Tag Archives: jason fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: America’s Secret Weapon in World War II

  Jason Fagone | The Woman Who Smashed Codes | Harper Collins | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,295 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Woman Who Smashed CodesJason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era. Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.

* * *

Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.

It had been several days since she smoked.

“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.

“No, do you smoke?”

Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.

The woman offered to go get some.

Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.

They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.

Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well — reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.

Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.

The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen — seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”

Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”

Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”

“Alright.”

“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.

“Absolutely.”

* * *

She met George Fabyan at a library in Chicago one day in June 1916, when she was 23. She went to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare from 1623, the “First Folio,” and to ask the librarians if they knew of any open positions in Chicago in the field of literature or research.

* * *

During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”

In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.

This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see.

Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.

Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.

The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:

MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES,
HISTORIES, &
TRAGEDIES.
Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.
LONDON
Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.

Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”

One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.

Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.

The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”

Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?

Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.

“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.

“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.

The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said. Elizebeth thought: What?

Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.


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Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her — “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” — and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.

“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.

From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.

She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.

“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.

But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.

Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”

Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.

“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.

It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.

Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.

Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets — the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.

Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.

The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.

Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.

Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank — his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.

* * *

From the book THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by Jason Fagone. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

44 Magnum. (AP Photo/Kai-Uwe Knoth)

This week we’re sharing stories by Jason Fagone, Betty Ann Adam, Christian H. Cooper, Clarissa Wei, and Robert Kolker.

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The Gun Barrel and the Damage Done: A Profile of Trauma Surgeon Amy Goldberg

44 Magnum. (AP Photo/Kai-Uwe Knoth)

What exactly does a bullet do to flesh as it careens through the body? At Highline, Jason Fagone profiles Philadelphia trauma surgeon Dr. Amy Goldberg, a woman on the front lines of gun violence as she attempts to repair the broken bodies that arrive daily at Temple University Hospital. Dr. Goldberg doesn’t only fix the damage, she’s also working to prevent it. After a patient died the third time he was shot, she worked with friend and coworker Scott Charles to create a social program, Turning Point, which has been instrumental in stopping gun violence before it starts.

More than 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds each year in America, around 75,000 more are injured, and we have no visceral sense of what physically happens inside a person when he’s shot. (Dr. Amy) Goldberg does.

“The creation of a person, you know. It’s the heart beating and the lungs bringing air. It is so miraculous.” Surgery, for Goldberg, was a way of honoring the miracle. And trauma surgery was the ultimate form of appreciation, because a surgeon in trauma experienced so much variety. She might be operating on the carotid artery in the neck, or the heart in the chest, or the large bowel or small bowel in the abdomen, or the femoral artery in the thigh, at any given moment, on any given night.

“As a country,” Goldberg said, “we lost our teachable moment.” She started talking about the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Goldberg said that if people had been shown the autopsy photos of the kids, the gun debate would have been transformed. “The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.”

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Marin Cogan On Political Reporting, Blogging, and Growing As a Journalist

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“My first campaign was in 2012, and I did that for GQ, and it was essentially a blog. I was on the trail covering it every single day, multiple times a day. So I was trained pretty narrowly as a political reporter. But I always had this ambition to be a magazine features writer, and after 2012 I tried to lay the groundwork of doing features, about politics but also about other things. …

“After spending a year at GQ covering the campaign — I had gone there with the idea that I was going to be a daily blogger on the campaign trail and also write these great longform features. And guess what? It’s really hard to blog every day, and also write longform features. So at the end of the year I was sort of looking I was like, ‘Well this was great, but I didn’t write anything that was like a classic magazine feature.’ I freelanced for about eight months and I just use that time to really establish myself as someone who could do the features because, for one, I wanted to know that I could do it. But I also wanted to say to other people, ‘Here’s the kind of writer I am.'”

-On my latest episode of the Kill Fee podcast (iTunes), I spoke with journalist Marin Cogan about her early career, and how she navigates the world of politics, sports, and beyond.

The Freelancers’ Roundtable

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Eva Holland | Longreads |February 2016 | 25 minutes (6,339 words)

 

There’s been more talk than usual lately about the state of freelance writing. There are increasing numbers of tools for freelancers: among them, the various incarnations of “Yelp for Journalists.” There’s advice floating around; there are Facebook support groups.

With the exception of one 10-month staff interlude, I’ve been freelancing full time now for seven and a half years. I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I also still have a ton of questions, and often feel as if I’ve outgrown some of the advice I see going by in the social media stream.

So I gathered a handful of well-established freelance writers and asked them to participate in a group email conversation about their experiences and advice. Josh Dean is a Brooklyn-based writer for the likes of Outside, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Popular Science. Jason Fagone lives in the Philadelphia area and has recently published stories in the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Matter, and Grantland. May Jeong is based in Kabul, and has written for publications including the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Al-Jazeera America. (She managed to fit in her contributions to this roundtable while reporting from a remote corner of Afghanistan, so thank you, May.) As for me, I live in Canada’s northern Yukon Territory, and my work has appeared in AFAR, Pacific Standard, Smithsonian, and other places on both sides of the border. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2013: Best Life Lessons from Lindsay Lohan in a Feature Story

Jason Fagone (@jfagone) is the author of Ingenious, a book about modern-day inventors; his stories this year appeared in Wired, Philadelphia, Grantland, Men’s Journal, and NewYorker.com.

Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie

Stephen Rodrick | The New York Times Magazine | January 2013 | 31 minutes (7,752 words)

Steve is a good friend, but I don’t think anyone will accuse me of stacking the deck for picking his widely praised tale of the making of Lindsay Lohan’s “The Canyons.” It’s the story from this year I remember the best—not just because it’s a textured portrait of Lohan, one that made me feel for her and actually like her, but because there are so many indelible moments. Lohan crying in her room: “It began quietly, almost a whimper, but rose to a guttural howl. It was the sobbing of a child lost in the woods.” Lohan negotiating with a pack of paparazzi to clear room for a film shot at a mall: “Lohan turned to her good side and hiked her floor-length skirt up to show a little leg. ‘O.K., five, four, three, two, one. Now you have to go.'” And of course there’s the moment when director Paul Schrader, “the son of dour Calvinists,” takes off his clothes to make a stubborn, emotional Lohan feel more comfortable taking off hers for a film scene:

Naked, he walked toward Lohan.
“Lins, I want you to be comfortable. C’mon, let’s do this.”
Lohan shrieked.
“Paul!”
[Producer Braxton] Pope heard the scream and ran up from downstairs. He turned a corner, and there was a naked Schrader. Pope let out a “whoa” and slowly backed out of the room.
But then a funny thing happened. Lohan dropped her robe.

As detailed and wackadoo as this story is, there’s also something universal about it. We are all naked Schrader, coaxing and begging our inner Lohans.

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Ingenious

Jason Fagone | Ingenious, Crown Publishing Group | November 2013 | 20 minutes (4,972 words)

 

Below is the first chapter from Jason Fagone’s book, Ingenious, about the X Prize Foundation’s $10 million competition to build a car that can travel 100 miles on a single gallon of gas. Thanks to Fagone and Crown Publishing for sharing it with the Longreads community. You can purchase the full book here. Read more…