recognized as a pioneer of cryptology, so why have we never heard of Elizebeth before?

JF: Sexism and secrecy. A lot of the time she was omitted or even erased from the records by the men in her life. Sometimes they were men close to her, like her husband, William Friedman, who was also a champion codebreaker, and sometimes they were men in power, like J. Edgar Hoover. All through World War II she used her skills to hunt Nazi spies who were spreading into the West. She broke these Nazi spy codes for the FBI, which would have been lost without her—and then Hoover turned around and painted himself as the big hero. There was nothing she could do, because of secrecy rules.

NH: In the Author’s Note of your book you describe the excitement of discovering Elizebeth’s archives in a vault of a Virginia library. What was that moment like and what types of resources did you use to research this story?

JF: I’ll never forget that moment. Elizebeth donated 22 boxes of papers to the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Virginia. Since her death in 1980 those boxes have been carefully preserved at the Foundation’s library in a vault. Elizebeth left thousands of her personal letters, whole diaries full of poems, newspaper clippings of her famous rum cases, and original code worksheets. She kept everything that wasn’t classified. The only period of her life missing from the archive was 1939 through 1945—World War II. So I had to patch the gap. It took me more than two years to find the missing records, hunting through archives in the U.S. and the U.K.

NH: How can Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s story inspire young women today?

JF: I think a lot of professional women today can relate to her experiences. She did all this important work and got very little credit. But at the same time, because she was so good at her job, she had a lasting impact on the world. She blazed a trail in a lot of ways, and she did it in her own style. Once she wrote, “If I may capture a goodly number of your messages, even though I have never seen your code book, I may still read your thoughts.” That captures her personality: Do whatever you like, but I still have this mind, and you will have to reckon with it.

NH: This book is in many ways a love story. Can you tell us about the letters sent between Elizebeth and her husband?

JF: Elizebeth and William started writing to each other before they were romantically involved, when they were still only friends. They were these two young people who wanted to accomplish great things, to leave a mark. In 1918, when William joined the Army and sailed to France to serve as a codebreaker, he wrote Elizebeth these 20- and 30-page love letters by the light of an oil lamp, calling her 'Divine Fire.' He liked to include bits of code that he knew only Elizebeth would understand, and she replied in code, too. For the Friedmans it was a lovers’ shorthand, a way of staying connected. And later, when they had kids, they taught the kids how to do it, too.

Nathalia Holt is the New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars and Cured: The People who Defeated HIV.

Description

Product Description

National Bestseller 

NPR Best Book of the Year

“Not all superheroes wear capes, and Elizebeth Smith Friedman should be the subject of a future Wonder Woman movie.” —The New York Times

Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II.

In 1916, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story, incredibly, has never been told.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation’s history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizebeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.

Fagone unveils America’s code-breaking history through the prism of Smith’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence. Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson’s bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

Review

“[Fagone] documents the amazing arc of his subject’s life, often in stunning detail…Ms. Friedman was not only crypto pioneer and a patriotic spycatcher, but also an inspiring role model.” -- Wired

The Woman Who Smashed Codes...has drawn comparisons to Hidden Figures, though we think this one is better. In journalist Jason Fagone’s deft hands, we not only learn about a lost national treasure, but also get new insight into the history of our country at war.” -- New York Post

“[Elizebeth Friedman] was a tireless and talented code breaker who brought down gangsters and Nazi spies...a fascinating swath of American history that begins in Gilded Age Chicago and moves to the inner workings of our intelligence agencies at the close of WWII.”
-- Los Angeles Times

“Damned-near impossible to put down. The book has everything: thrills, chills, kills, love, crypto, and a hopeful sense that a nearly forgotten American genius, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is finally being given her due.” -- Ars Technica

“It’s unsurprising that the name Elizebeth Friedman doesn’t ring a bell for most Americans, given how much of her work was classified during the war.... Still, this Quaker-born poet from Indiana was the grandmother of the National Security Agency and virtually created the modern code-breaking profession. Trust us on this one.” -- Forbes

“This is the best work of nonfiction I’ve ever read—no hyperbole...Fagone has painstakingly worked backward to piece together a truth that has been buried for too long. In the process, he has helped Friedman gain recognition as the American hero she was.” -- MIT Technology Review

“In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, journalist Jason Fagone recreates a world and a cast of characters so utterly fascinating they will inhabit the psyches of its readers long after the book has been read.” -- Associated Press

