• The Many Fictional Afterlives of Ethel Rosenberg

    Anne Sebba Reads the Rosenbergs of Plath, Doctorow, Kushner and More

    “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs . . .” So begins one of the great works of American 20th-century feminist literature. The Bell Jar was published just ten years after the execution of the Rosenbergs by a woman who called herself Victoria Lucas because she did not think highly enough of her novel’s literary merit. Sylvia Plath, relatively unknown at the time, had in fact written a novel powerfully recreating an era: a period of time that sentenced the Rosenbergs, when women were subjugated to a life of domesticity and not expected to stray into male spheres.

    Above all, The Bell Jar symbolized a feeling of imprisonment, of being confined to a place in life from which there is no hope of escape. It was a semi-autobiographical rather than a political novel, for Plath had suffered her own mental breakdown that she was retelling through her heroine Esther Greenwood’s account of a year within the “Bell Jar.” Esther, whose very name is a variation of Esther Ethel Greenglass, feels the Bell Jar has at this moment lifted for her and she is returning to a healthy life after undergoing electroshock therapy at a mental asylum. Nonetheless, she fears the return of her symptoms so that “wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

    Ostensibly, The Bell Jar was not a book about Ethel Rosenberg, or at least it was not marketed as such when first published. But Sylvia Plath had spent the summer of 1953 in New York City, having won a writing competition that gave her a chance to sample an editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. The one event she remembered clearly that month was the electrocution of the Rosenbergs.

    After Plath’s compelling opening, Ethel appears only once again in the narrative as an explicit presence. This is when Esther’s friend Hilda reacts to Esther’s constant ruminations about the horror of Ethel’s impending execution that night: “‘Yes!’ Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart. It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomb-like morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that ‘Yes’ of hers. ‘It’s awful such people should be alive.’”

    The Bell Jar illustrates the degree to which Ethel’s fate continued to grip the American imagination in the long aftermath of her execution, even when she hovered offstage. It was as if different visions of Ethel, and more broadly the whole Rosenberg case, could be invested with a wider meaning to sum up an era defined by political paranoia and repression. Indirectly in The Bell Jar, Ethel’s imagined spirit infuses every fiber of what Esther Greenwood is suffering—not simply her imprisonment, but the madness of an America that incarcerated so many women in different ways during the early 1950s. In this patriarchal society any clever woman was bound to feel repressed or a failure unless she aspired to the traditional ideals of being a homemaker and mother, and nothing more. Seen in this context, it is easy to imagine why Sylvia Plath, via her semi-autobiographical heroine Esther, could fixate on the brutal electrocution of Ethel and the ill-fitting pads attached to her head, having had her own dose of ECT a month after Ethel’s killing. In 1953 this was still a relatively new treatment with a horrifically similar procedure, involving electrodes placed on her head and chest and a small amount of electric current passed through her brain intended to relieve her depression.

    “It had nothing to do with me,” comments Esther in the novel, talking about the Rosenberg story, “but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”

    More than three decades after The Bell Jar was published, the Irish American writer Mary Cantwell borrowed its evocative first words for the start of her 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young: “because that’s the way I remember my first summer in New York too.” In those hot, overbearing months, Cantwell recalled in particular a newsstand near her subway stop, “and every day the headlines screamed the Rosenbergs’ impending death. The headlines terrified me because my boyfriend [later her husband] was Jewish.” Cantwell described how, when her mother was introduced to him, she asked his religion and he replied “atheist.” “She paused and said in her nicest voice, ‘Does that mean you’re a Communist?’” Cantwell’s boyfriend said no, but she knew that his aunt and uncle had been Communists: “the weekend we spent at their cabin in the Catskills, smearing cream cheese on toast, was torture because they reminded me of the Rosenbergs and I thought we would all be arrested and I, too, would die in the chair.”

    The Bell Jar illustrates the degree to which Ethel’s fate continued to grip the American imagination in the long aftermath of her execution, even when she hovered offstage.

    Cantwell’s story distills the way many Americans in the 1950s reflexively assumed that Jews were Communists. “There was an evident quota of anti-Semitism in the McCarthy wave of hysteria. Jews in that period were automatically suspect. Our evaluation of the general mood was that the people felt if you scratch a Jew you can find a Communist,” recalled Arnold Forster of the American Jewish Committee, a strongly antiCommunist organization. In reality the Rosenberg case split the Jewish community during the Truman and Eisenhower years as profoundly as it divided the entire country, right up to the Supreme Court.

    After all, 1953 was only eight or so years after the revelation of the Holocaust, “the discovery of the mounds of dead in Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and other marks of Cain on the forehead of our century,” wrote Arthur Miller. “They could not merely be two spies being executed but two Jews. It was not possible to avoid this in the second half of the 20th century; not even with the best will in the world could the prejudicial stain be totally avoided—no, not even if it were undeserved. Such were the times.”

