Sometime in the spring of 1937, telephone operators at the American Woman’s Association Clubhouse at 353 West 57th Street in Manhattan began noticing that a man with a deep, German-sounding voice was calling daily for a resident named Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Poyntz was by all accounts a good resident. She was well educated, articulate, and had a background in teaching at Columbia University, where she was also working on a historical research project. She paid her rent on time and kept her room tidy. It was not particularly unusual for residents to get phone calls, but the man with the deep voice called so frequently that the clubhouse employees remembered him. Poyntz took the calls every time, so she must have known him. These daily calls did not raise any alarms, until Poyntz disappeared.
The clubhouse had opened in 1929 with the stated purpose of creating a place for single professional women to live in comfort and safety. The brainchild of Anne Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, it was centrally located in the city and could house five hundred women. Residents could rent a single room for $12 a week, each sharing a bath with one other resident. The clubhouse offered entertainment facilities for both residents and association members, including a gymnasium, a swimming pool, dining rooms, a cafeteria, and a ballroom. Poyntz, widowed when she moved in in 1935, seemed to be a perfect fit.1
As it turned out, however, she was not a typical resident. Throughout the 1920s and into the early Depression years, Poyntz was a leading American communist. In 1934, she left the American branch of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and joined the Soviet underground. Her task was to recruit German and Italian students who were attending Columbia University, convincing them to return to their homelands and work in the anti-fascist underground. In other words, unbeknownst to the clubhouse property manager, Mr. Thackerberry, one of his residents was a Soviet spy.2
Still, there was nothing to alert him to her unusual life—except for those daily phone calls. the telephone operators noticed that Poyntz took the calls throughout the spring and into the early summer. Then, on a hot June evening, after speaking briefly to the man, she left the clubhouse and reportedly walked in the direction of Central Park, three short blocks away. She did not return that day, or the next. After the rent went unpaid for several weeks, Thackerberry realized that something was wrong. He went to her deserted room and found an open jar of Jell-O on the desk, stale breadcrumbs on the table, and her belongings still in their places. The operators told him about the calls from the deep-voiced man and said that he had never called the clubhouse again after the June evening she had disappeared.3
Thackerberry called Poyntz’s emergency contact, Marie B. MacDonald, a former co-worker and a long-time friend. MacDonald contacted Poyntz’s attorney, Elias Lieberman, also a former co-worker, and the two went to her room to look around. There was no indication that Poyntz had planned to be away from her room for long: she had left behind her passport and her citizenship papers and had not withdrawn any money from her skimpy bank account. The two contacted another friend of Poyntz’s, and together they packed up her belongings and put them into storage. They decided not to alert authorities because they knew that Poyntz was working for the underground and they did not want the police or FBI tracking her.
Seven months passed, and still no formal missing person’s report was made. MacDonald, concerned that Poyntz had failed to contact her, claimed that she had pressed Lieberman to contact the police, but he never did. Eventually, it was Thackerberry who unintentionally alerted them. After he mentioned to a police officer friend that one of his tenants had gone missing, that officer or another employee of the New York City police leaked the news to the press. Poyntz’s disappearance was formally announced in the New York World Telegram on December 17, 1937. Only a week before, an American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Robinson, had been arrested in Moscow on suspicion of spying. Poyntz’s months-long disappearance was suddenly connected to the Robinsons’, and many people began to envision a vast Stalinist conspiracy unfolding in the United States.
The U.S. State Department frantically tried to locate the Robinsons, but neither the feds nor the police showed much interest in Poyntz. A former top communist leader was missing, but the New York state police hardly seemed concerned about it. Meanwhile, the Robinsons were also not whom they had claimed to be. Officials discovered that they were, in fact, A. A. and Ruth Rubens. A. A. was a Latvian who worked as a Soviet agent producing fake passports, such as the ones the pair had used to travel to the USSR. Ruth was an American citizen and a Communist Party member. Now some began to wonder if Poyntz knew the Rubens. Or was it merely a coincidence that American communists with links to the Soviet underground were going missing?