“One of the year’s best reads, it is both deeply researched and beautifully told.” -- The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Woman Who Smashed Codes should be the next Hidden Figures...a story that anyone with interest in the time period has to read, a key piece of the puzzle about America’s war effort.” -- Washington Post

“This book tells the incredible, little-known story of code-breaker Elizebeth Smith and her husband, cryptologist William Friedman, otherwise known as the ‘Adam and Eve’ of the NSA.” -- New York Post

“Reads like some wild cross between a fairy tale and a gripping detective thriller... a sheer delight to read.”  -- San Francisco Chronicle

“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.” -- NPR.org

“[Fagone] records the pair’s accomplishments, trials, and love affair, taking care to ensure that Elizebeth finally receives the recognition she deserves...[a] carefully researched story of a smart and loyal but overlooked woman.” -- Library Journal (starred review)

“Riveting, inspiring, and rich in colorful characters, Fagone’s extensively researched and utterly dazzling title is popular history at its very best and a book club natural.” -- Booklist (starred review)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is historical reporting done right, assigning credit where it is long overdue.” -- Seattle Book Review

“A bang-up research effort [and] an engaging resurrection of a significant player in the world of cryptology.” -- Kirkus Reviews

“Superb storytelling” -- Providence Journal

“Fagone is a superb writer and has created a fascinating tale of a woman who brought down Prohibition-era smugglers, Nazi’s, counterfeiters, gangsters and more. ” -- Ben Rothke, RSA Conference

“A powerful love story, a story of war, and a fascinating biography,  The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a magnificent work of literary nonfiction that sheds light on an important hidden figure. You will devour this book.” -- Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City  

“Deeply reported and stunningly original, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a riveting narrative about one of the most overlooked figures in American history—a figure whose remarkable story was essentially ignored for more than seventy years simply because she was a woman.” -- Stefan Fatsis, bestselling author of Word Freak

“Jason Fagone is a master storyteller—and he’s telling one damn good story about a long-forgotten American heroine. It is, among many things, the compulsively readable history of the national security state in its infancy. His book is filled with memorable villains, intrigue, and love.” -- Franklin Foer, New York Times Bestselling author of How Soccer Explains the World and the forthcoming World Without Mind

“Jason Fagone’s stunning narrative unearths an intimate and unexpected history of code breaking. This remarkable tale reveals the fundamental role cryptology has played in our past, and the untold story of the pioneering woman behind its evolution. It is a treasure of a book.” -- Nathalia Holt, New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars

“In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone rights a historical wrong, unshrouding an unsung heroine and revealing the love story at the root of the modern world’s spy games. But this book’s true revelation is the author’s talent: sure-handed, thrilling, and lyrical.” -- Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar

From the Back Cover

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. She moved to the tycoon’s lavish estate outside of Chicago expecting to spend her days poring through old books. But the rich man’s close ties to the U.S. government, and the urgencies of war, quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission. She soon learned to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking—the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her on the estate was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner. Elizebeth and William were in many ways the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency, the U.S. institution that monitors and intercepts foreign communications to glean intelligence.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman who played an integral role in our nation’s history—from the Great War to the Cold War. He traces Elizebeth’s developing career through World War I, Prohibition, and the struggle against fascism. She helped catch gangsters and smugglers, exposed a Nazi spy ring in South America, and fought a clandestine battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German operatives to conceal their communications. And through it all, she served as muse to her husband, a master of puzzles, who astonished friends and foes alike. Inside an army vault in Washington, he worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.

Fagone unveils for the first time America’s codebreaking history through the prism of one remarkable woman’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that shaped the modern intelligence community. Rich in detail, The Woman Who Smashed Codes pays tribute to an unsung hero whose story belongs alongside those of other great female technologists, like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, and whose oft-hidden contributions altered the course of the century.

About the Author

Jason Fagone is a journalist who covers science, technology, and culture. Named one of the “Ten Young Writers on the Rise” by the Columbia Journalism Review, he works at the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic, the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Philadelphia magazine. Fagone is also the author of Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, the X Prize, and the Race to Revive America and Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream. He lives in San Francisco, California.