    Miriam Moskowitz, Ethel’s Jewish friend in the Women’s House of Detention whom I met one snowy December morning in December 2017 at her home in New Jersey, believed that anti-Semitism “hovered over the trial . . . with an unmistakable presence”:

    It was not for nothing that the prosecution leaders and the judge (the same in both trials) were conspicuously Jewish, as of course were the defendants . . . But the Jewish establishment, perhaps fearing that an association with Jewish radicalism would revive latent anti-Semitism in the country, expediently avoided asking questions about the overzealous prosecution, never demurred about the use of tainted evidence from problem witnesses, and never voiced doubts about the judges’ obvious bias or the prejudicial atmosphere generated by the FBI and exploited by the media blitz. Rather it maintained a detached and profound silence. Some leaders in the Jewish community . . . were especially vitriolic about the Rosenbergs, as though to reinforce public perception of their own patriotism. For those of us nurtured on the ancient sanctity of Jewish brotherhood it was the ultimate coup de grâce and I have never been able to forgive them.

    When Miriam made those comments she did not know that Judge Jerome Frank, and other Jewish justices on the Appeals Court who considered the Rosenberg case, had been “inundated” with anti-Semitic hate mail threatening any “Jew judge” who might let the “Jew-Commie Rosenbergs” off. Yet even anti-Semitic hate mail was not the real reason why the Supreme Court justices repeatedly refused to reexamine the Rosenberg case. Only in their final hours did the court hold a hastily scheduled oral argument on their statutory claim, which was rejected.


    In 1971, when Edgar Lawrence Doctorow published The Book of Daniel, the prevailing view among American left-wingers was that Ethel and Julius were innocent Communists who had been framed. Doctorow—like Ethel, of Russian Jewish ancestry—was too good a writer to fall into this trap. In what he described as an “explicitly political novel,” Doctorow imagined the impact on Ethel and Julius’s sons of their parents’ execution, while leaving open the question of the Rosenbergs’ guilt or innocence. Doctorow said his main interest in using the Rosenbergs (renamed as Paul and Rochelle Isaacson) was “in terms of what happens when all the antagonistic force of a society is brought to bear and focused on one or possibly two individuals. What kind of anthropological ritual is that?”

    According to Doctorow, he did not know at first how he was going to tell this story. Once he found the narrator’s voice, through the Isaacsons’ son Daniel, “I sat down and put a piece of paper in the typewriter and started to write with a certain freedom and irresponsibility, and it turned out Daniel was talking, and he was sitting in the library at Columbia [University], and I had my book.” Daniel, the classic unreliable narrator, is telling a story that at one level is predicated on his parents’ appalling death. However, the catalyst for the story is not their electrocution but the attempted suicide of his younger sister, Susan. It is a complicated tale in which violence is never far from the surface. Yet, for all its brilliance, The Book of Daniel shines less light on Ethel than on her persecutors.

    While Michael Meeropol admires the book, Robert is less enamored. He stated that his difficulties with the book do not arise from Doctorow’s characterizations of him and Michael, which he accepts involved a degree of fictionalizing. His objection concerns how Doctorow distorted his and Michael’s positive memories of the generosity shown by leftist friends who cared for them after the execution. “Doctorow is entitled to his artistic creation,” Robert wrote. “But it is difficult for me, given the obvious parallels between the story he tells and my own, not to bristle at what I perceive as his undeserved attack on people who did everything in their power to protect us.”

    Six years after The Book of Daniel the American novelist Robert Coover published The Public Burning, an exuberant, brutal fantasy woven around the last three days of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In this satire in extremis, Coover captured the lurid razzmatazz of the 1951 trial: the theatrical production of the Jell-O box, cut to order, with the flavors and packaging questioned; the console table that had to be identified from store catalogues; the polished lens mold diagram re-created years after the alleged original had been drawn by Ethel’s brother David. In Coover’s fantasy trial, everybody was playing a part, including Ethel. Coover noted on the first page that Ethel had once hoped to be an actress and had even played the role of the sister of a condemned man.

