The woman who smashed codes : a true story of love, spies, and the unlikely heroine who outwitted America's enemies

by Jason Fagone

Other authorsOwen Corrigan (Cover designer)
Hardcover, 2017



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New York, NY : Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow, 2017.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
A gripping story for any narrative nonfiction reader.
LibraryThing member LisCarey
Elizebeth Smith, a Shakespeare scholar, went to work for eccentric tycoon George Fabian, at his estate outside Chicago, in 1916. Her assignment was to assist another Shakespeare scholar, an older woman, in her project to prove that Shakespeare's plays were really written by Francis Bacon, and that Bacon had hidden secret messages in the plays.

At first Elizebeth assumed that these older, more experienced people must know what they were doing, and her failure to find the messages were hers.

William Friedman also worked on the estate, as a plant geneticist, but he also photographed and enlarged First Folio texts of the plays for the use of the Bacon project, and that's how he and Elizebeth met. And has World War I continued, and both Elizebeth and William became more involved in the code breaking, while the demand for people able to break codes became ever more urgent for the military, the two young scholars began to morph into the founding figures of American cryptanalysis, and more involved with each other. They married, they left Riverbank, they went to work for the government, Elizebeth for the the Coast Guard and William for the Army.

This is a love story, a story of spies and counterespionage, and a story of the founding of a whole new discipline. Elizebeth and William both played critical, leading roles in this story. William's story has been told before; Elizebeth's largely has not.

It's a fascinating and important story, and Fagone tells it very well, making it as enlightening and compelling as it deserves to be. Cassandra Campbell also reads it very well, doing full credit to the story and the writing. I'm starting to recognize her name as a narrator who never disappoints.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.
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LibraryThing member Pmaurer
Excellent book, tracing the contributions of the first woman code breaker. Elizebeth and her husband William Friedman developed initial methods of deciphering codes. The book traces her initial work with the Coast Guard in stopping bootleggers and her later work with the U S govt in breaking the codes used by Germany and various South American countries during WW2. Doing the same work as Bletchley, but in the US.… (more)
LibraryThing member nyiper
This is a fantastic book to absorb----how one woman played such an incredible part of the history of this country and yet, because of the status of women, remained virtually unknown beside her husband, another but more recognized part of code history. It is truly incredible to try and understand how her brain worked---and yet, she was found almost on a whim and went from a totally odd job to become so profoundly important---but without being given the credit she so deserved. It reads like a novel which makes it all the more impressive for the author.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
this book would have gotten five stars but te author forgot to do some basic work. He dud bot locate his heroine, Elizebeth Smith Friedman in Latin America during WW!!. What is worse, he ascribes to her the capture of Becker, the ace Nazi spy in Lstin AmerIca; he is captured by the Argentine cops in 1945 when the war was over, and she has nothing to do with his
arrest. Other than that, this is a great read.
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LibraryThing member SandyAMcPherson
Sadly disappointed in this book. It was so boring, it made my DNF category. The author took a fascinating topic and beat it to death with irrelevant detail and tedious recitation of facts that didn't captivate the personalities.
LibraryThing member marshapetry
Both a bio and history book, very interesting. How many code books on the war skip this woman and, yet, she was THAT important. Disgusting. Recommend highly, though I suspect many people won't like it for the "soft" life story, but it isall worthwhile
LibraryThing member whybehave2002
This was okay. I was so excited to sink my teeth into this. Sadly, it was not what I expected. It was long and it was dry. I learned a few things but instead of it being a book where you really get the feel for the person it is being written about it was more of a historical timeline that never seemed to get to the end.
LibraryThing member book58lover
This was the most incredible story I have read in a long time. Elizebeth was a co-equal partner with her husband in the code breaking business. Although they worked in separate venues and could not share information, they were leaders in that field, teaching others to recognize and break codes during both world wars. The book is completely readable, even with the explanations of the code analysis, and detailed more than you would expect given the need for secrecy. The author benefits from the declassification of documents and the work of women historians who sought out Elizebeth.
[A note on the spelling: her mother did it on purpose because she did not want her daughter called Eliza.] Highly, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is the fascinating story of Elizebeth Friedman. Her husband, William, is famous for his pioneering contributions to cryptanalysis, but she contributed just as much, if not more, to the field. She was also instrumental in monitoring and breaking spy networks in South America. Her husband and J. Edgar Hoover got the credit for a lot of her work, partly because men often get credit for women's work, and partly because she was a modest person who felt she was just doing her job. Her life story is fascinating, and I'm glad someone has written her biography to rescue her from obscurity.… (more)
LibraryThing member terran
This biography is a fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. She and her husband, William, founded modern codebreaking in the U.S. Her success in helping the American government capture smugglers and Nazis has been untold after the FBI confiscated both her and William's reports and writings. The couple broke codes in order to protect their country and in the process helped to establish the surveillance giant NSA. There are so many details that at times the story drags, but I enjoyed learning so much about the behind-the-scenes conduct of wartime policy.… (more)
LibraryThing member debann6354
Listened to the audiobook. Fascinating book about Elizabeth Smith Friedman, an accomplished cryptanalyst prior to WWI to after
WWII. She eventually married William Friedman, also a cryptanalyst. Initially they worked together but eventually their work life separated. In the end William was honored for much of the excellent work he did, though not all. The book does detail much of his government employment, also amazing.
Elizabeth achieved as much as William, if not more, but because she lived in an age where a woman's performance and intelligence are not valued, Elizabeth was not under the limelight. I'm afraid this practice still goes on today, though it certainly is better. Also, it didn't help that Hoover was the head of the FBI.

