Stories worth sharing: Lesser-known Vassar alums

Elizabeth Bently. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Everyone knows the famous Vassar alum—Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Jane Fonda—but I found that there are many lesser-known Vassar alums that have interesting lives worth highlighting, some of which I would like to introduce to you, dear reader. Since I spent this much time on Wikipedia, I think it should go to something at least half worthwhile. 

The first Vassar alum worthy of introduction is Elizabeth Terrill Bentley ’30. Bently was an accomplished student at Vassar College majoring in English, French and Italian before attending Columbia University for graduate school. It’s a path I can imagine many of us current students desire to take in the future. As for everything about her life after that, I don’t know if I share the same sentiment.  

While studying abroad in Italy, she enjoyed Italian culture and cuisine—as an international student does—and joined the local student fascist group, the Gruppo Universitario Fascista. After conversing with her left-leaning professor, Mario Casella (with whom she also had an affair!), she switched political views before returning to New York. In fact, she pulled such a political 180, that in 1935 she joined the espionage branch of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). In 1935, she obtained a job at the Italian Library of Information in New York City, also known as fascist Italy’s propaganda bureau in the United States. She began reporting her spy work to the CPUSA and was so effective that she caught the attention of the top Soviet spymaster, Jacob Golos who worked for the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), or, the precursor to the Committee for State Security (KGB). Bently and Golos soon became lovers, but she only learned his true name and occupation two years into the relationship. Bently climbed the ranks and took on many of Golos’ duties as he went deeper into hiding due to some instances of close contact with the authorities. By 1940, she was making nearly $200,000 a year in today’s money for spy work. 

When Golos died in 1943, all of his contacts were handed to Bently who briefly found herself in control of an intricate and expansive spy network on the east coast. By this point, the NKVD had been watching carefully and demanded that Bently transfer control of all her contacts, all of whom were American citizens in the CPUSA. In 1944, Bently conceded to the NKVD’s demands, but the move left her disillusioned with the Soviet Union. In a tense meeting with her immediate superior, Anatoly Gorsky, she threatened to turn him in to the FBI. According to author Allen Weinstein in “The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America,” when Gorsky reported this behavior to Moscow, his recommendation was to “get rid of her.” Aware that her life was in danger, she defected to the FBI on Nov. 7, 1945. J. Edgar Hoover himself ordered the strictest secrecy measures be taken to hide Bently’s identity immediately. In a series of testimonies Bently implicated nearly 150 people in spying for the Soviet Union, including 37 federal employees. 

There’s really so much to unpack in this lady’s life journey—if you’re looking to get into the espionage industry post-Vassar, Elizabeth Terrill Bentley should be your inspiration and if studying abroad in Italy is your thing, maybe stick to the museums and avoid the youth fascist groups, though a hot professor could change your politics with the drop of a hat! 

Lilli Cooper. Courtesy of Marisa Chafetz

Our next Vassar alum story is a double feature of two film majors, Lili Cooper ’12 and Ethan Slater ’12. Both Cooper and Slater would find work on Broadway, specifically on the set of “Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical.” As we all know, Vassar students excel beyond the competition—Cooper played the role of Sandy and Slater played Spongebob—that’s two Vassar alums on the same Broadway stage acting in very important roles in a culturally groundbreaking and critically acclaimed musical. I’m not even kidding about critical acclaim, “Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical” was nominated for 38 awards, 12 of which were Tony’s! Slater was nominated for the Tony award’s Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical and both Slater and Cooper received explicit praise for their skills by the Chicago Tribune in an article titled, “Young Spongebob Saves the Day, In a Big, Loud Way.” “One of the most fun, well produced, and best acted shows Chicago has seen in a long time,” wrote chief theater critic Chris Jones. The New York Times also praised Slater explicitly and called the show a ginormous giggle of a show in their article, “Spongebob Squarepants the Musical: A Watery Wonderland on Broadway ” by Ben Brantly. 

Ethan Slater. Courtesy of Marc J. Franklin

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to introduce Alice Huyler Ramsey (born Alice Huyler), Class of 1905. In 1908, Ramsey’s husband, John Ramsey, bought her a new Maxwell Runabout. For those who don’t know, Maxwell was a car brand that ran from 1904 to 1925 and Runabout is an old type of automobile that was light, had no windshield, top, or doors and had only a single row of seats. It was basically a decorated, expensive golf cart. She quickly became an avid car enthusiast, entering in many competitions, most notably, the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Montauk Point Endurance Race in 1908. She was one of two women to compete. She drew attention from Carl Kelsey, a fellow racer who did publicity for the manufacturer of Ramsey’s car, Maxwell. Through Kelsey, the company agreed to supply a 1909 tutoring car for Ms. Ramsey, hoping to set up a publicity stunt and get more women to buy cars. While not explicitly banned from driving, women were highly discouraged from driving at this time. Nonetheless, Maxwell saw potential in marketing towards women and they saw Ramsey as the face of their new marketing scheme. So, on June 9, 1909, this 22-year-old housewife and mother began a 3,800-mile journey from Hell Gate in Manhattan, N.Y., to San Francisco, Calif., in a green, four-cylinder, 30-horsepower Maxwell DA. For comparison, most cars nowadays have between 100 and 300 horsepower. 

Alice Huyler Ramsey. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

She traveled with companions, three other women, none of which could drive a car. But boy did these ladies have some tenacity. Of the 3,800 miles traveled, only 152 were paved (0.04 percent of their journey). Yes, that’s 3,648 miles of unpaved roads in what is essentially a golf cart. Over the course of the drive, Ramsey and her crew changed 11 tires, cleaned the spark plugs on more than one occasion, repaired a broken brake pedal and had to sleep in the car when it was stuck in mud. Their journey also had some notable moments which she describes in her book, “Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron.” Some of my favorite ones include the time where they crossed the trail for the manhunt of a murderer in Nebraska, when they recived a case of bed bugs at a hotel in Wyoming and nearly brought them in her suitcase and when they were surrounded by a Native American hunting party with bows and arrows drawn in Nevada. Finally, after 59 days on the road they pulled into Saint James hotel in San Francisco to a crowd of supporters who had been told Ramsey would arrive three weeks earlier. “People thought I was crazy,” Ramsey wrote in her book. While Columbia may lay claim to having Amelia Earhart as an alum, we can proudly say Alice Ramsey, the Amelia Earhart of cars, graduated from Vassar College. 

Well, three stories in and I’ve only scratched the surface of Vassar alums with weird and interesting life stories. I’m thinking this could be an ongoing series because, after all, people like me have been kicking around in Main Building for over 150 years, so I’m sure there are more stories worthy of uncovering and sharing. Maybe I’ll even find some alum stories that would tarnish the school’s eccentric and quirky image—oil moguls or something. Yes, we have some, look up Yannis Vardinoyannis, he’s an example of what econ majors turn out to be. All jokes aside, there are wonderful stories about what people did with their lives after Vassar, all very unique, some exceptionally noteworthy. So, no pressure, but the world awaits us! If you need inspiration for what to do with your life, I’ll be here churning out stories of inspirational, or at least interesting, Vassar alum. 

 

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