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4.6 out of 54.6 out of 5
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Top reviews from the United States

Rick K.
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
This is a magnificent, memorable, important book.
Reviewed in the United States on September 29, 2017
Immediately added to my favorites shelf. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that''s fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic... See more
Immediately added to my favorites shelf. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that''s fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic achievement, overlooked because of gender, largely forgotten (until now) as others took credit. But it is so much more, so rich in its account of not only an extraordinary woman, but the time in which she lived, two World Wars and her central role in both, the incredible marriage that gave birth to modern American cryptanalysis, that I think it deserves to be evaluated on its own.

Even in the hands of a merely serviceable writer, it would be an enjoyable read. But Fagone elevates the story, weaving it into as rich a tapestry as you could hope for. Secondary characters jump from the page just as much as Elizebeth and her husband William; little details transport you to the small, smoke-filled rooms where Elizebeth and her tiny team toiled in obscurity in defense of the country. Fagone firmly establishes Elizebeth Friedman''s place in our history, and not only gives her her due, but demands that we reevaluate what we thought we knew about the wars, and the origins of America''s intelligence services (nearly all of them have her fingerprints on them), and the people who are given credit for critical milestones in the country''s history.

This is a magnificent, memorable, important book.
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Ollivier Robert
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Anyone interested in cryptographic history should read it
Reviewed in the United States on October 1, 2017
Anyone interested in the History of cryptography knows William F. Friedman, known as the man who broke Purple the Japanese cipher machine and many things. But who did know that his wife, née Elizebeth Smith, was his equal in cryptographic skills? She created a Coast Guard... See more
Anyone interested in the History of cryptography knows William F. Friedman, known as the man who broke Purple the Japanese cipher machine and many things. But who did know that his wife, née Elizebeth Smith, was his equal in cryptographic skills? She created a Coast Guard cryptographic team, broke an Enigma without any help from Bletchley Park, helped expose many Prohibition-era gangs and Nazi spy networks in South America during WWII and worked in tandem with William during WWI. She is as much part of cryptographic history as her husband is.

This is her history in that book, I highly recommended it.

I knew she was very good but I didn''t know she was that good. Thanks to the author for the book, loved it.
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Mal Warwick
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Another amazing story from declassified files that rewrites American history
Reviewed in the United States on November 29, 2017
When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, "It''s too early to tell." That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But... See more
When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, "It''s too early to tell." That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won''t surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI''s role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e''s.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America''s Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. "MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway," the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fagone notes, "Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing''s epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes." However, independently, before the US and Britain''s Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

"William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency," Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It''s very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today''s NSA.

As Fagone notes, "Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology." Although today Elizebeth isn''t nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. "It''s not quite true that history is written by the winners," Fagone writes. "It''s written by the best publicists on the winning team."