The year 1937—the height of Josef Stalin’s show trials and the purge known as the Great Terror—was an especially dangerous one to be in the employ of the Soviets. Between the spring of 1937 and the fall of 1938, the American press posited that American citizens Ruth Rubens and Juliet Stuart Poyntz had been caught up in the purges. They cited witnesses who claimed that Poyntz, in her role as an agent for the Soviet secret police, had interrogated accused show trial defendants. Known as the Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU), the police organization was originally an arm of the Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage and dealt primarily with external threats to the USSR. In 1934, it merged with the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which concentrated on internal security issues. Poyntz’s friends believed that her involvement with the interrogations must have led her to express doubts about Stalin’s leadership and the socialist promises embodied by the Soviet Union—doubts that might have gotten her killed.4
Poyntz was never found, and there was no substantive evidence about what had happened to her. Nonetheless, in the days, months, and years after her disappearance, a full cast of characters emerged, and a story was constructed around her disappearance, one that emphasized Soviet terror and the dangers of communism. Meanwhile, the Robinson-Ruben story dominated the headlines, forever linking Poyntz’s tale to theirs. Anti-Stalinists on the left—specifically Carlo Tresca and Herbert Solow—used the disappearances to warn Americans that the Soviet terror was spilling across American borders. But the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy was now capturing the nation’s attention; a few missing or incarcerated communists did not cause either the intelligence community or the public much alarm. By the Cold War years, however, Americans had become obsessed with communism. Well-known anti-communists such as Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and others turned again to Poyntz’s disappearance and suspected murder, invoking them as proof that communism was a threat. In fact, Poyntz’s disappearance played a prominent role in inspiring one-time leftists to turn to anti-communism.
Anti-Stalinism to Anti-Communism
Much Cold War scholarship focuses on the ascendency of the Republican Party and conservatives and the dismantling of the New Deal coalition. There continues to be limited research on the prewar American left’s contribution to the production and dissemination of Cold War ideology. But both Cold War conservatism and liberal anti-communism have their roots in the 1930s American left wing. Poyntz’s 1937 disappearance was a defining moment for the prewar anti-Stalinist left, influencing those who produced and reified anti-communist discourses to shift their political allegiances from Marxism to liberal and conservative anti-communism.5
As soon as Poyntz’s disappearance was reported in the newspapers, Tresca, a well-known anarchist, publicly accused the CPUSA of killing her. Supported by his friend Solow, an independent leftist writer, the two began a vigorous investigation into the case. Tresca and Solow were part of a growing anti-Stalinist movement that emerged in the 1930s. In their view, Stalin, the Soviet premier, had corrupted Marxist communist ideology. They were not alone in this belief. While many in the American left, particularly members of the CPUSA, had initially looked to the Soviet Union with hope, that optimism began to erode under Stalin’s leadership. By the 1930s, his paranoia and brutality were on full display, and American leftists began to defect from the Communist Party and its circles. The show trials and the purges between the spring of 1937 and the fall of 1938 cemented the belief that Stalin was a threat and that American Communists were his puppets.
