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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies

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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.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of Elizebeth Smith 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.

444 pages, Hardcover

First published September 26, 2017

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About the author

Jason Fagone

8 books178 followers
I've written about science, sports, and culture for Wired, GQ, Men's Journal, Esquire, NewYorker.com, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, Philadelphia, and the 2011 edition of The Best American Sports Writing. A few years ago, I wrote a book called "Horsemen of the Esophagus," about competitive eating and the American dream. For the last three years, I've been working on my next book, "Ingenious," which will be published this November. It's about inventors and cars. I live outside of Philadelphia with my wife and daughter.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,929 reviews
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews504 followers
January 16, 2018
Possibly one of the best books I have ever read. Even better than Hidden Figures. Thank you Jason Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman into my life. When I first picked up this title, I thought maybe Fagone found a woman who was impressive, but not necessarily one of the most amazing women to ever live, to make the subject of his new book. It seemed possible that perhaps he was overselling her accomplishments and underselling the recognition she received in the history books, all in an effort to sensationalize his book and boost sales. Indeed the claims he made in his heartfelt introduction about Elizebeth Friedman were fleshed out and brought to life in each stunning chapter of her unbelievable existence.

Why should you love this book? Because it was hard enough for women to even force their way into universities that would allow them to get a degree. Even when, against the odds, they received that degree, it was difficult to get a job. If they passed even that hurdle, once children came along, they usually had to leave their jobs to be good mothers. Fathers were "good fathers" if they provided. A woman was a bad mother if she went to work and provided. She had to stay home in order to be considered a good mother. Even if women got the degree, got the job, and survived in that job despite having had children, their accomplishments of a lifelong career could still be discounted. Elizebeth Friedman's life long career involved *creating* the models we use today (and that the FBI used and stole credit for!) and using those cyphers to help win WWI and WWII. Despite her contributions and her lifelong career, she was still be written out of the larger history and men were given credit for her work. I think we are all aware of how unfair the pay has been for women throughout history. Hell it's still unfair. Yet, I had no idea how unfair it really was. This book makes the pay disparity crystal clear. It was rough being a woman.

Just think back to Marie Curie. Why was she able to make a name for herself in science when so few women had that chance? Why did women like Mileva Maric, who were smart, get relegated to wiping poop off baby butts instead of engaging with the wider world? The women like Curie and Elizebeth Friedman had what Virginia Wolf called "A Room of Their Own." The men in their lives valued them enough to free them from being only a mother or housekeeper. The men in their lives supported their efforts to use their brilliant minds and engage with hard problems the world needed solved. Other men, like Maric's husband Albert Einstein (who I love despite my criticism) focused on their own careers and had zero problem making the raising of babies (that they helped create) the mother's problem. They did nothing to ensure equality or give support to the women they claimed to love. Someone had to raise the kids and by God, it sure wasn't going to be them.

Elizebeth's mind was nothing short of genius and her husband William knew it. While I generally dislike romance novels because they seem unrealistic and are usually aimed at women who need an escape because their lives are unfulfilled, this is my kind of romance novel! It reads nothing like an actual romance novel (Outlander, Fabio type books), but I am in love with the relationship of William and Elizebeth Friedman. They are my new all time favorite couple.

Fagone draws on diaries, letters, and other documents from WWI and WWII to uncover the role Elizebeth Friedman played in the development of cryptography as a science, in catching pirates (so good), in teaching cryptography to special intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA, and in breaking the codes that helped win WWI and WWII. He used those documents to present a biography of her whole life, both professional and personal to paint a picture unlike any I have yet read.

You will get to know Elizebeth's quirky nature that resulted in her being very annoyed when people didn't use the right words. She hated politers, people who used pleasing words to soften what they really meant. A friend was not indisposed at a party. They were drunk off their ass and you should just say so. A loved one did not just pass away. They died. Accept it and own it. When you have a husband who gives you his heart and soul and it translates into some pretty good sex, you should accurately call him your "lover husband." What a character!

I am not sure what was more interesting to me, her incredible brain and the work she did that ended up being a significant contribution to society, as well as our American society's very survival, or the fact that she did it while caring for her husband William, who was brilliant in his own right (and oh so loving- can I go back in time and hook up with William, please!!??), but who had some significant mental health challenges, namely major debilitating depression.

I have to relate some of their more loving and sweet moments as a couple taking on the world together:

While in the presence of another colleague, William was captivated by her, he could not help but rip off a scrap of paper and secretly scribbled a note to her. When their colleague was not looking, he passed her the note which read, " I am studying your features, you are perfectly beautiful. " She quickly tucked the note away in her pocket and later stuck it between the pages of her diary on the page she used to write about how she felt about this wonderful gesture. He told her almost daily how brilliant and beautiful she was and called her, "Dearest Woman in the Universe." Before they had children, he told her he knew he didn't make very much money working for the army as a code breaker, but he would work very hard to make sure he could hire someone to help look after the kids and take care of the house so she could be free to use her brilliant brain and write books or do something intellectually minded that would be deeply satisfying (this is a Room of One's Own). The descriptions of his earnest wish for her to have this type of life was so beautiful, it actually made me cry. Just wonderful. He told her that home is not a place where the wife cleans and the man comes home from work to be served. Rather, home is a place where two hearts beat in unison. And she should be spending her time with her intellectual pursuits so that there are two hearts can be in unison.