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.
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Michele G.
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Fascinating story.
Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2018
I loved learning about Elizebeth Friedman ''s genius and accomplishments, but I thought the writing was mediocre at best. Too much time spent on descriptions of her husband''s work. I did not appreciate that the author violated their privacy by publishing intimate details... See more
I loved learning about Elizebeth Friedman ''s genius and accomplishments, but I thought the writing was mediocre at best. Too much time spent on descriptions of her husband''s work. I did not appreciate that the author violated their privacy by publishing intimate details of the couple ''s correspondence including erotic passages. That was unnecessary to the story. The timeline was often confusing, going back and forth. I think a good editor could have cleaned up the story and made it more enjoyable to read.
29 people found this helpful
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amachinist
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Super She Spy
Reviewed in the United States on October 29, 2017
Move over Mata Hari! Elizebeth Smith Friedman extracted secrets from enemies not by her feminine wiles, but by her intelligence and innate ability to solve codes. She became fascinated with codes while working at Riverbank Laboratories to reveal what were believed to be... See more
Move over Mata Hari! Elizebeth Smith Friedman extracted secrets from enemies not by her feminine wiles, but by her intelligence and innate ability to solve codes. She became fascinated with codes while working at Riverbank Laboratories to reveal what were believed to be codes in the works of Shakespeare. She met William Friedman there and, as a married couple they were recruited by the army to decipher codes during WWI. Using pencil and graph paper, the Friedmans were instrumental in the defeat of Germany. From 1920-1930, Elizebeth worked for the Coast Guard in deciphering codes sent by bootleggers and drug smugglers. Many were arrested and convicted based on both her evidence and testimony. During WWII, she deciphered radio codes, especially from Nazi agents working in South America. Her husband worked for the OSS and developed both cypher machines and code manuals. He was the breaker of the Japanese Red Code while she broke the Nazi Enigma Code. Mrs. Friedman swore an oath never to reveal what she had done during the wars. Thanks to the diligence of Jason Fagone, archives in the Marshall Library bring to light the work of this American heroine. Though the title is too long and the portion on George Fabyan and his Riverbank Laboratories a bit tedious, the rest of the book reads like a fascinating spy novel. Yet, this is a work of history which finally gives credit to a woman who lived in the shadow of her brilliant husband, but through her own superior capabilities, served her nation tirelessly on the cryptic battle front.
108 people found this helpful
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Kindle Customer
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
If you like reading textbooks
Reviewed in the United States on April 12, 2019
My book club chose this as our monthly read. Seeing all the good reviews we were looking forward to an interesting and entertaining read. However as a group we found the book tedious, boring and as several people phrased it - like reading a textbook. There was a lot of... See more
My book club chose this as our monthly read. Seeing all the good reviews we were looking forward to an interesting and entertaining read. However as a group we found the book tedious, boring and as several people phrased it - like reading a textbook. There was a lot of information about things that were really not about Elizebeth. Perhaps if the writing were better, it wouldn''t have mattered. I hate that I wasted $12 on a book I found unreadable. My book club and I would not recommend this book.
19 people found this helpful
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oddsuits
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A great story, still waiting to be told.
Reviewed in the United States on February 5, 2019
The subject of this book should make for a fascinating story. However, Mr. Fagone buries the subject in a mash of ghastly, self-indulgent writing. I had to stop at page 76 of 448! I was not going to write a bad Amazon review, so I sent a detailed letter to the email... See more
The subject of this book should make for a fascinating story. However, Mr. Fagone buries the subject in a mash of ghastly, self-indulgent writing. I had to stop at page 76 of 448! I was not going to write a bad Amazon review, so I sent a detailed letter to the email address on The authors website. In response, I was told I should never write such rude letters to authors! It is sad to think of all of that research, on a remarkable person, just frittered away. In hindsight, the word "smashed" in the title was a clue. A cryptographer might call herself a "code breaker," but never a code "smasher." Somebody should write a good book about Elizabeth Friedman and what she accomplished in World War I.
18 people found this helpful
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lisaleo (Lisa Yount)
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
true story about an amazing woman
Reviewed in the United States on February 14, 2018
Most people have heard of Alan Turing and the cracking of the Nazi Enigma Machine’s code at Britain’s Bletchley Park during World War II, but far fewer have encountered the equally important story of Elizebeth (that’s how she spelled it) and William Friedman, a married pair... See more
Most people have heard of Alan Turing and the cracking of the Nazi Enigma Machine’s code at Britain’s Bletchley Park during World War II, but far fewer have encountered the equally important story of Elizebeth (that’s how she spelled it) and William Friedman, a married pair of codebreakers working in the United States at the same time. William led the team that cracked the code of Purple, a Japanese machine producing codes at least as hard to decipher as those of Enigma, and Elizebeth almost singlehandedly foiled a Nazi attempt to gain a foothold in South America by deciphering the coded messages that agents there exchanged with counterparts in Berlin. The Friedmans essentially established modern cryptology (codebreaking) in the U.S., though J. Edgar Hoover took credit for most of their exploits, which were kept classified long after the war was over.

This biography focuses primarily on Elizebeth, the lesser known of the two, but it would be impossible to tell the story of one Friedman without the other, and Fagone doesn’t try. It’s quite a story, especially the early part featuring eccentric millionaire George Fabyan, who hired the young woman then named Elizebeth Smith in 1916 to help a woman he employed who believed that evidence that Francis Bacon really wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare was hidden in coded form in the first edition of the Shakespeare plays. Elizebeth eventually decided that that theory was nonsense, but by then she had met William Friedman, hired to work on the same project, and both had become fascinated with codebreaking—and each other.

