But she was more than this. Sebba gives us a portrait of Ethel as a smart, ambitious and thoughtful woman, one with a beautiful singing voice and dreams of a career in music and theater. She was also emotionally fragile, wounded by a mother who denied her talents, and always placed her brothers before her. Ironically, the only one of her three brothers to whom she was close was David, her future betrayer, on whom she doted. As a mother herself, she sought out therapy, worried that she, too, would not be a good enough parent.
But as biography the book falls short. The information to really fill out her story, to add depth and richness to her early internal struggles, is lacking. Sebba wants us to see Ethel as an extraordinary woman, but instead we feel her ordinariness. The book’s strongest chapters are the later ones, among them one on Ethel’s years in prison, which she spent in almost complete isolation with no support from her family and only occasional visits from her sons, who were 10 and 6 when their parents were executed. She was, somehow, granted the right to visits from her psychiatrist, who became her only real outside lifeline and to whom, in the midst of her emotional turmoil, she began to write passionate letters.
Equally interesting is Sebba’s meditation on Ethel in the context of American culture. Here Ethel becomes a stand-in for a generation of ambitious women who willingly sacrificed their own careers to their sometimes less talented husbands.
And yet what partly doomed Ethel was her perceived lack of femininity. Her refusal to court the press or the public and her stony-faced stoicism throughout the trial were taken as signs of her coldness, even masculinity. No one understood that this was, at least in part, her only protection against the onslaught she felt to her fragile being. President Eisenhower, to whom she appealed for clemency, worried about sending a young mother to the electric chair, but then absolved himself because “in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one.” Is there a more revealing example of the straitjacket of postwar femininity than this outrageous comment, which helped to seal Ethel Rosenberg’s fate?
Sebba sees Ethel as the one actor in the drama who did not betray anyone, who insisted on protecting her husband even to the point of her own death. The only thing that apparently would have saved her was a confession from Julius, which he, with her full support, refused to make, or her own willingness to implicate her husband and others. Yet she refused to say anything to save herself to the very end, even in the moments after Julius’s execution. Was it because of an inner defiance and stubborn rigidity? A misguided idealism and belief in the Soviet cause that amounted to a kind of moral confusion, a refusal to see espionage as a crime, particularly for a country that had once been a wartime ally? Or perhaps it was far more personal, a link to her husband that she saw as inviolable, a belief that her fate was inextricably tied to Julius’s.
“A cold fury possesses me and I could retch with horror and revulsion for these unctuous saviors, these odious swine [who] are actually proposing to erect a terrifying sepulcher in which I shall live without living and die without dying,” she wrote of the prospect of surviving without Julius.
The choices made by this outwardly strong, cold and “masculine” woman became in effect a form of suttee. Ethel, who had been subordinated to her brothers as a child, now willingly immolated herself as a sign of ultimate devotion to Julius (and perhaps to Stalin), even if it meant leaving her two young sons behind.