At this point in their lives, the electron was just beginning to be understood and, in a letter, he asked her if she knew what an electron was and how incomprehensibly small it was. He told her that as incomprehensibly small is that electron is his love for her is in comprehensibly large. He worried most days that he wasn't enough for her. He was filled with as much insecurity as he was love. He told Elizebeth that *every* accomplishment he made was only because she was with him because he truly believed that without her, he could not function as a whole human being. Reading about him and his mental health issues, this seems to have been very true. This gives new meaning to the phrase, "You complete me."

Elizebeth's work life was far more challenging that her romantic life.Though she and William had equal intelligence (many argue hers was superior and I tend to agree), and even though they had both been equally involved in creating cyphers to break codes, and were both equally good at breaking codes (she surpassed him in this ability by all accounts), it was only William who was asked to move to France to help his country decipher messages in WWI. Up to that point, Elizebeth had done just as much decoding for the war effort and was one of a hand full of people *in the world* who had the skills to break the codes that could keep our United States from being attacked. And yet, she *still* was not allowed to serve her country. She wrote to the Army to challenge their decision and informed them that she had the expertise and would very much like to serve her country. They replied that since she was a woman, it was simply out of the question. She was infuriated. Reading that, I could not help but be infuriated too. William's name would be the one who ended up on all the papers and in all the history books. He was the one who received the praise back then. Through it all, he worked hard to get people to understand that she was equally brilliant and made sure to tell her that all the time.

Having no luck convincing the Army that she was more than fit to serve her country as a codebreaker, she was hired by the Coast Guard to bust pirates who were smuggling goods. What a job! What an experience! I believe this moves her from the status of being a significant figure in history to being a legend! Little did she or anyone else realize that her taking the job to catch pirates would lead to her biggest successes in her entire career. Because she was in the Coast Guard, and because she was their top codebreaker (in truth one of the top codebreakers in the entire world), and because they had the best technology at the time, Elizebeth became possibly the most valuable codebreaker in WWII and certainly contributed as much as Alan Turing to win the war and save American and British lives. She did all of this as Hoover claimed credit, credit for the lives saved, credit for the creation of *her* codebreaking models, and credit for the ability to break codes (which was only possible if they used her models).

One of the best characters in the book is Fabian. If he were not a real person in history, you would think he was too far-fetched a character to make up. I am now compelled to see if there is a biography of his crazy life.

I highly recommend this book and would even classify it as essential reading. If you don't read it, you are really missing out on one of the best biographies of any person who has ever lived. A++
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,736 reviews14.1k followers
February 20, 2020
When I started reading this, I knew it was about code breaking during WWll and that another woman has been rescued from the shadows of obscurity to take her rightful place in history. What I didn't expect the many book coincidences I would find within. The first is the Newberry Library in Chicago, a place I have visited many times.. A fascinating place where if one wants to examine any of the rare materials, one must don s pair of white gloves. The second coincidence was Hillsdale College in Michigan. A college where one of my sons played football and from which he graduated. It was the third coincidence though that I found the most profound.

Elizabeth is hired by Colonel Fabyan to find the codes he believed were hidden in Shakespeare's manuscripts. Located in Geneva, Illinois this is a scant two miles from my house. I never knew Fabyan was such an eccentric character, keeping a bear in an iron cage on his property and having had several different types of experiments ongoing continuously. His property is now a forest preserve, but the cage is still there as are the bridges spanning the Fox River, as is the Windmill on the west side of the river.

Elizabeth meets her husband there and both are experts code breakers. They go to work in different government agencies and are integral to dicephering the codes that helped break up spy rings, among other efforts. William is not mentally healthy at all times, but Elizabeth stands by him. For all their efforts they are not recognized. Elizabeth's contributions stolen by an unscrupulous Edgar Hoover. There names buried in paperwork that was not released until the early part of this century.

This is a fascinating book, one I enjoyed much more than I thought I would.

The narration is done by Cassandra Collins who I thought was perfect.
Profile Image for Erin.
2,956 reviews485 followers
January 24, 2019
Completely fascinating from beginning to end, the true story of Elizabeth Friedman, a Quaker schoolteacher and Shakespeare scholar, emerges to the forefront of this narrative and reveals the untold story of one of the greatest cryptanalyst of the 20th century.

Audiobook narrated by Cassandra Campbell 13h 37m 2s

This was a FANTASTIC read or rather listen that I selected on a whim. Elizabeth and her husband, William sure do define relationship goals. A large part of the book talks about the couple's work during WWII which I found really interesting as it was an aspect of the war that I only know through movies.

As for the audio, I would give it a 3 star because a few of CC's pronunciations were a bit odd. However, that is secondary to the history presented here by the author.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
January 11, 2020
I found this to be a very good book, and I am one who rarely reads books on espionage! That I should think this is remarkable.

Espionage usually confuses me. This isn’t the case here. The author explains what is necessary to know clearly and methodically and never in a dry or pedantic manner. Historical events are added but not excessively. The clarity of this book is what stands out for me. The clarity allows a reader to follow the events without being confused and to appreciate the importance of what Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892 – 1980) and her husband, William Friedman (1891 – 1969), achieved in the field of counterespionage, code-breaking and intelligence. Their relationship adds a personal element to the tale told of their respective accomplishments in the field of cryptology.