I found the book a bit slow in places, but its story is certainly interesting, and Fagone enlivens it at times with flights of verbal fancy such as “Elizebeth had to shake the words until they spilled their letters. To rip, rupture, puncture, chisel, scissor, smash, and scoop up the rubble in her arms. To chip off flakes from the smooth rock of the message and place them in piles and ask questions about them…. It was reaching into the red body of the text until the hands dripped with blood.” Some readers might find such passages over-the-top, but there are not a lot of them (I rather liked them). Similarly, Fagone gives examples of codes and deciphering techniques from time to time, which could be either a plus or a minus depending on one’s interest in that sort of thing—but if they look too daunting, they’re easy to skip over. I recommend the book to anyone interested in cryptology, unusual aspects of World War II, or talented but underappreciated women in history. Elizebeth Friedman is a “hidden figure” who certainly deserves to be more widely known.
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SueKich
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
The Word Smith.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 28, 2017
Elizebeth (with three ‘e’s) Smith became one of the most renowned codebreakers in history by a quirk of serendipitous fate. As a young woman brought up in a Quaker household, she wished to extend her horizons and at the age of 23 she went to Chicago in search of work. The...See more
Elizebeth (with three ‘e’s) Smith became one of the most renowned codebreakers in history by a quirk of serendipitous fate. As a young woman brought up in a Quaker household, she wished to extend her horizons and at the age of 23 she went to Chicago in search of work. The quest was unsuccessful – but on the last day of her trip, on a whim, Elizebeth decided to visit the Newberry Library where a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display. The librarian noted the visitor’s interest as well as her obvious intelligence and told Elizebeth about an eccentric local tycoon, George Fabyan, who was looking for a research assistant. Fabyan was called and, there and then, virtually kidnapped Elizebeth and brought her back to his Riverbank estate to work on one of the many research projects he championed; this one, an ongoing mission to prove that Bacon was the writer of Shakespeare’s plays and that the entire body of work was actually a coded memoir of Bacon’s life. Mad right? It wasn’t long before Elizebeth realised that her assignment was a nonsense. But in the meantime, she had become friends with another Riverbank researcher: William Friedman. Like Elizebeth, William had a ferocious intelligence but had also not yet found his niche. Together, they became a kind of outsourced decoding department for the US authorities. With America about to become embroiled in the First World War, deciphering expertise was thin on the ground. Elizebeth and William not only became ‘an item’, their unique skill at unlocking codes made them an invaluable help to the War Department and the fledging secret agencies sprouting up in Washington. William went on to become America’s foremost decoding expert; Elizebeth’s role was no less vital but remained rather more low-key and certainly lower-paid: the fact that she was a woman deprived her of due recognition and reward. She went on to break codes that were used in various illegal activities from illicit liquor to drug-running, but it was her work in preventing Nazism from gaining a foothold in South America that made her a (comparatively unsung) heroine. This is an interesting story and one that was well worth exploring by journalist Jason Fagone. In the early 20th century, radio was the equivalent of the internet now. A new technology that required a new set of skills to fully comprehend its functionality and maximise its potential. The key issue then, as ever, was where to draw the line between privacy and security in a democracy. In this book, Elizebeth Smith Friedman clearly has a warm champion in Jason Fagone but unfortunately, the author seems to lose sight of her as a three-dimensional personality after she leaves Riverbank. (Perhaps the secret nature of her wartime work made her personal life less accessible to researchers.) I found the writing – er, how to put this tactfully? – satisfactory rather than satisfying but, nevertheless, this is a recommended read for anyone interested in the power of words – and their rearrangement.
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Andy Hayler
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A fascinating story, well told.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 7, 2018
This is the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneering cryptoanalyst whose contribution to her area was huge and has only recently become fully acknowledged. She stumbled into the field when in the employ of a highly eccentric and very wealthy American called George Fabyan,...See more
This is the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneering cryptoanalyst whose contribution to her area was huge and has only recently become fully acknowledged. She stumbled into the field when in the employ of a highly eccentric and very wealthy American called George Fabyan, who funded a research facility called Riverbank near Chicago, and hired her to assist in unlocking supposed secret messages from Frances Bacon embedded in the works of Shakespeare. Although Elizabeth quickly realised that this work was well-meaning but nonsensical, by chance she was redirected to working on breaking real codes when Fabyan offered the services of his facility to the US government when the US entered the first world war. Although a linguist rather than a mathematician, Elizabeth had a gift for spotting patterns in text, and quickly moved beyond the knowledge set out by the only textbook on the subject at that time. She was joined in this activity by