A great book that educates all re analyzing codes and how important this practice is for protecting our country and winning wars. The book also illuminates how important it is to eliminate gender bias. A worthy and captivating read.
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LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
Very interesting information about a subject I know a bit about and a couple people I never heard of. The author was rather more interested in the sexism Elizebeth encountered than in her (their) codebreaking, which was what I wanted to know about - not helped by the fact that the ebook I read had real formatting problems with codes formed by positioning letters (fence-post, or the demonstration substitution alphabet - they appeared in long lines going down the page, one letter per line, so it was impossible to see the connections between letters because the lines were unbroken). I learned a lot about codebreaking during both world wars and the period between - Prohibition, for one thing. The partnership between the Friedmans was excellent to see - and as usual, the government totally screwed up (leaving aside J. Edgar Hoover's cheating for power). If they'd had the two of them working together, rather than not even allowed to talk about their work to one another (because security), WWII might even have been shorter and less deadly. The author was a lot more worried about the sexism (which definitely affected their lives) than Elizebeth was - it was just the way things were, to her. To my mind, she had the choice between pushing for personal recognition (with all the drawbacks thereof - from men objecting to her pushing in, to publicity which bothered her when she did get it) and pushing for recognition of what _they_ had done, with her husband's name alone on most of it. And I doubt she even saw that as a choice. If William had tried to suppress her, it would have been different, but he loudly and publicly considered her his equal or better - so promoting _their_ work was not suppressing herself, but fitting the message (of these things which were important to make known) to the times. Now I want to read half a dozen other books about codebreaking - The Puzzle Palace, and about Bletchley Park, and and... I don't know if I'll ever reread this book, but what it taught me was valuable as well as fascinating. And the peripheral discussion of how the author found this information after all these years - Elizebeth's archived papers, and more - was almost as interesting as the story he discovered there.… (more)
LibraryThing member mmadamslibrarian
4 stars. I am much more interested in the life story than all the details on code breaking, but it was a fascinating story of husband and wife as equals, clandestine operations, and the evolution of woman's "place."
LibraryThing member hobbitprincess
Elizebeth Friedman was someone I had never heard of until I read this book. I have learned so much about the codebreaking that went on not only during 2 world wars but also during the 20s and 30s with smuggling. I also learned some things about WW II that I did not know. This is a well-written book about a fascinating lady who made her mark on history, largely unnoticed.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookbrig
I enjoyed this, but I really feel like it wasn't as engrossing as some of the other non-fic I read this year about similar subjects.
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.5 stars

Elizabeth and William Friedman met while learning to decode messages. They both went on to various jobs where they were decrypting messages, but Elizabeth’s work seems to have been forgotten. They were part of the beginning of cryptography. Elizabeth did some decoding during WWI, during prohibition in the 1920s, and during WWII.

This was good. It was interesting to learn about the history of cryptology and even more interesting that a woman was at the forefront of it! I listened to the audio, and while the narrator was fine, and mostly I was kept interested, my mind did wander occasionally. I think that’s why I sometimes forgot who was who and why I kept my rating down just a bit from the 4 stars I’d like to give! I would recommend this be read in print, though, as there is plenty I think I would have liked to have seen on a page rather than heard read out to me. Apparently, there was an “enhancement” to the audio that should come with the audio, but not via my library (though I have had one other book in the past from the library that came with a pdf I could (and did) download to look at graphs and charts).
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