The book teaches about espionage and code-breaking, but it is equally much about the couple. Elizebeth began working for the eccentric tycoon George Fabyan (1867 - 1936) in 1916. It was at his estate and scientific laboratory Riverbank, located on the Fox River near Geneva, Illinois, outside of Chicago, that Elizebeth first met William. She was a Quaker schoolteacher, he a Jewish plant biologist. What they shared was a strong belief in the value of knowledge and truth. The two began working on Fabyan’s project to discover if Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s writings. It was claimed by some that Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 was in fact written by Francis Bacon. It was said to be written in a coded language and had a secret message. Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne were two of the many who supported this claim! Reading about George Fabyan, reading about Riverbank and the projects carried on there and the prominent intellectuals of the day who fully supported Fabyan’s projects, as well as Teddy Roosevelt for example, is fascinating. Another project under investigation was the key to immortality. George Fabyan was truly an eccentric. To read about what was going on there at Riverbank is reason alone to pick up this book, and yet it is just the beginning of the tale told.

While Elizebeth and William developed their decoding techniques working together side by side at Riverside, their acumen comes to the fore during the Second World War. She, working for the Coast Guard, deciphered the Engima Machine used by Nazis. He, working for the American Army, unlocked Japan’s encryption machine called Purple. He was publicly acclaimed. She, being a woman and supportive of her husband’s skills, was not. Edgar Hoover sought and got recognition for the FBI rather than proper recognition being given to her. Elizebeth’s and William’s respective salaries were similarly unequal. With this book, the record is set straight.

How the Second World War unfolded in South America takes central stage in this book. In other books this is seldom covered as well as it here. Elizebeth was intimately tied to the decoding of Nazi spy rings working in South America. German spies were sending messages to submarines about the movement of British and US ships. Efforts were made to overthrow governments and to install fascist governments instead. All such secret correspondence had to be decoded quickly, quietly and efficiently so appropriate measures could be taken. After the war many Nazis emigrated to Argentina. Having read the book, one has a better understanding of why perhaps this came to be.

The book follows Elizebeth and William to their deaths--covering the physical and emotional strain of the war years, their respective occupations after the war and their personal and family relationships. What life came to teach them and the philosophical views they came to hold conclude the book in a satisfying manner.

Cassandra Campbell narrates the audiobook very well. Only occasionally does she read too fast; this occurs when the text deals with how the codes are designed. She is not hard to follow. She dramatizes at points, but not excessively. Four stars for the narration.

A PDF file accompanies the audiobook. Cryptographical terms are clarified. It is easier to understand the different ways messages can be encrypted by observing the diagrams and reading the explanatory information made available in the file. This is just one more example of the effort put into making all information clear.

Read this book for its information about cryptology, the Second World War as it played out in South America and to learn about Elizebeth and William Friedman and George Fabyan too.


Related books:
*The Man Who Broke Purple: The Life of Colonel William F. Friedman by Ronald William Clark
*The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization by James Bamford

*A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell can also be recommended. The angle is different, but it is worth reading too.
183 reviews
December 9, 2017
This book had the potential to be awesome (looking at other reviews!). However, the writing style of this journalist-turned-author comes off like a recitation of facts. Elizebeth is a fascinating woman that history ignored, her accomplishments and life man-splained away. As much as I appreciated learning about this dynamic figure, I found the writing dry and bogged down with too much detail.
Profile Image for Jean.
1,709 reviews742 followers
November 20, 2017
I recently read “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy. This book “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” makes a nice addition or compliment to the storyline. Elizabeth Smith Friedman is the subject of this book. Mundy also mentioned Elizabeth’s husband, William F. Friedman, and deemed them to be an important team of cryptologists. William F. Friedman was famous in World War Two for breaking Purple, the Japanese cipher machine.

Elizabeth Smith was a college educated teacher who was recruited by George Fabyan to work in his Riverbank Laboratory in 1910. She was hired to work on secret codes. She went on to play a key role in the development of cryptoanalysis in the USA. She met William Friedman at the Riverbank Labs and soon they were married and working together decoding messages for the government during World War One. Between the wars and during prohibition, Elizabeth broke the codes of the smugglers for the Coast Guard and other divisions of the Department of the Treasury. She frequently testified in court. During World War Two Elizabeth worked on decoding messages from spy rings in the North and South America for the Coast Guard. J. Edgar Hoover asked her to set up the Cryptology Division of the FBI.

The book is well written and meticulously researched. At times the book reads more like a spy novel than a biography. Apparently, J. Edgar Hoover took credit for a lot of the work done by Elizabeth. This is another in a series of books about women’s little-known role in science and government work during both wars.

I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is thirteen and a half hours long. Cassandra Campbell does an excellent job narrating the book. Campbell is an actress and voice-over artist as well as an award- winning audiobook narrator. Campbell won the 2011 Audie Award. She also was the Best Voice in fiction for 2009 and 2010. She was Best Voice in Children’s literature for 2009. Audible just announced Campbell as a 2017 inductee in the Audible Narrator Hall of Fame.
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
431 reviews270 followers
December 27, 2020
4 Stars - Secrets Revealed

It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.

History is also often “his story.” As many have observed, women have to be extraordinary in order to be respected in the workplace, never mind getting included in the subsequent historical accounts. Elizebeth Smith Friedman (“ESF”) was truly exceptional but her story was hidden because she had been sworn to maintain secrecy until her death.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Fagone provided the very impressive record of ESF’s accomplishments during two world wars, while dealing with power-hungry men and the illness of her husband. William Friedman (“WF”) was by no means a slouch, as he had also made tremendous advances in their field of cryptology (the study of codes and ciphers) and had gone on to “father” the National Security Agency.