her soon-to-be husband, Willaim Friedman, a scientist working at Riverbank. The careers of the husband and wife code breaking team are set out in this well-written and meticulously researched book (the bibliography runs to 90 pages) and a remarkable tale it is. Both were extremely talented in an obscure field that was about to become very important with the increasing use of radio, meaning that transmissions (say between governments) could be quite easily intercepted, and so needed to be encoded to preserve privacy. Elizabeth''s career involved breaking coded messages used by gangsters in the Prohibition era 1920s through to decrypting the messages of both the Japanese military and Nazi spies in the second world war. This included cracking the codes of the famous Enigma machine and its Japanese equivalent, roughly at the same time as was done at Bletchley Park in the UK by Alan Turing and his team. Elizabeth''s work was far less publicised than her husband''s due to the social norms of the day, but they literally wrote the book(s) on modern cryptography. Indeed when William was sent to Germany just after the war ended to try and discover what he could about German code-breaking, he was amazed to find their own textbooks, carefully translated into German, in pride of place inside the Nazi code-breaking labs. The tale is told skilfully by the author, who does not get bogged down in the intricacies of the code-breaking (for me, a little more depth here would have been welcome) but brings to life the characters in the story. Fortunately, the Friedmans documented their work meticulously, though much of this was classified for decades, and so a wealth of material is available to draw on. It is fascinating to see how US inter-agency rivalry frequently caused setbacks, with the FBI anxious to claim credit for the remarkable results of Elizabeth''s code-breaking team based at the less glamourous US coastguard agency. Her dismantling of a Nazi spy network in South America in particular reads like something from a crime novel. A fascinating story, well told.
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Peter W
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
which would have better served the reader
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 29, 2018
The story that this book tells is gripping. I read it within 24 hours of receiving it. How it is told is another matter. Jason Fagone praises his editor, Julia Cheiffetz at Dey Street, for her “sharp eye, her instincts, and her belief.” I won’t fault her belief (in this...See more
The story that this book tells is gripping. I read it within 24 hours of receiving it. How it is told is another matter. Jason Fagone praises his editor, Julia Cheiffetz at Dey Street, for her “sharp eye, her instincts, and her belief.” I won’t fault her belief (in this book), but I would have hoped for a sharper eye and surer instincts. The opening chapter is disorganized. Instead of a strict chronological sequence, which would have better served the reader, it jumps around in time. This is what second-rate journalists do to make their story “interesting”. This book needs none of that. And later chapters occasionally suffer from the same vice. Every now and then, in the middle of a chapter, there’s a line in boldface, in a style that reeks of the same populism. Fagone goes inside the mind of a minor character like this: “Osmar Hellmuth had never felt so important before. He ...” A reader who has reached page 275 of this book does not need this kind of “thriller-writing style” to keep going. Then there are the mistakes. The most glaring one comes on p.127, which reproduces a love note, in French, using “rail-fence” (the simplest of codes), from the heroine to her husband. She writes, “Je t’adore mon mari!” Right below, in running capital letters (why not small caps?), Fagone offers his transcription: “Je t’adore mon mar”. And the sentence is repeated later on in the book, again in capital letters and again without the last letter and the exclamation mark. With a mistake like this, my trust in the text, and more particularly its editor, was shattered. So the story this book tells is really great. It deserved a better editor.
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Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Good book
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 14, 2020
Great thanks
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Miriam Verheyden
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A must-read!
Reviewed in Canada on September 24, 2018
If you like historical non-fiction, you HAVE to read this book. It''s the real story about Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William, both pioneers in crytology and code-breaking. They both played an immensely important role in World War II breaking encrypted codes...See more
If you like historical non-fiction, you HAVE to read this book. It''s the real story about Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William, both pioneers in crytology and code-breaking. They both played an immensely important role in World War II breaking encrypted codes that were supposed to be unbreakable, with Elizebeth hunting Nazi spies in South America and her husband breaking codes from the Japanese. Elizebeth was brilliant, yet her role in fighting the war and creating techniques in code-breaking that are still used today have been largely edited out of the history books. This happened due to an unfortunate combination of politics, male chauvinism, the power-hungry J. Edgar Hoover taking all the credit for himself, and Elizebeth''s inherent modesty and habit of downplaying her achievements. Author Jason Fagone did a fantastic job shining the spotlight on this great woman and giving her the credit that is her due.
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Nathalia Holt interviews Jason Fagone about his book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Nathalia Holt: What drew you to this story?