According to the scholar Judy Kutulas, liberals (that is, those who want to effect serious reform) and radicals (people or groups who want to overthrow the existing system) are traditionally hostile toward one another. But between 1935 and 1939, they created an anti-fascist popular front, finding common ground and working together in organizations (often Communist-led) and on various anti-fascist campaigns. That honeymoon would be brief. By 1937, internal conflicts had begun to destroy their unity, and a renewed hostility had emerged. Kutulas argues that this rupture led to postwar anti-communism. The unraveling began with the CPUSA’s attempts to explain the new party line, even as its own membership had doubts. Rather than trying to account for the show trials, it chose to issue “revelations” about Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s number-one enemy, and emphasize the growing fascist threat. Kutulas calls the party’s line on the trials “managed confusion.” Some on the left began to argue that violence and brutality were inevitable in the Soviet revolutionary vision and an inherent part of Marxist-Leninism. Stalin was blocked by no “moral or ethical considerations” in his goal to eliminate class. In other words, the seeds for anti-Stalinism and liberal anti-communism lay not only in the premier’s actions but also in liberals’ interpretation of Marxist revolution. To them, revolutionary change was necessarily violent, and Stalin was proof.6
Solow and Tresca believed that the CPUSA was complicit in the Soviets’ revolutionary violence and that the American branch of the party was purging its own ranks under orders from Moscow. Working under this assumption, Tresca was instrumental in constructing the argument that the Soviets had either killed or kidnapped Poyntz because she was disillusioned. He claimed that she had directly told him that she intended to leave the Soviet underground, and he wondered if her alleged disillusionment and her association with anti-Stalinists had led to her elimination. He told the press, law enforcement, and anyone else who would listen that in June 1937 she had either been killed on American soil or taken to a Soviet gulag. This story, which Tresca, with help from Solow, fashioned from unverifiable evidence and an abundance of hearsay, persists to this day and has been regurgitated by anti-communist witnesses, journalists, and conservatives.
In 1943, Tresca was assassinated by a still-unknown killer. Now Solow took the lead in pushing authorities to discover who had killed Poyntz and then Tresca. As his investigations deepened, his “anti-Stalinism gradually transformed into anti-communism.” Solow and other anti-Stalinists believed that Stalin was corrupting Marxism; by the postwar years many came to believed that Marxism had corrupted Stalin. This political shift to the right among Solow and other former activists severely damaged liberal organizations and causes and eviscerated the American left. The historian Ellen Schrecker argues that the damage from postwar repression destroyed any possibility that radicals could create a “more authentic American radicalism.” By the time a new civil rights movement began to emerge in the 1950s, liberal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had ousted the radicals in their ranks, and the older generation had been effectively silenced. For Schrecker, perhaps the most important legacy of the Cold War was the way in which it showed political leaders how to effect “political repression” within a “democratic society.”7 Poyntz’s alleged murder had become a rationale for silencing social justice activists, a reversal for many leftists who had devoted their younger years to achieving equity.
Former communists and leftists were instrumental in the postwar anti-communist repression that silenced radical voices. During the Cold War, individuals who at one time had been fervently devoted to communism became just as passionate against it. For many of the leading ex-communist witnesses who were essential in the production and distribution of anti-communism, Poyntz’s disappearance was central. In their eyes, it confirmed America’s growing fears that communism was inherently violent, atheistic, and above all anti-American, though these claims were often illustrated with exaggerated accounts not based in actual evidence. Speculation about Poyntz’s fate was enough to feed anti-communist hysteria; evidence was not necessary. Many of these people became conservative darlings and mouthpieces, with a public stage on which to voice their disillusionment and shape national attitudes.
The spy trials and legislative hearings that dominated American politics from the end of World War II well into the 1950s put disillusioned former spies on public display and gathered the American people behind new U.S. foreign and domestic policies. The scholars John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr write that the Soviet espionage trials at which ex-communist witnesses sold their wares “became a U.S. obsession” and came to dominate “public discourse.” The hearings “shaped public perception” of the Cold War and convinced Americans that they faced a “serious issue of domestic security.”8
In 1938, when the Soviet Union was liquidating the old Bolshevik leadership and killing some of its former agents abroad, Americans working in the Soviet underground were beginning to grow wary about maintaining their ties. One of them, Whittaker Chambers, afraid for his life and those of his wife and children, extricated himself and remained in hiding during the war years. Eventually he contacted his old friend Herbert Solow and confessed that Poyntz’s disappearance had motivated his decision. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified the Cold War, Chambers would emerge as a public anti-communist who garnered, according to Haynes and Klehr, “intense political attention” at a time of “shifting political context.” He and other ex-communist witnesses convinced the nation that communism had already infiltrated American government, schools, and social justice organizations. In these arguments, Chambers gave Poyntz’s alleged murder pride of place, arguing that it had sparked the Great Terror and subsequent purges.9
With the tide changing in American postwar politics, more former communists began to come forward to confirm mainstream politicians’ claims that communists wanted to create a Soviet America. Many cited Poyntz’s disappearance as a reason for fear. Benjamin Gitlow, who had been expelled from the party in 1929, claimed to have stayed in touch with members of the Soviet apparatus; in his 1948 book The Whole of Their Lives, he wrote about Poyntz’s last hours in horrifying but questionable detail. Paul Crouch, once a friend of Poyntz’s, left the party much later than Gitlow had. Crouch said he was told of Poyntz’s murder directly by party insiders. Louis Budenz, the former editor of the CPUSA’s daily newspaper, made a public religious conversion away from the party. He testified that he had been instructed not to print the pictures or names of the liquidated, including Poyntz, in the paper. Elizabeth Bentley, one of the best known and most controversial of the ex-communist witnesses, said that a fellow Soviet agent had told her that Poyntz was dead. The details of these various accounts diverged, but without evidence all claimed it was an open secret that the CPUSA had collaborated with the Soviet underground to silence Poyntz.