Born in 1892 into a family of Quakers, ESF was the youngest of 9 children. She was not a product of her times, for she was a female with a skeptical nature who believed that a person’s value should be determined by their ideas. Feeling the social restrictions of her time, 23-year old ESF knew that she was happiest when she was doing “what she ought not.” Through a quirk of fate, she was introduced to an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan, who had created a scientific research complex called Riverbank. Hired to find encrypted messages in the William Shakespeare Folios, ESF soon met WF as they worked on the suspected codes and eventually together they made massive strides in the young field of cryptology.

Fabyan was not only eccentric but controlling and egocentric. He wanted to advance knowledge, as long as he was somehow involved and he wasn’t contradicted. Fabyan repeatedly offered the services of his cryptologists to the federal government. President Wilson learned of the February 1917 offer from Germany to hand over Texas and two other states to Mexico in exchange for their assistance against the US. At that time, the government did not have the National Security Agency, the FBI was the “Bureau of Investigation,” and the Department of Defense was the “War Department.” Together the Friedmans began to decrypt intercepted messages in German and to do so by pencil and paper. The Friedmans were crucial components of WWI military intelligence and they were increasingly wary of Fabyan. Despite Fabyan’s efforts to sabotage their job hunting, the Friedmans joined the military in DC by late 1920.

From this point on, the Friedmans progressed in cryptology but in separate and secret towers, for WF was employed by the Army and ESF worked primarily for the Coast Guard, which was a part of the Treasury. The big technical challenge of the period between the world wars was radio and its ability to deliver lightning fast messages in Morse codes. The Volstead Act (ie. Prohibition) became effective in 1920. Criminal activity to satisfy the thirst for alcohol kept the Coast Guard and ESF busy. Until Prohibition ended in 1933, ESF honed her skills, trained new cryptologists, and to her dismay, made a name for herself as the star witness in many federal court cases. Indeed, the biggest bootlegging case was against the Consolidated Exporters Corporation of Vancouver, in which President Kennedy’s father was a major shareholder. The federal government won because of ESF’s pioneering work.

The US may not have formally entered WWII until Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, but that didn’t mean military skirmishes weren’t being waged. News to me, but the US began wrestling with Nazi-flagged ships testing American neutrality as early as 1939. As ESF’s Coast Guard division intercepted more worrisome German messages, the US entered into the Invisible War in South America because after decades of German immigration, fascism had a toehold there. Nazi Germany was intent on flipping that toehold into a falling-dominos-row of South American nations that would turn fascist and loyal to the Nazis. From South America, Nazi Germany could easily wage war against the US.
"When a [woman’s or] man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few." - Cadillac’s advertisement “Penalty of Leadership”

Ambitious and publicity-seeking J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was not about to sit on the sidelines during WWII. He persuaded President Roosevelt to an unprecedented expansion of powers for the FBI (the CIA did not exist yet) so that it could round up Nazi spies in South America. Hoover cared more about headlines than cooperation with other federal agencies. The FBI arrested some spies in spring 1942, but not the top two leaders. By this point, international cooperation among Allied Forces had been growing and their intelligence divisions were dealt a bad blow by Hoover’s premature and ill-advised actions. The intelligence communities were left in the dark as the Nazi spy rings changed their codes and it took another five months before they could be decrypted. Hoover’s ambition never abated. When ESF again responded to a request to be a star legal witness for a federal case of a spy arrested in the US, Hoover turned the situation with the FBI (i.e. Hoover) as the star hero. The intelligence communities, which were all military, all had already been sworn to secrecy for years so Hoover had an unencumbered field to distort history and to claim credit.

On a personal note, I believe that Hoover would have done that to anybody because he was such a glory-seeker. But it stung more that he had obscured the heroic achievements of a woman, because Hoover was a misogynist who had fired all women FBI agents as soon as he had the chance in 1922. Women couldn’t be FBI agents until Hoover’s death in 1972. According to one longtime agent’s memoir: “It was perfectly all right to bullshit ‘em and ball’em: Just don’t tell ‘em any secrets.”

How ironic that one of the best secrets-buster in the history of US intelligence was a woman, Elizebeth Smith Friedman. She is one of the most impressive people I have ever read about. Fagone never had a chance to interview her as ESF had died in 1980. It then took many more years before her documents would be de-classified from “top secret.” The Friedmans had created a personal library devoted to cryptology. Their documents that had survived NSA subpoenas are in the private George C. Marshall Foundation in Virginia. Fagone did a great job of describing her professional accomplishments. I just never had a strong sense of who she was outside of her work life, which was why this wasn’t a 5-star book.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,332 reviews118 followers
July 19, 2020
Elizebeth Smith Friedman is a true American hero. This amazing, quiet woman was hired by the eccentric George Fabyan at the age of 23 to prove that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays (he’s not). While working on that project she met her future husband, William Friedman, and worked with him decoding messages for the government at the start of WWI.

William was scooped up by the government and led a team to break enemy codes through both World Wars. He eventually broke the Japanese code Purple and helped to create the NSA. Unfortunately, his brilliant brain also suffered from severe periodic depression that sometimes required institutional treatment, and strong support from Elizebeth.

But this is the story of Elizebeth who worked for the Coast Guard decoding intricate messages by smuggling rings during Prohibition, and later, Nazis. [She solved the first Enigma.] The codebreaking team that she put together helped to ruin the Germans’ operations in South America. Not surprisingly, J.Edgar Hoover took credit for Elizebeth’s work as she provided the technical expertise for Hoover’s Special Intelligence Service.