Jason Fagone: Well, it’s one of these amazing American origin stories. A hundred years ago, a young woman in her early twenties suddenly became one of the greatest codebreakers in the country. She taught herself how to solve secret messages without knowing the key. Even though she started out as a poet, not a mathematician, she turned out to be a genius at solving these very difficult puzzles, and her solutions ended up changing the 20th century. She helped us win the world wars. And she also shaped the intelligence community as we know it today.

NH: William Friedman has long been recognized as a pioneer of cryptology, so why have we never heard of Elizebeth before?

JF: Sexism and secrecy. A lot of the time she was omitted or even erased from the records by the men in her life. Sometimes they were men close to her, like her husband, William Friedman, who was also a champion codebreaker, and sometimes they were men in power, like J. Edgar Hoover. All through World War II she used her skills to hunt Nazi spies who were spreading into the West. She broke these Nazi spy codes for the FBI, which would have been lost without her—and then Hoover turned around and painted himself as the big hero. There was nothing she could do, because of secrecy rules.

NH: In the Author’s Note of your book you describe the excitement of discovering Elizebeth’s archives in a vault of a Virginia library. What was that moment like and what types of resources did you use to research this story?

JF: I’ll never forget that moment. Elizebeth donated 22 boxes of papers to the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Virginia. Since her death in 1980 those boxes have been carefully preserved at the Foundation’s library in a vault. Elizebeth left thousands of her personal letters, whole diaries full of poems, newspaper clippings of her famous rum cases, and original code worksheets. She kept everything that wasn’t classified. The only period of her life missing from the archive was 1939 through 1945—World War II. So I had to patch the gap. It took me more than two years to find the missing records, hunting through archives in the U.S. and the U.K.

NH: How can Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s story inspire young women today?

JF: I think a lot of professional women today can relate to her experiences. She did all this important work and got very little credit. But at the same time, because she was so good at her job, she had a lasting impact on the world. She blazed a trail in a lot of ways, and she did it in her own style. Once she wrote, “If I may capture a goodly number of your messages, even though I have never seen your code book, I may still read your thoughts.” That captures her personality: Do whatever you like, but I still have this mind, and you will have to reckon with it.

NH: This book is in many ways a love story. Can you tell us about the letters sent between Elizebeth and her husband?

JF: Elizebeth and William started writing to each other before they were romantically involved, when they were still only friends. They were these two young people who wanted to accomplish great things, to leave a mark. In 1918, when William joined the Army and sailed to France to serve as a codebreaker, he wrote Elizebeth these 20- and 30-page love letters by the light of an oil lamp, calling her 'Divine Fire.' He liked to include bits of code that he knew only Elizebeth would understand, and she replied in code, too. For the Friedmans it was a lovers’ shorthand, a way of staying connected. And later, when they had kids, they taught the kids how to do it, too.

Nathalia Holt is the New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars and Cured: The People who Defeated HIV.

Description

Product Description

National Bestseller 

NPR Best Book of the Year

“Not all superheroes wear capes, and Elizebeth Smith Friedman should be the subject of a future Wonder Woman movie.” —The New York Times

Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II.

In 1916, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story, incredibly, has never been told.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation’s history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizebeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.

Fagone unveils America’s code-breaking history through the prism of Smith’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence. Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson’s bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

Review

“[Fagone] documents the amazing arc of his subject’s life, often in stunning detail…Ms. Friedman was not only crypto pioneer and a patriotic spycatcher, but also an inspiring role model.” -- Wired

The Woman Who Smashed Codes...has drawn comparisons to Hidden Figures, though we think this one is better. In journalist Jason Fagone’s deft hands, we not only learn about a lost national treasure, but also get new insight into the history of our country at war.” -- New York Post

“[Elizebeth Friedman] was a tireless and talented code breaker who brought down gangsters and Nazi spies...a fascinating swath of American history that begins in Gilded Age Chicago and moves to the inner workings of our intelligence agencies at the close of WWII.”
-- Los Angeles Times

“Damned-near impossible to put down. The book has everything: thrills, chills, kills, love, crypto, and a hopeful sense that a nearly forgotten American genius, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is finally being given her due.” -- Ars Technica

“It’s unsurprising that the name Elizebeth Friedman doesn’t ring a bell for most Americans, given how much of her work was classified during the war.... Still, this Quaker-born poet from Indiana was the grandmother of the National Security Agency and virtually created the modern code-breaking profession. Trust us on this one.” -- Forbes

“This is the best work of nonfiction I’ve ever read—no hyperbole...Fagone has painstakingly worked backward to piece together a truth that has been buried for too long. In the process, he has helped Friedman gain recognition as the American hero she was.” -- MIT Technology Review

