The Woman Who Smashed Codes: Jason Fagone On Writing

Jason Fagone’s new book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, tells the remarkable story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a Quaker poet who taught herself to be a codebreaker. She was married to William Friedman, considered the godfather of the NSA. She first started solving codes to break up liquor and heroin rings back in the 1920s and became briefly famous after testifying against gangsters of the era, but then faded from public view. Over three years, Jason dug into US and UK archives archives and discovered that Elizebeth trained and led a group of codebreakers for the FBI that “wrecked the Nazi spy rings.” J. Edgar Hoover never gave Elizebeth and the team the appropriate recognition and their work was classified for years, until now.

I met Jason when he came out to West Chester Story Slam in 2015 with Chris McDougall, and Jason has become one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter (@jfagone). Jason is also the author of a book about competitive eating, appropriately titled Horsemen of the Esophagus. He has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others. I also just realized he has an occasional podcast called Kill Fee, which I have just subscribed to.

I wanted to ask Jason about how he came to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Jim: How did you first hear about Elizabeth Smith Friedman?

Jason: In 2014, after the Edward Snowden story broke, I started reading about the NSA. I didn't know much about the NSA or where it came from, and whenever you read about the history of the NSA, you come across the name William Friedman -- he's considered to be the godfather of the agency, the one who started it all, 100 years ago, during World War I. He was a talented biology professor who abandoned that career to become a codebreaker. And in reading about William, I saw that his wife, Elizebeth, was also a codebreaker -- two codebreakers, married to each other! I thought that was unusual and interesting, and I wanted to know more, particularly about Elizebeth, but I couldn't find a biography of her. So I started digging.

Jim: Can you recall the key moment when you realized you had the material for a book?

Jason: I knew within hours of reading Elizebeth's letters for the first time. Before she died in 1980, she donated 22 boxes of personal files to a private library in Lexington, Virginia, the George C. Marshall Foundation, and any researcher can walk into the library there and request to see her files, and that's what I did. And I realized pretty quickly that I was looking at pieces of an incredible and untold American story. She left behind thousands of documents about her fight against smugglers and gangsters during the 1920s and 1930s, including her original code worksheets written in pencil. She left her earliest love letters to William during World War I, some of which were written in snippets of code and cipher.

I ended up staying at the library for about two weeks and going through all 22 boxes in a systematic way. By the end, I just thought, holy shit, I have to try to tell this tale, to do justice to what's here. I knew it was a story about America's first great woman codebreaker, a pioneer who was famous in her day but is now forgotten. But because Elizebeth was so crucial to the history and evolution of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, it was also a story about the birth and growth of American intelligence itself.

Jim: What’s a piece of advice you can give to nonfiction writers? Perhaps something you learned while researching and writing this book?

Jason: Sometimes the things you don't find are just as important as the things you do. There was a gap in Elizebeth's archive, a hole where World War II was supposed to be. I couldn't find any documents from 1939 to 1945. The rest of her life was so well documented, but not the war period, so, I had to wonder, what was she doing in World War Two? And that question launched me on a search to locate her war files, which I ultimately found in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and which made it possible for me to tell that part of her story -- she spent the war hunting Nazis. Particularly, Nazi spies.

Jim: Thanks Jason!

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is available at your local bookstore and is also on Amazon.