But did the government reward these two awesome heroes? Not always! Indeed, they seemed to feel that their code-breaking knowledge could present a threat to the nation. They raided their library, and put secrecy restrictions on practically everything they ever worked on that was only raised upon their deaths.

Highly recommend this excellent biography.
Profile Image for Patrick Brown.
141 reviews2,458 followers
November 9, 2017
This was fantastic, and I'm not surprised. Fagone is a great writer (check out his previous book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America), and here he has great subject matter to work with. This book tells the story of Elizabeth Friedman, a pioneer in the field of cryptanalysis (that's codebreaking to us civilians), and one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th Century. Friedman's story has all the stuff you want in a great history -- wingbat theories about Shakespeare, gangster rumrunners, Nazi spies, and a trip to Hitler's mountaintop lair. And any book that opens its section about WWII with a Fugazi quote is ok by me.

I haven't read many history/biographies, but I can't say I've read one that moves quite as well as this. Highly recommended for anyone interested in espionage, codebreaking, WWII, or Prohibition. If I hadn't been trying to read this during the baseball postseason I would have finished it in a day.
Profile Image for Nicole R.
980 reviews
August 11, 2018
I literally just finished listening to this and I want to rush out and tell everyone I know about how freaking amazing Elizebeth Smith Friedman was. I want everyone to read this book and just marvel at how she was a superhero of her day, and yet few of us have heard of her. Because, you know, woman in the first half of the 1900s.

There are no words to sum up the feats of code-breaking that this woman—this PERSON—achieved. She broke codes during WWI, using her pen and paper to make other counties' efforts to conceal their secrets look like chump change. Then, while working for the US Coast Guard when it was housed in Treasury, broke smuggler codes during prohibition and make national headlines when the "lady" testified in court. Against booze smuggling cartels! But, the real pièce de résistance, was during WWII when she suddenly left the public eye because she was breaking freaking Nazi codes. BY HAND. Oh yeah, you know that machine that Alan Turing invented to break Nazi codes produced by their famous Enigma machine? She broke them. BY HAND. (It bore repeating).

Elizebeth basically prevented the Nazis from getting a foothold in South America through Argentina. Which I totally didn't even know was even a thing! And, even more amazing, her husband was also a famous cryptoanalyst whose WWII Naval unit that he formed was the precursor to the NSA. So, while she was focused on South America, her husband was busting codes from Japan it created on their machine Purple. And, they each did their incredibly high stress, massively important, top secret jobs, then came home to their two children and fell asleep in the same bed and did not ever once talk about their work. For over 25 years.

Can y'all hear the excitement in my typing?!?!

The writing of the book was not as strong as some of my other favorite narrative nonfictions, and sometimes it slid into some eye-glazing descriptions of codes and solving them, but I could not care less. It was engaging, comprehensive, straight-forward and very much a story that needed to be told. I would rate it a 3.5 or 4 stars based on the writing in isolation. But, the shear enjoyment I got out of reading about this woman I had never heard of vastly overshadows any minor nitpicks I have with the writing.

I love books like this. Women are awesome. Elizebeth deserved to have her story told.

I also heard that it has been optioned for a TV show. I am a little bummed because I think it would make a better movie, but you bet your ass I will be watching it if it ever makes it to any screen.
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews105 followers
September 15, 2021
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone is a fascinating true story of probably one of if not THE best code breaker/maker in the US and maybe the world that nobody knows about! Elizabeth Smith's marriage to an equally talented and much better known William Friedman resulted in a powerful husband/wife team that made huge contributions to the allied war effort and ended in the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan. Together they became the greatest code breaking team in history and essentially invented the science of cryptology that they then applied to helping their country going all the way back to World War I. Their work contributed to busting Nazi spy rings around the world and Elizabeth was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code machine and the Japanese version called Purple. What is truly sad but not unexpected or surprising is that she tended to stay in the background and let her husband have most (or all) of the accolades while she worked quietly in the background as was common in that timeframe of American and world history. It was only after her death that her accomplishments began to be recognized. More people need to read about this important but mostly unknown history; please read and then pass it along!
Profile Image for Ollivier.
117 reviews13 followers
August 19, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books404 followers
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 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.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,769 reviews133 followers
October 29, 2020
A Great Read

Outstanding book!

This is the story of a great woman and a great couple. I would like to see it as a movie one day or at least a PBS documentary
I truly enjoyed this book up in many ways it was more in depth than amateur Codebreakers would understand.