“In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, journalist Jason Fagone recreates a world and a cast of characters so utterly fascinating they will inhabit the psyches of its readers long after the book has been read.” -- Associated Press

“One of the year’s best reads, it is both deeply researched and beautifully told.” -- The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Woman Who Smashed Codes should be the next Hidden Figures...a story that anyone with interest in the time period has to read, a key piece of the puzzle about America’s war effort.” -- Washington Post

“This book tells the incredible, little-known story of code-breaker Elizebeth Smith and her husband, cryptologist William Friedman, otherwise known as the ‘Adam and Eve’ of the NSA.” -- New York Post

“Reads like some wild cross between a fairy tale and a gripping detective thriller... a sheer delight to read.”  -- San Francisco Chronicle

“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.” -- NPR.org

“[Fagone] records the pair’s accomplishments, trials, and love affair, taking care to ensure that Elizebeth finally receives the recognition she deserves...[a] carefully researched story of a smart and loyal but overlooked woman.” -- Library Journal (starred review)

“Riveting, inspiring, and rich in colorful characters, Fagone’s extensively researched and utterly dazzling title is popular history at its very best and a book club natural.” -- Booklist (starred review)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is historical reporting done right, assigning credit where it is long overdue.” -- Seattle Book Review

“A bang-up research effort [and] an engaging resurrection of a significant player in the world of cryptology.” -- Kirkus Reviews

“Superb storytelling” -- Providence Journal

“Fagone is a superb writer and has created a fascinating tale of a woman who brought down Prohibition-era smugglers, Nazi’s, counterfeiters, gangsters and more. ” -- Ben Rothke, RSA Conference

“A powerful love story, a story of war, and a fascinating biography,  The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a magnificent work of literary nonfiction that sheds light on an important hidden figure. You will devour this book.” -- Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City  

“Deeply reported and stunningly original, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a riveting narrative about one of the most overlooked figures in American history—a figure whose remarkable story was essentially ignored for more than seventy years simply because she was a woman.” -- Stefan Fatsis, bestselling author of Word Freak

“Jason Fagone is a master storyteller—and he’s telling one damn good story about a long-forgotten American heroine. It is, among many things, the compulsively readable history of the national security state in its infancy. His book is filled with memorable villains, intrigue, and love.” -- Franklin Foer, New York Times Bestselling author of How Soccer Explains the World and the forthcoming World Without Mind

“Jason Fagone’s stunning narrative unearths an intimate and unexpected history of code breaking. This remarkable tale reveals the fundamental role cryptology has played in our past, and the untold story of the pioneering woman behind its evolution. It is a treasure of a book.” -- Nathalia Holt, New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars

“In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone rights a historical wrong, unshrouding an unsung heroine and revealing the love story at the root of the modern world’s spy games. But this book’s true revelation is the author’s talent: sure-handed, thrilling, and lyrical.” -- Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar

From the Back Cover

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. She moved to the tycoon’s lavish estate outside of Chicago expecting to spend her days poring through old books. But the rich man’s close ties to the U.S. government, and the urgencies of war, quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission. She soon learned to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking—the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her on the estate was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner. Elizebeth and William were in many ways the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency, the U.S. institution that monitors and intercepts foreign communications to glean intelligence.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman who played an integral role in our nation’s history—from the Great War to the Cold War. He traces Elizebeth’s developing career through World War I, Prohibition, and the struggle against fascism. She helped catch gangsters and smugglers, exposed a Nazi spy ring in South America, and fought a clandestine battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German operatives to conceal their communications. And through it all, she served as muse to her husband, a master of puzzles, who astonished friends and foes alike. Inside an army vault in Washington, he worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.

Fagone unveils for the first time America’s codebreaking history through the prism of one remarkable woman’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that shaped the modern intelligence community. Rich in detail, The Woman Who Smashed Codes pays tribute to an unsung hero whose story belongs alongside those of other great female technologists, like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, and whose oft-hidden contributions altered the course of the century.

About the Author

Jason Fagone is a journalist who covers science, technology, and culture. Named one of the “Ten Young Writers on the Rise” by the Columbia Journalism Review, he works at the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic, the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Philadelphia magazine. Fagone is also the author of Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, the X Prize, and the Race to Revive America and Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream. He lives in San Francisco, California.

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