Journalist Jason Fagon, when he set out to write a biography of the extraordinary Elizebeth Friedman, America’s chief codebreaker during World War II, had an obstacle to overcome that most biographers don’t face: He had to learn cryptology, the art and science of secret writing.
Fortunately, Fagon had a good teacher: Elizebeth Friedman herself.
Friedman had been dead for more than two decades when Fagon began his research — she died in 1980 — but she had left much of her work in papers given to the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia.
Fagon started by reading about cryptology and trying to get an idea of how it happened. He admitted in an interview with Fortune magazine that he didn’t feel he had gotten very far.
But then this lucky thing happened, and I discovered a codebreaking manual written by Elizebeth herself, left behind in her personal archive. It’s an unpublished manuscript of a book she wrote for young adults, explaining how to break common types of codes and ciphers with a pencil and paper, in this very clear and encouraging and witty style. The spirit of the book is like: You can do it! Jump in! Have fun! It’s a game! Don’t be afraid! And it was perfect for me, as an amateur. That’s how I learned the basics of cryptanalysis, by reading Elizebeth’s own book and stepping through some of the example problems that she laid out. Elizebeth Smith Friedman: ‘The Woman Who Smashed Codes’
Besides his willingness to dig into cryptology, Fagon had another advantage as a biographer: he had a spectacular and important subject that few people knew anything about. Friedman’s life defies a short description.
She stumbled into cryptology after being asked by an eccentric millionaire to help prove that Sir Francis Bacon had written the plays of William Shakespeare. (He didn’t, according to a book she and her husband wrote many years later.) This job led her to her working for the government during Prohibition, breaking codes of smugglers and testifying against them in court.
When World War II broke out for America in 1941, she became America’s chief cryptanalyst, breaking Nazi and Japanese codes and helping the FBI track down Nazi spies throughout North and South America. Because her work was often classified and because she was a woman, and a modest one at that, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover never gave her the credit she deserved for her work.
Fagon’s book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, published in 2017, has helped to correct that injustice. The book has become a best-seller and was named as a National Public Radio Best Book of the Year. Stuart Smith’s biography, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is available at WorldCat at this link.
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