Yet, the author took the time to give detail so that those who were more professional in the area would be comfortable as well. Also he has a way of making the book flow nicely in the midst of detail
Profile Image for Barb in Maryland.
1,859 reviews113 followers
March 27, 2018
Well done biography of one of the most interesting women of the 20th century.
Though I do have a quibble with the blurb GR is using for this book, which describes Elizebeth Smith as a 'brilliant Shakespeare expert'. Ermmmm, not quite. Brilliant? Probably. Shakespeare expert? No. Rather, she was a well educated young woman whose casual interest in Shakespeare led her to be in the right place at the right time to catch the interest of eccentric millionaire George Fabyan. He happened to need an assistant for his friend Mrs Gallup, who believed that there was a hidden code in Shakespeare's works. A code she believed she had cracked, only she was having trouble finding someone who could independently verify her work. Perhaps Elizebeth would be the one? No. But Elizebeth was now in place, as was fellow Fabyan employee William Friedman (who was working on a genetics project involving fruitflies), when the US entered WWI and Fabyan convinced the Army that his Riverbanks Lab was the perfect place for them to locate their code-breaking operation. The rest, as they say, is history. The Friedmans led the US codebreaking efforts, while also laying down the building blocks of modern cryptanalysis.
I first heard of Elizebeth Smith Friedman in the summer of 1970. The details were limited to the work she and her husband William did as codebreakers in WWI and his work during WWII. Fagone's work adds rich detail and background to the little I already knew and then gave me so much more! I had known nothing of her work for the US Coast Guard in tracking (and catching) liquor smugglers during the Prohibition era; that work, while technically public knowledge, was pretty much forgotten knowledge by 1970.
After WWI Elizebeth tried to 'retire', she really did. She had ideas for a couple of children's books (on code,of course, and the alphabet). She and William had started a family. However, the government needed some help with codes and William was unavailable. Perhaps she could help.
Thus started her long association with the US Coast Guard. At first she was just decrypting intercepted messages (working at home!), then she was hired (in 1931) to lead (and train) a new unit to handle the increase in coded messages that the Coast Guard was dealing with. Absolutely fascinating reading.
William left the Army after WWI, but was soon drawn back into the cryptology business by the government, though he never worked with Elizebeth again. In the 1930s her work load shifted from tracking rum-runners to tracking Nazi spies; his work was focused on breaking the Japanese codes.
So much of what Elizebeth and William did before and during WWII was kept classified for years after the end of the war. William's work in breaking the Japanese code became public knowledge years ago (see Ronald William Clark's The Man Who Broke Purple, published in 1977). However, the work Elizebeth did, with her now expanded Coast Guard unit, to track Nazi spies both in the US and South America, remained sealed until 2000. She was sworn to secrecy about this work and kept her word.
The section on Elizebeth's WWII work is riveting. The descriptions of the codebreaking efforts were not too technical for this puzzle lover to follow, while managing to convey the complexity and difficulty of the problems she and her team faced. The Nazi spy efforts in the US were thwarted early on (the FBI hogged all the credit), but the Nazi efforts in South America continued to almost the end of the war. The constant need in Elizebeth's work was to keep the enemy unaware that her group was able to read his messages. Once aware, the enemy would certainly change codes and the decryption effort would have to start all over again, leaving a gap of weeks, perhaps months, with no information. This worst case scenario unfolded in South America, thanks, in part, to the FBI. (J. Edgar Hoover was not one of Elizebeth's favorite people.) However, through hard work and perseverance, Elizebeth's group broke the new code (an Enigma one) and the information flowed again. (Fagone devotes a short section to the Enigma machines and the various efforts to crack their codes. While I was certainly aware of Turing's successful efforts in England, I was not aware that the US had also succeeded, independent of the British)
While the thrills of the codebreaking efforts make up the bulk of the book, Fagone doesn't stint on the personal. In the early years we learn of coded letters exchanged with their young children while they are at camp, Christmas cards with simple puzzles hiding the holiday message, cocktail parties with friends--all fairly typical suburban goings-on. During and after the war, however, the reader gets a good look at the cost to both Elizebeth and William in working under such pressure for so long. William suffered from depression for most of his adult life and there were times when he was hospitalized. Those parts of the story are harrowing. Treatment for depression and other mental illnesses was primitive to say the least. The post war years make for rather melancholy reading. William died in 1969. Elizabeth spent her final years cataloging his papers; her own papers did not receive the same attention from her. She died in 1980, almost forgotten. But then, she never did like the limelight. She just wanted to do the job.
I've already read this through twice. I've even bought a hardback copy to go on my shelf, next to my copy of 'The Man Who Broke Purple'.
Highly recommended, even if you don't know anything about codes.
Profile Image for Rick.
102 reviews231 followers
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 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.
Profile Image for Marlene.
2,882 reviews196 followers
October 15, 2017
Originally published at Reading Reality

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

(I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

I certainly was.
Profile Image for L F.
261 reviews13 followers
November 9, 2017
Frequently slow, but the topic of a woman’s skills in solving mysteries involving codes or cryptic messages is fascinating.
Profile Image for Usha.
138 reviews7 followers
June 9, 2020
4.5 stars.
This book documents two important accounts:
1. An abridged history of USA’s cryptology and cryptanalysis during the times of WWI, prohibition and WW2, and
2. It tells of the legacy of its two most eminent cryptographers William Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The focus of the book is on the accomplishments of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. While William Friedman was recognized and commemorated for his work, Elizebeth was not. Why not, you ask? Because of the usual blatant sexism and J. Edgar Hoover, who took credit for her extensive and unparalleled work of deciphering encrypted messages during WW2.

She can be credited for setting up the first ever counterintelligence department for the Coast Guard and it’s fair to say that it models the modern day FBI and CIA. She said that most complex of the codes and cyphers were devised by criminal syndicates of prohibition times not by the enemy governments of WW2.

Both William and Elizebeth had incredible careers of never ending and exhaustible responsibility. Personality traits like paranoia, suspicion, and obsession are useful when you are code breaking but when you are not they lead to state of deep depression, suicidal thoughts and madness.

This was an incredible read about an extraordinary woman. I am sure there are many like her hidden deep in the archives, under millennium of sexism and discrimination.
Profile Image for "Avonna.
1,151 reviews315 followers
June 24, 2021
Check out all of my reviews at: https://www.avonnalovesgenres.com

THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone is a historical fiction novel which brings to light the major contributions of the amazing female half of a married couple who both invented many aspects of the modern science of cryptology.