The witnesses described communists as subservient to Moscow’s orders, traitors to their nation, and trapped by the communist conspiracy. They held up Poyntz as an example of the danger of trying to escape; and Schrecker writes that stories about her disappearance “regularly turned up” in their testimony and written work, which offered “vivid” though “obviously fictionalized” descriptions of her disappearance. Their graphic descriptions were intended to convince people that communism itself was violent. Thus, following this logic, conservative attacks on the Democratic Party, civil rights, women’s rights, and other social justice movements were justified in the larger quest to preserve the American status quo.10 There is still no evidence that Poyntz was murdered. The witnesses offered nothing but innuendo and rumor regurgitated from Tresca’s original claims. Nonetheless, they effectively stoked anti-communist fears, and Poyntz served as a useful prop.
Gender and Anti-Communism
Poyntz had been a forceful, independent voice in the CPUSA, but her former comrades focused so much on what they suspected had happened to her that they lost sight of the person herself. As they speculated on her brutal victimization, they forgot that Poyntz, at least until her disappearance, had been a devoted communist willing to sacrifice her life to defeat fascism and usher in an anti-racist, anti-sexist, socialist America. This Poyntz did not make it into the anti-communist narratives; she was erased by the gendered constructions that were central to anti-communism.
As the scholar Nick Fischer writes, anti-communism has actively targeted labor and civil rights groups since the 1870s. With the dawn of feminism, it found a new target, though the historian Kirsten Delegard argues that the specifically gendered characteristics of anti-communism were not on full display until 1919. That year the U.S. Senate convened the Overman Committee, which was mandated to track the causes of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The committee went further and focused on the fate of Russian women, thus fueling the anti-radicalism that would characterize the rest of the century and creating hysteria about the fate of women under communist regimes.11 The Overman Committee called witnesses who testified that the Bolsheviks were intent on destroying the nuclear family and declared that the regime’s new divorce laws encouraged men to “discard” their wives. Perhaps the most sensational claim, and the one that would most influence later anti-communist sentiment, was that women and children were “nationalized” under the new regime; therefore, a woman did not belong to just one man. Witnesses described a new agency, the Bureau of Free Love, which they said had been created specifically to distribute women to men, regardless of love or emotional sentiment. Meanwhile, they asserted, children were sent off to be raised in state institutions. Both the bureau and the institutions were pure fiction, and the Soviets, along with Americans who had traveled to the USSR, ridiculed stories about nationalizing sexual relations. But the truth hardly mattered. The Overman Committee stoked a gendered fear that communism sanctioned “mass murder, desecration of churches, rape of upper-class women, corruption of children . . . and the corruption of marital bonds and parental authority.” The revolution was sounding the death knell of the nuclear family.12
Anti-communist conservatives believed that the nuclear family was an institution that could help “reinforce self-control” and social control as well as prevent social discord. They feared that the destruction of that sacred institution would trigger the end of American values. The Overman Committee’s findings confirmed for many that communism would erase families and gender differentiation, emasculating men and encouraging the working class to give in to “unfettered sexual desires.” Committee witnesses claimed that upper-class women in the Soviet Union were made available to working men who had never before had access to such women. Because mainstream Americans continued to see the working class, especially immigrants and Black men, as sexually degenerate, these tales invoked race, gender, and class fears. Fueling public anxieties, stories in the press alleged that all Soviet women who were over the age of eighteen had to register with the fictitious Bureau of Free Love and then were “forced into sexual and marital relationships.” Rape was, in these accounts, “routine official policy.” The Overman Committee publicized the paradoxical claims that Soviet women were both sexual slaves and encouraged to take over the “harsh physical labor” of men. Anti-communists parroted this contradiction, alleging that communism both enslaved and emancipated women.13