    The Public Burning was in grotesquely bad taste, at its most nauseating when the dominant narrator, Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, is aroused by the idea of having sex with Ethel. Yet Coover’s obscenely disturbing narrative succeeds in showing how everyone in Cold War America was implicated directly or indirectly in the ruthless public burning of the Rosenbergs, especially the dark and complex Nixon. Had Nixon, then a very junior member of the House Un-American Activities Committee who was being fed information by the FBI, not doggedly insisted on continuing to pursue Alger Hiss when the case looked as if it might otherwise wither, a whole chain of events culminating in the Rosenberg execution might not have unfolded in the way they did. Coover’s satire culminates in a carnivalesque auto-da-fé in Manhattan’s Times Square, recalling the ritual festivals of penance and public execution held by the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. References to burning—what Coover calls a “lot of goddam fire in this case”—are inescapable throughout the story: Ruth’s burning night dress, newspaper headlines referring to Ethel and Julius as “flaming Reds,” and constant references to the “infernal conspiracy.” Hovering over the action is the recent memory of the incineration of Jews in the Nazi Holocaust and the fear of a future atomic war that will reduce the planet to ashes.

    For the American playwright Tony Kushner, the full horror embedded in the Rosenberg story extended beyond the gruesome electrocution and the fact that Ethel and Julius had been found guilty of betraying their country. Far more shocking for Kushner was the notion that a brother, David Greenglass, could betray his own sister and send her to the electric chair. In Angels in America, a two-part “gay fantasia on national themes” that premiered in 1991 and 1992, Kushner sees David as the embodiment of “Reaganist tribalism:” the idea that if you take care of your own first the rest will be fine.

    The way she continues to defy labeling as mother, wife, sister, daughter, Communist, or would-be opera singer has penetrated the American consciousness deeply.

    In 2004 Ethel’s granddaughter Ivy Meeropol interviewed Kushner for her documentary film Heir to an Execution. She asked him: “What does this case teach us about how to live our lives as political people?” According to Kushner, the Rosenberg case is an intensely Jewish story that requires careful handling. “Just as the rabbis approached complicated stories with humility, not arrogance and proprietorial attitudes, you spend time interpreting the Talmud [the holy books] by careful textual study, or Midrash [commentary upon these] as if you are approaching something sacred . . . because it is written in blood.”

    Kushner suggested that through studying the Rosenbergs’ story, “we will come to understand a lot about what our next move ought to be, a lot about how to conduct ourselves and what kind of sacrifice political work requires and the dangers of falling in love with the notion of sacrifice.” With this in mind, Kushner’s Ethel, or to be accurate, her ghost, appears to forgive Roy Cohn, the lawyer who ensured her death by persuading David to commit perjury. Standing over Cohn’s graveside, she even intones the Kaddish. But she also calls him a “son of a bitch.” “I would have pulled the switch if they let me,” Cohn snarls. “Why? Because I hate traitors. I HATE Communists. Was it legal? FUCK legal. Not nice? Fuck nice. The nation says I’m not nice? FUCK THE NATION. Do you wanna be NICE? Or you wanna be EFFECTIVE?”

    As Robert Meeropol commented, “My mother utters no lines in Angels in America that indicate her desire to forgive Roy Cohn. I see my mother’s [words] as Tony Kushner’s final tribute to Ethel Rosenberg. It is his statement that she was a better person than her tormentors.”

    Kushner’s play, like the novels of Coover, Doctorow, and Plath, were all factually untrue to a greater or lesser extent in their representations of Ethel. Yet although the story of the Rosenbergs’ trial and execution has proved fertile ground for many other artists, composers, and playwrights, it is the conflicting images of Ethel herself that have made her so irresistible as a tragic figure. The way she continues to defy labeling as mother, wife, sister, daughter, Communist, or would-be opera singer has penetrated the American consciousness deeply. It is this complexity that has encouraged audiences to project her, more often than the dramatically less interesting, more predictable Julius, into works of fiction, even where she was originally absent from the script.

    On January 22, 1953, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, about the witchcraft trials in 1692–3 in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, opened at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway. Miller recalled in his 1987 autobiography Timebends how he had made his initial research visit to the Salem Historical Society in April 1952, almost two years after the Rosenbergs’ arrest and a year after their trial. Yet Miller insisted in 1988 that the play was not specifically about the Rosenbergs, and indeed that he had written it “two and half years before their names were even in the papers.” From Miller’s perspective, the play was written as a more general response to “the Red scare” that had “paralyzed a whole generation and in a short time dried up the habits of trust and toleration.”

    New York’s theatergoing public made the direct parallel with Ethel and Julius anyway. On June 19, the night of their execution, the audience stood up and observed a minute’s silence at the end of the play. The Crucible, with its witch hunts, lethal repetition of wild rumors, and barbaric executions, has since become the quintessential Rosenberg drama. Only for Ethel and Julius it was not a drama. It was true.


    Excerpted from Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Copyright © 2021 by Anne Sebba.

    Anne Sebba
    Anne Sebba
    Anne Sebba is a prize-winning biographer, lecturer, and former Reuters foreign correspondent who has written several books, including That Woman and Les Parisiennes. A former chair of Britain’s Society of Authors and now on the Council, Anne is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. She lives in London.

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