Elizebeth Smith wanted a job in literature. She is hired by an eccentric millionaire who brings the best minds of 1916 together on a large farm outside of Chicago and tells them to be the best they can be. Elizebeth becomes disillusioned with the project she was hired to work on, but she is intrigued with the young man, William Freidman she meets who is helping with the project.

The two get married and begin working together on breaking coded messages that are brought to them from various government and law enforcement agencies. They soon build a reputation and are instrumental in building the strategic texts for codebreaking that they and others use throughout WWI, Prohibition and WWII while William is in the Army and Elizebeth works for the Coast Guard.

While history hails William’s accomplishments of being a groundbreaker and innovator in cryptology and at breaking the Japanese version of Enigma, there is little praise given to Elizebeth’s own contributions from breaking Prohibition gangsters’ codes to breaking the Enigma code German spies all over South America where using.

This book brings Elizebeth’s accomplishments and contributions to light. Mr. Fagone brings Elizebeth to life from her professional publications and personal writings. I was truly amazed by how her and her husband’s brains worked to decode so many secret code systems without using mathematics or having the use of the just being invented computer. The only problem I had with the book was the inclusion of some codes that were used and/or broken by the duo because while I know some would work to solve the puzzles, it just interrupted the flow of the story for me. Otherwise, Elizebeth’s personality comes alive in this story and her story just leads you to wonder how many other brilliant women have been overlooked by history.

I recommend this historical fiction of a brilliant mind and woman!
Profile Image for SueKich.
291 reviews21 followers
December 28, 2017
The Word Smith.

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.

Profile Image for Vicki.
487 reviews192 followers
September 2, 2017
There is so much to think about in this book. Cryptography, women in the workforce, the start of the NSA, World War 1, World War 2, privacy, work, marriage, partnership, humanity, what it means to leave behind a legacy, the dignity of intellectual work, motherhood - and so, so much more.

It's a dense read, but today, as we grapple with what it means to be human and to entrust our privacy to machines, and in an era of intense debate about the role of women in technology, it's an important read that adds a lot of historical context to the growing rise of the surveillance-industrial complex and the people with good intentions who started it.

It's marketed as the same vein as Hidden Figures as a story about women's fight to gain equality in the workplace, and it does that, but it's also lot more complicated than that, and the author deftly covers a breadth of topics, including a detailed description of cryptography, especially during World War II. It does get a bit lengthy in the middle, which is the only reason I took off a star, but I really recommend it for anyone looking to learn about the history of US cryptography and women's role in it.
Profile Image for Donna.
3,903 reviews20 followers
March 28, 2020
This is Nonfiction. I usually love stories like these, plus so many GR readers have loved it. I liked the story of this woman and I am glad that her part in the war is coming to light.

However, I had a few issues that kept me from enjoying it and they are all linked tightly together. This felt a little long. Some of this felt tedious....so many tangents and tiny little details. It also felt like a regurgitation of facts. I couldn't shake the wikipedia vibe. I like to feel eager about the peek inside, instead of looking for the nearest exit. The last thing I'll mention is the audio. I didn't care for the narrator and because of this, I think it made those other two things a bigger deal than they should have been. So 2 stars because I did enjoy some of the history.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,894 reviews218 followers
August 7, 2022
Biography of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. She and her husband, William Friedman, were both brilliant cryptanalysts. They were instrumental in codebreaking during the two world wars. Her husband was publicly recognized for his endeavors while Elizebeth remained in the background. Even worse, J. Edgar Hoover took credit for her work.

This book shines a light on Elizebeth’s contributions to the science of cryptology, and they were significant. She was instrumental in breaking various version of the Nazi’s Enigma code. She also played a key role in cracking international and domestic smuggling operations and deciphering encrypted radio codes. One episode of particular interested to me is the role of the Friedmans in disproving the theory that Francis Bacon authored Shakespeare’s plays.

Fagone found Elizebeth’s personal papers in Virginia and declassified material in the National Archives: “[T]he files are exactly where she left them, the fragments of an extraordinary life. The files have a weight to them, a texture. They can’t be erased any more than Elizebeth’s legacy can be erased, because her legacy is embedded in our lives today, in our smartphones and Web browsers, in the science that powers secure-messaging apps used by billions, in the clandestine procedures of corporations and intelligence agencies and in the mundane software loaded onto the iPhones in our pockets.”

Amazingly, she never studied mathematics, but she was a genius in analyzing patterns in documents, even when written in languages she did not speak. I am very glad to see Elizebeth Smith Friedman get the credit she so obviously deserves. Her accomplishments are even more impressive considering they were done before the computing age with “pencil, paper, and perseverance.”
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews34 followers
June 16, 2020
A great page turner. This story is so well constructed and written I could not put it down. This is a biography of an American hero, a lively, super intelligent, modern woman in a not so modern world. Everyone with any interest in an important biography will love this book.
Profile Image for Liza Fireman.
839 reviews144 followers
April 23, 2019
This is the amazing story of Elizebeth Friedman, an extraordinary woman who broke codes. And as amazing as she is, and a cryptography pioneer, she was a woman. So throughout the story there are many places where we face the fact that she is a woman, and that so many people will always think that her husband is probably more talented than she is. In addition to the fact that probably none of you people heard her name ever before.

