10.19.2017




The Woman Who Smashed Codes. A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. Jason Fagone. 444pp. Dey St.
I’ve always liked something Norman Mailer said about journalists and why he wasn’t one of them even though he had received a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Armies of the Night. In a subsequent book, he said of journalists: "They had first of all to have enormous curiosity, and therefore be unable to rest until they found out the secret behind even the smallest event."
Jason Fagone is a curious journalist and because of that, he has given us The Woman Who Smashed Codes, the story of Elizabeth Smith Friedman who with her husband spent most of their adult lives cracking codes using “pencil, papers and their brains” (to quote from the book) long before computers existed. Fagone explains that he first learned about the Friedmans in 2014 and decided to do research on Elizabeth, who seemed to be an afterthought in any of the stories written about her husband, William, in effect, the man who gave us the NSA.
Fortunately for Fagone, there existed a rich collection of his and hers personal papers, hers, though, mostly ignored. Fagone found love letters, letters to her children, handwritten diaries, a partial autobiography. The hunt was on!
From those boxes he had a good idea what Elizabeth was doing until 1940 when the records trail off. Then he wanted to know what she was doing during World War II. It took him two years to find out that during the war Elizabeth decoded messages exchanged by Nazi spies at a time when few people knew how to crack the codes. Pencil, paper and brains, not computers.

But that’s all I’m going to tell you. You have to read the book to learn about an almost forgotten American heroine. When you do you’ll also get a good overview of how codes were created and used, not just by spies but by organized crime. And you’ll read the story of the woman who cracked many of those codes and helped fight crime and win the war. This is a book worth reading.

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