Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy - book cover
Politics & Government
  • Publisher : St. Martin's Press
  • Published : 08 Jun 2021
  • Pages : 320
  • ISBN-10 : 1250198631
  • ISBN-13 : 9781250198631
  • Language : English

Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

New York Times bestselling author Anne Sebba's moving biography of Ethel Rosenberg, the wife and mother whose execution for espionage-related crimes defined the Cold War and horrified the world.

In June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a couple with two young sons, were led separately from their prison cells on Death Row and electrocuted moments apart. Both had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the US government was aware that the evidence against Ethel was shaky at best and based on the perjury of her own brother.

This book is the first to focus on one half of that couple for more than thirty years, and much new evidence has surfaced since then. Ethel was a bright girl who might have fulfilled her personal dream of becoming an opera singer, but instead found herself struggling with the social mores of the 1950's. She longed to be a good wife and perfect mother, while battling the political paranoia of the McCarthy era, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and a mother who never valued her. Because of her profound love for and loyalty to her husband, she refused to incriminate him, despite government pressure on her to do so. Instead, she courageously faced the death penalty for a crime she hadn't committed, orphaning her children.

Seventy years after her trial, this is the first time Ethel's story has been told with the full use of the dramatic and tragic prison letters she exchanged with her husband, her lawyer and her psychotherapist over a three-year period, two of them in solitary confinement. Hers is the resonant story of what happens when a government motivated by fear tramples on the rights of its citizens.

Editorial Reviews

"[A] riveting biography...thanks to Sebba's marvelously gripping narration, we encounter a raft of pivotal individuals ― familial and jurisprudential, obscure and politically prominent ― arrayed to save Ethel or, on the opposing side, determined to hasten her demise....Ethel Rosenberg is richly illustrated, adding to the authenticity and vigor of Sebba's densely peopled narrative. This is not just history, but a cautionary tale." –Washington Independent Review of Books

"Ms. Sebba tells a compelling story of love, betrayal, misplaced idealism and brutal legal and political manoeuvring." –The Economist

"In the end, the book is a plea for Ethel the woman, an attempt to understand who she really was, to free her from the confines of the stock political figure she inevitably became." –The New York Times, Editor's Choice

"A compassionate account of Ethel's character as a wife and engrossing narrative." –The San Francisco Chronicle

"Rosenberg's life was thoroughly American and classically tragic." --New York Daily News

"A redefining and redemptive work of astute protest and caution." –Booklist (starred)

"Riveting...Could there be a better time to review 'what can happen when fear, a forceful and blunt weapon in the hands of authority, turns to hysteria and justice is willfully ignored'? A concise yet thorough account of a 1953 miscarriage of justice with alarming relevance today." --Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Sebba delivers a sympathetic portrait....a persuasive argument that Rosenberg's death was a tragic miscarriage of justice." --Publishers Weekly

"Anne Sebba's brilliant, unforgettable biography is the story of a woman who fell victim to a fatal cocktail of prejudices...superbly written." --The Jewish Chronicle

"Sebba has dug deep beneath this famous and archetypically male story of spying, weapons and international tensions to give us an intelligent, sensitive and absorbing account of the short, tragic life of a woman made remarkable by circumstance." --The Guardian (UK)

"Sebba's riveting reappraisal not only includes previously unseen letters and testimony but also manages to extract Ethel from her marriage...this important and compelling book raises resonant issues around what happens when collective fear leads to hysteria and justice is wilfully ignored." --The Spectator (UK)

"Sebba, well known for her biographies of Wallis Simpson and Mother Teresa, makes the case for the defence with exemplary clarity...gets her readers under the skin of both Ethel and her era." --The Telegraph (UK)

"Vividly captures the sounds, smel...

Readers Top Reviews

Alan jMrs's anonamy
i knew the story and the tragedy, of two people being set up as the main protagonists for the soviet union obtaining the secrets of the atomic bomb [which they certainly were not,Fuchs was the major contributor to that] what i didn't understand is what mental torture Ethel went through and how innocent she was,and how so many officials new so in this Macartney era ,yet still, after 3 years [ mostly alone] they decided to take her life and orphan her children!
Put in another time or place, Ethel could have been as anonymous as any lady living on the block. However poverty, a dysfunctional family, a deluded and frankly stupid husband but above all, a paranoid and deeply troubled society that was America in the grip of McCarthyism made her the tragic figure that she became. Ethel was by no means a saint but she didn't deserve the electric chair. Very good gripping account with much new material. Well done Anne.
Pam S.Dr Tolstoyevsk
Released KGB files after glasnost showed Ethel met with at least three KGB agents, knew, participated in her husbands activities, and recruited her brother as an atomic spy. The Hudson Institute has done real research on this topic with access to Soviet area information and determined she was guilty as charged. Her sons, for whom I have sympathy, have launched an all out assault on her complicity but they are misguided or willfully ignorant.
Hairy Potter
I want to say right upfront that I only made it through about 2/3 of this book before I couldn't bring myself to read it anymore. I picked up this book with only limited knowledge of the Rosenbergs. With my limited point of reference, I never thought of Ethel as a victim, but I try to keep an open mind and I wanted to learn more about her in order to see if my opinion held true. I think the author did a great job of humanizing Ethel by highlighting her hobbies, dreams, and love for her children. As I learned when reading a book about Nazi wives, it's very easy for us to forget that behind every monster is a real person, who has experienced endearing and very human actions/emotions from time to time. The author helped me to see that there was a lot more to Ethel than just being a Communist traitor. Unfortunately, the author was unable to convince me that Ethel was innocent of the crimes for which she was accused and executed. I feel like the author set out to prove Ethel was an innocent victim, and wrote this book with specific research to support that theory. I would have preferred her research to have been unbiased, building a case to support Ethel's guilt or innocence, whichever it might be. Instead, any evidence that might suggest Ethel was not entirely innocent seems to have been ignored. I couldn't finish the book because it was just too biased. I am still of the opinion that there is no way Ethel could possibly have been as naive as the author makes her out to be. She was clearly an intelligent woman. I also don't believe that any mother who was as committed to her family as the author made Ethel out to be would have accepted a death penalty rather than speaking up.
Sidd Vicious
Ethel Rosenberg has long been a symbol of innocence or evil in American political debate, but little has been written about her as a human being. Anne Sebba has produced a feminist biography setting forth her rather sad life, centering upon her unhappy childhood and persistent doubts about her capacities as a mother. Sebba shows how a combination of the conservative ideas of a woman's place in the family prevalent in post-World War II America, anti-Communist panic, and prosecutorial malfeasance led to the grotesquely disproportionate punishment of death for her crime.

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