Throughout the spring and early summer of 1937, telephone operators at the American Woman’s Association Clubhouse in Manhattan noted that a man with a deep voice called daily for one of the residents, Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Poyntz took the calls every time, until one morning in June when she spoke with her mysterious caller and then left the Clubhouse. She reportedly walked in the direction of Central Park, two blocks away, and was never seen again. The telephone operators and the clubhouse manager, Mr. Thackerberry, were troubled that the deep-voiced man stopped calling after that day.
After weeks with no sign of Poyntz and her rent overdue, Thackerberry notified Poyntz’s emergency contact, who called Poyntz’s attorney, Elias Lieberman, and the two went to her room. They found no indication that Poyntz planned to be gone long — there were no funds taken from her accounts, she left her passport behind, and she failed to bring her prescription with her. Poyntz suffered from lupus, and in 1937 treatments were limited. Days without her prescription could have been detrimental to her health. Lieberman feared that his friend was involuntarily taken, but decided not to report her disappearance. An unusual decision — but Lieberman had good reason not to report it. Poyntz worked as an anti-Nazi Soviet spy and her friends feared alerting American authorities to her whereabouts. Seven months passed without any sign of her, and only after Thackerberry mentioned his missing resident to a police officer friend was her disappearance finally reported. Once newspapers alerted the public, the story of Poyntz’s disappearance took on a momentum of its own and became a foundational narrative in American anti-communism.
Juliet Stuart Poyntz was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1886. She moved to New Jersey as a youth with her mother and sister. Poyntz attended Barnard College, where she was an active and interested student involved in student government and Progressive Era movements both on campus and off. She attended suffrage meetings, labor conferences, and lectures from leading activists like Jane Addams. Poyntz left college a determined activist.
After college, Poyntz worked as a teacher, one of the few professions available to women of her era, but she wanted to be more politically active. In 1915, she joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) as the first-ever union Educational Director. It was in the ILGWU that Poyntz became radicalized, eventually joining the Socialist Party. Poyntz would get caught up in some of the early internecine conflicts that developed in the United States over whether American socialists should join the Communist International (COMINTERN) based in Moscow, an organization of worldwide communist movements. Poyntz sided with the communists who tied their fate to Moscow’s, and she became a well-respected leader within the American Communist Party. In 1934, she agreed to work in the anti-Nazi Soviet underground, recruiting people willing to collect information within Germany. Communists believed that the United States was not doing enough to stem the fascist tide in Europe. Poyntz, childless, widowed, middle-aged, with only an estranged sister, had no personal connections stopping her.
But by 1936, Moscow was having its own troubles. Josef Stalin was putting Bolshevik leaders on trial, alleging crimes against the revolution. These “show” trials were accompanied by the Great Purge, in which Stalin’s forces eliminated his political enemies; Poyntz went missing during the purges. Some of her friends came to believe that after years in the underground, she became disillusioned and wanted to get out. Allegedly, she confessed as much to Carlo Tresca, an outspoken anarchist and long-time friend, only weeks before her disappearance. Her disappearance and suspected murder at the hands of the Soviet Union occurred at a time of disillusionment among American radicals on the political left. Some, like Tresca and Herbert Solow, a radical journalist, believed that the violence inherent in Marxist revolution corrupted communists like Stalin, whose violence could not be contained. This was clear in the show trials and the purges. These radicals gradually rejected their radical past and began to embrace anti-communism.
Tresca and Solow constructed a narrative of Poyntz’s disappearance in their articles and publications that blamed the Soviet Union and alleged that she was murdered for wanting to get out. They also formulated a gendered narrative of victimization that described Poyntz as a casualty of circumstances beyond her control. In anti-communist narratives, she became weak, matronly, and a political stooge sacrificed by a mechanism she was duped into working for. By all accounts, Poyntz was a fearsome, outspoken, and independent woman, not to mention a life-long radical and devoted communist. It was an affront to the woman she had been, but in her absence, Poyntz became a tool in the larger pre–World War II anti-communist movement that sought to convince Americans that communism and not capitalism was its greatest threat.
During the war, the USSR was an ally of the United States, and anti-communist rhetoric was temporarily muted, except by former leftists like Herbert Solow, who warned that the Soviets could not be trusted. Tresca was assassinated in 1943, a still unsolved murder. But Solow remained devoted to reminding people about Poyntz’s disappearance. After the war, when anti-communist hysteria reached its peak, and conservatives recognized communism in every call for civil or women’s rights, Poyntz became a pawn in hearings and court cases. Former communists and communist spies, like Whittaker Chambers, a close friend of Solow’s, used her disappearance as evidence that communists wanted to dismantle American democracy and attack Americans. Chambers even believed that Poyntz’s disappearance and likely murder was the start of the Stalinist purges. During the Cold War, the gendered narrative of communist women devolved into descriptions of them as “shrewish wives, neurotic old maids, and voluptuous young vixens.”1 No longer were communist women victims; they were operators in an apparatus that would use any tool, including women’s sexuality, to attack democratic institutions. But somehow, Poyntz’s pre–World War II reputation as a victim remained intact into the Cold War.
There was, however, one major exception to this Cold War narrative: Elizabeth Bentley. Bentley, a former spy herself, left the Soviet underground after World War II. She looked more like a schoolmarm than the voluptuous, sexy spy in the cultural imagination of American audiences. Therefore, she was deeply disappointing to Cold War audiences. She was also unmarried, had an affair with a married spy until his death, and was an alcoholic. Bentley was an affront to mid-century gender expectations that sought to contain sexuality and women. She used the long-missing Poyntz to create a contrast. Bentley wrote a memoir titled Out of Bondage to try and control her media image and construct herself as a “communist June Cleaver” in contrast to a heavily stereotyped Poyntz. In the memoir, Bentley described Poyntz in cliched terms — she was a heavy drinker, a honey trap, a woman using her sexuality to lure men, and a bisexual. But her efforts failed, and the American press continued to describe Bentley as an unstable, hysterical woman, while Poyntz was remembered as a victim.2
Poyntz’s disappearance and suspected murder was not simply a useful tool to reify anti-communist propaganda; it was a foundational narrative in Cold War America. Those in a position to construct anti-communism knew Poyntz’s story, and some were influenced by it to leave the Communist Party. During the Cold War, they invoked her disappearance again and again in testimony, personal memoirs, and the press as evidence of communist violence. Meanwhile, Poyntz’s disappearance remains unsolved, and few law enforcement agencies in the 1930s and beyond appeared interested in locating a missing communist. Poyntz’s suspected murder at the hands of communists in the pre-WWII era was central to the Cold War anti-communist hysteria, and former anti-communists used it to undermine calls for civil and women’s rights and lead the United States to take a political turn to the right.
- Kathryn Olmstead, “Blond Queens, Red Spiders, and Neurotic Old Maids: Gender and Espionage in the Early Cold War,” Intelligence and National Security 19, no. 1 (2004): 79. Return to text.
- Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage: KGB Target: Washington, D.C. (New York: Ivy Books, 1988); Kathryn Olmstead, Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 166-67. Return to text.