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In light of the wrenching revelations in Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, we recommend these biographies of others netted in the hysteria and covert crimes of the Cold War, from spies to writers, artists, and activists.
Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy. By Ben Macintyre. 2020. Crown, $28 (9780593136300).
Ursula Burton seemed like an ordinary English village housewife, but, in fact, she was a highly trained Soviet spy.
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal. By David E. Hoffman. 2015. Anchor, $17 (9780345805973).
Hoffman details the last years of U.S.–USSR Cold War espionage, focusing on Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian engineer who provided the U.S. with technological information worth billions.
Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War. By Duncan White. 2019. Custom, $29.99 (9780062449818).
White maps the precarious place of literature in a world swarming with spies eager to manipulate, even enlist authors such as George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, and Graham Greene.
Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. By Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo. 2015. Univ. Press of Kentucky, $40 (9780813146805).
Among the many Hollywood artists whose careers were destroyed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was heroic, enduring being blacklisted and incarcerated because he refused to name fellow Communist Party members.
Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. By Larry Tye. 2020. HMH, $36 (9781328959720).
Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s virulent anti-communist crusade did deep damage to individuals and the country; Tye’s indelible account casts sobering light on today’s fraught political conflicts.
Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson. By Barbara Ransby. 2013. Yale, $35 (9780300124347).
Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson was an anthropologist, activist, journalist, and UN correspondent, sharing her husband’s controversial political beliefs, for which both paid an enormous price during the Cold War.
Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War. By Nigel Cliff. 2016. Harper Perennial, $17.99 (9780062333179).
In 1958, pianist Van Cliburn, a “long, tall Texan,” won Moscow’s first International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23, and returned to perform to adoring crowds in the Soviet Union in contrast to the often-grisly reality suffered by most citizens under Stalin.
The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. By Mary Helen Washington. 2014. Columbia Univ., $27 (9780231152716).
Washington tells the long-overlooked stories of six Black creatives who were surveilled, investigated, and blacklisted during the Cold War because of their race, beliefs, and work: artist Charles White and writers Frank London Brown, Lloyd L. Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Childress, and Julian Mayfield.
Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art. By Lindsey R. Swindall. 2013. Rowman & Littlefield, $38 (9781442207936).
Paul Robeson was a widely admired actor, singer, activist, athlete, scholar, and world citizen, but during the Cold War, his outspoken political views and socialist tendencies led the U.S. government to label him a subversive.
The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—a Tragedy in Three Acts. By Scott Anderson. 2020. Doubleday, $30 (9780385540452).
As Anderson tracks the career paths of four early, consequential CIA spies, he exposes disasters precipitated by the hubristic spy agency, especially in Communist nations.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. By Ruth Franklin. 2016. Norton/Liveright, $17.95 (9781631493416).
Known best for “The Lottery,” published in 1948, Shirley Jackson wrote many more works of “cruelty and alienation,” illuminating the fear, anxiety, anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism of the Cold War era.
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