Elizebeth actually was able to read the messages from at least three Enigma machines and broke thousands of Nazi messages, in different languages. She helped the FBI and Hoover, and stayed invisible the whole time behind the scenes. It is almost impossible to believe that someone that critical will be also that invisible, but that the course of events.
Actually a lot started with rumrunning, and the coastal guard wanting to stop liquore smuggling. The coast guard was responsible for patrolling American waters, trying to catch the nimble “rum-running” boats that flouted Prohibition law and smuggled bootleg liquor from sea to shore. It was a cat-and-mouse game that the mice were winning. From the start of Prohibition, the coast guard’s task had been laughably difficult—they owned just 203 slow small patrol boats to police five thousand miles of coastline—but recently the rumrunners had deployed shortwave radios and sophisticated codes to conceal their movements, giving them the decisive advantage... Still, no one in his office knew how to break the codes in the intercepted messages, and over the last several years hundreds of messages had piled up, unsolved and unread. Root said he wanted Elizebeth to come in and tackle the backlog. He asked her to consider breaking codes for America again. Sensing her reluctance to return to government, he pitched this as a temporary assignment, a ninety-day contract. Later she worked on much more critical assignments and got to the Enigmas as well.

It is a fascinating book, beginning to end, and a true story of an amazing woman that almost got lost among the men pages of history. This book was written much better than Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, even though both books are important. We should read books about amazing genius women, we should acknowledge how hard it is and even harder it was to be a successful smart woman, we should celebrate their work and get them the lights, instead of making them invisible. 4+ stars.
Profile Image for Steve Garriott.
Author 1 book10 followers
February 6, 2018
In high school, I was a big WWII history fan, normally on the European and African theaters (Battle of the Bulge, Afrika Corps). I thought I knew a lot about what was going on... Well, I didn't. Not by a long-shot. Fagone's book reveals yet another level to all the actions, both military and civilian, behind the scenes of WWI, Prohibition, and WWII. The Friedman's almost single-handedly created the field of cryptoanalysis (with nods, of course, to the work of Alan Turing and his associates), helping to set the stage for the CIA and NSA. Their work provided a window into the activities of the Axis and Japanese troops as they "read their mail" throughout the war. Ironically, just because you know what the enemy is going to do doesn't mean you can act on it.

As stated in the book, the winners do write the history, but even the winners shade their own accomplishments, and Elizebeth (yes, with an "e" instead of an "a"), though a powerhouse in the realm of decryption, was robbed of her place in history.

This is also the story of Elizebeth's and William's lifelong romance, one of shared respect and pride in the other's accomplishments.

Definitely worth the read.
Profile Image for Stephanie Anze.
657 reviews112 followers
May 2, 2019
"It's not quite true that history is written by the winners. It's written by the best publicists on the winning team."

Five stars for an unsung hero!

Elizebeth Smith had a Quacker upbringing, a degree in English Literature and a love (and extensive knowledge) of Shakespeare but few possiblities to have a job she could thrive in. When looking for a job in a library, she is put in touch with George Fabyan, an eccentric and wealthy man with a estate where he funded various studies of science. She is offered a job to help decipher Shakespeare's works and takes it. As time goes by, she becomes a gifted cryptanalyst and eventually goes to work for the US government. This is the story of a woman that greatly contributed to the advancement of code-breaking but until now, has not received her due recognition.

WOW! Just wow! This book is one of the best non-fcition works I have ever read. If you are looking for a real-life wonder woman, Elizebeth Smith is your gal. I am ashamed to admit that prior to reading this book, I had no idea of Elizebeth or her achievments. Elizabeth was limited in her work options which is why the chance to work at Riverbank, Fabyan's estate, is an opportinnity she can not pass up. She is put to work on deciphering Shakespaere's works (under the assumption that Sir Francis Bacon is the legitimate author of his works). This is her starting point. With time, she grows to be a talented code-breaker and with the war, she is recruited to work for the government. First mastering the basics, she (along with her future husband, William Friedman) become the best in the field of Cryptology. Their skills earned them goverment jobs and together they established the groundwork for what Cryptology is today. Informative, inspiring and fascinating this book surely will be one that I will not forget. The prose is accessible with enough information but by no means overwhelming in technical details. What shines on these pages is a brilliant woman that is finally getting her due.

Elizebeth is truly a remarkable women. She established one of the early Cryptanalytic Units in the Navy and took on rum lords (during Prohibition) and drug gangs (among other goods that were smuggled) successfully deciphering their secret codes (which in turn led to many arrests and convictions). Her greatest foe, however, were the Nazis. It is not an exageration to say that without Elizebeth, Nazism would have sprouted deep roots in South America. Elizebeth's unit was chiefly responsable for breaking down Nazi spy rings (and uncovering an undercover cooperation between Nazi Germany and some of these countries) , decipering their codes and ultimately leading to their demise in Brazil, Argentina and other countries in South America. She fought The Invisible War but got none of the recognition. She did all this without computers, calculators and only a basic knowledge of math.

Lastly, I have to mention Elizebeth's husband, William Friedman. They meet at Riverbank and he was also a master code breaker who held his wife in the highest of esteems. It is so refreshing to read about a husband that actively rooted for his wife to triumph in her field (and triumph she did). Having learned about Mileva Maric (Einstein's first wife), she was just a smart and brilliant yet Eintsein only pursued his career while Maric dimned under him. In addition to revealing a hidden side of history, this book is the most wonderful love story I have ever come across. The Friedmans were a marriage of equals through and through. They are definitely relationship goals then and most ceratinly now.
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