One aspect of the committee’s misogyny was its assumption that women were so politically naïve that they would be especially vulnerable to communist propaganda. Women were cast as both “victims and villains”: as unwitting recruits, they would be drawn into communist politics; yet they also served as communist agents, which made them enemies of the state. Like the sexual contradictions just described, this paradox contributed to the creation of a foreign policy that was “grounded in [the] patriarchal nuclear family.” It also informed later constructions of former female communists, including Poyntz.14
Conservatives were not wrong. American communists in the 1920s and 1930s did want to destroy gender and racial inequality. Many leftists traveled to the Soviet Union during those years and returned with promising stories about Soviet women’s liberation, their access to birth control and abortion, and the availability of maternity leave.15 The CPUSA lobbied for labor legislation that would secure women’s right to work and demolish Jim Crow barriers to Black economic advancement. It welcomed women and people of color, not just as members but as leaders. Scandalizing conservatives, the party approved of, even encouraged, interracial dating, sex, and marriage. It openly advocated for women’s right to voluntary motherhood and for access to safe and reliable birth control and abortion. Communist theorists argued that the American family was not a bulwark against communism but the locus for beginning revolutionary political change. In other words, the party was the nightmare that conservatives imagined. Red Scare anti-feminists saw its radicalism as a web of “economic, gender, sexual and racial chaos,” and they energetically worked to stifle its power and influence. Together, mainstream anti-communism and grassroots anti-radicalism ensured that communism’s foothold in American politics would be limited.16
But then capitalism failed. At least that was how the CPUSA framed the Great Depression. The 1930s became the party’s golden era. Economic depression challenged the gender order and created opportunities for the American left to assault sexist and racist institutions. As male unemployment reached crisis levels, gendered female jobs stayed relatively secure, so women became breadwinners. Because women needed to keep these jobs, they put off marriage and motherhood in order to avoid getting fired. Already-married couples were having fewer children, and the legal restrictions on birth control were beginning to loosen ever so slightly. Panicked conservatives watched with dismay as women assumed masculine roles in the household. During these years, conservatism was perceived as “confused and unpopular,” the left as “dynamic and intellectual.” The CPUSA was actively organizing against fascism, advocating for equal rights, and attracting diverse artists and writers. Anti-communism did remain potent in American political culture, but it was not yet the dominant ideology it would become. For the moment, the rise of fascism in Europe, with its devoted opposition to communism and the left, made American conservatives appear “passé.”17
Because the party was enjoying some influence at the time when Poyntz and Ruth Rubens disappeared, neither woman, though both were thoroughly embedded in communism, was held accountable for her political sympathies. In the press and among leftist male writers, they were infantilized, stripped of agency, and constructed as victims. The reality was that the fifty-year-old Poyntz had spent her entire adult life working in the left. She was no fool, and some colleagues described her as intimidating and overzealous. Yet after her disappearance, the real Poyntz—the hard-nosed communist who was rumored to have participated in show trial interrogations, frightened fellow communists, and badgered politicians—was forgotten. Instead, she was described as bookish, matronly, vulnerable, and nervous. Even as law enforcement refused to waste resources on locating a communist, the press and former comrades forgot her political leadership and absolved her of guilt.
This is remarkable, if we compare similar situations involving Cold War–era female communist spies. They were treated as gender traitors who had intentionally attacked the nuclear family and rejected their “natural” roles as mothers and housewives. According to the scholar Kathryn Olmsted, they were depicted as “shrewish wives, neurotic old maids, and voluptuous young vixens.” American audiences were so distracted by their appearance that few ever really understood how these women had actually worked in the Soviet underground. Some, such as Ethel Rosenberg and Priscilla Hiss, who never admitted their involvement or never recanted, were depicted as ruthless or domineering or constructed as femmes fatales. Elizabeth Bentley, an ex-communist witness who tried to have a career in anti-communism, was constantly under assault because of her inability to conform to gendered expectations. She was the only former communist who used her first-person accounts of Poyntz as opportunities for personal attack. But Bentley’s attempts to control her image failed because of the era’s preoccupation with women’s appearance and stereotypes about aggressive and unfeminine spies.18 As the historian Elaine Tyler May argues, the postwar racialized construction of womanhood helped to contain communism abroad and the white American family at home. A new emphasis on restraining women’s sexuality and conforming to heteronormativity limited women’s roles. Social justice agitation for civil rights, women’s equality, and peace were seen as threats to national security and suppressed. Activists were labeled as Bolsheviks, and social justice movements were dismissed as communist plots. Yet Poyntz’s reputation remained mostly intact because she was believed to be a victim and not a perpetrator of communist evil.19
1. “Plan Business Women’s Clubhouse with 800 Rooms to Cost $2,500,000,” New York Times, June 18, 1922; “Reception to Open Women’s Clubhouse,” New York Times, April 7, 1929; Elias Lieberman, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Juliet or a Lady Communist Vanishes (A True Story),” 2–3, Elias Lieberman Manuscript Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University (hereafter cited as Lieberman Collection).
2. Federal Bureau of Investigation, memo, NY 100–59538, Sam Tanenhaus Papers, box 53, folder 1, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University (hereafter cited as Tanenhaus Papers).
3. Lieberman, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Juliet,” 2–3; Federal Bureau of Investigation, “What Was the Fate of Red Julia Poyntz,” February 8, 1962, Tanenhaus Papers, box 53, folder 1.
4. Andrew Meier, The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (New York: Norton, 2008), 45.
5. Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (New York: Little, Brown, 1998); Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Undoing of the New Deal Left (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Kirsten Marie Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Kim E. Nielsen, Un-American Womanhood: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism and the First Red Scare (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001).
6. Judy Kutulas, The Long War: The Intellectual People’s Front and Anti-Stalinism, 1930–1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 2–3, 14–17, 106–10, 112.
7. Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, 112–41; Alan Wald, “Herbert Solow: Portrait of a New York Intellectual,” Prospects 3 (October 1978): 421.
8. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1, 6–10.
9. Ibid., 6–10.
10. Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, 137.
11. Nick Fischer, Spider Web: The Birth of American Anticommunism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki, 8.
12. Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki, 8–9, 20; Storrs, The Second Red Scare, 12.
13. Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki, 21, 28; Fischer, Spider Web, 7; Nielsen, Un-American Womanhood, 30.
14. Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki, 22.
15. Storrs, The Second Red Scare, 12.
16. Nielsen, Un-American Womanhood, 10.
17. Kimmage, The Conservative Turn, 2–5.
18. Kathryn Olmsted, “Blond Queens, Red Spiders, and Neurotic Old Maids: Gender and Espionage in the Early Cold War,” Intelligence and National Security 19, no. 1 (2004): 79.
19. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War (New York: Basic Books, 2008); Robbie Lieberman, “The Long Black and Red Scare: Anti-Communism and the African American Freedom Struggle,” in Little Red Scares: Anti-Communism and Political Repression in the United States, 1921–1946, ed. Robert Justin Goldstein (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2019), 266–67.