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Secret pioneer: ‘Codebreaker’ explores life of woman who helped bring down spies, gangsters

Courtesy of American Experience’s “The Codebreaker”

Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

During her career, the groundbreaking cryptanalyst’s work helped decode thousands of messages for the U.S. government.

The results would send infamous gangsters to prison and bring down a massive, nearly invisible Nazi spy ring during World War II.

Yet this suburban wife and mother was never fully credited with her work – until now.

American Experience is presenting “The Codebreaker,” which delves into Friedman’s life. The documentary will air at 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11, on New Mexico PBS.

Friedman Family Portrait. Washington, D.C., 1930s. (Courtesy of George C. Marshall Foundation Library)

Chana Gazit is the filmmaker behind the documentary.

“When I do films like this, I always feel that I live with the person,” Gazit says. “I loved living with Elizebeth Friedman. It was quite amazing.”

Gazit says Friedman lived a secret double life that would only come to light decades after her death, when classified government files were unsealed.

When researching for the documentary, Gazit found that Friedman and her husband and fellow cryptologist William Friedman, had a progressive relationship for the time.

“The had a remarkable relationship, and so much more could have been

An example of the answer code Elizebeth S. Friedman worked with.

said about them and the relationship,” she says. “It was important for them to have an equal relationship. It worked for them.”

Director Chana Gazit

Gazit was approached by American Experience to write, direct and produce the documentary, based on 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.

What drew Gazit to Friedman’s story is that it’s one that not many have heard before.

“Her story was buried for a really long time,” she says. “Thankfully, a handful of historians managed to get her files declassified and bring her story to the masses.”

Cameo George, American Experience executive producer says Elizebeth Friedman is someone you may never have heard of, but she had a tremendous influence on our country’s history.

Elizebeth S. Friedman with George Fabyan at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois. 1916. (Courtesy of George C. Marshall Foundation Library)

“As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field that she herself pioneered, she fought sexism throughout her career but, through sheer brilliance, was able to shape an amazing legacy – taking down mobsters and helping to win not one but two World Wars,” George says.

Elizebeth Smith was born in 1892 into a Quaker family in small-town Indiana.

She dreamed of escape from an early age, and after graduating from college, she became a teacher but quickly tired of the job and traveled to Chicago searching for a new life.

While there, she visited the Newberry Library to see a rare copy of Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio. Noticing her interest in Shakespeare, the librarian insisted she meet a local millionaire industrialist who had a particular interest in the subject. Just hours after their meeting, George Fabyan whisked her off to Riverbank, his 350-acre estate in Geneva, Illinois.

The workstation of Elizebeth S. Friedman.

At Riverbank, the eccentric Fabyan had established a vibrant community of scholars and scientists – part think tank, part laboratory.

He assigned her to one of his pet projects – trying to prove that the works of Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon, who had supposedly inserted a secret code into the plays that confirmed his authorship.

At Riverbank, she met William Friedman, a geneticist and amateur photographer who also pitched in on the project to photograph and enlarge the Shakespeare texts. Together they dug into Fabyan’s collection of code-breaking books, exchanging insights and ideas; they soon fell in love.

An example of the answer code Elizebeth S. Friedman worked with.

They also concluded that Fabyan’s Shakespeare theory had no validity and was nothing but a pipe dream. They stole away from Riverbank, married, and planned to leave, but the advent of World War I changed their plans.

The invention of radio, Gazit says, allowed the transmission of encrypted secret messages.

Because the U.S. had no code-breaking agency, Fabyan saw an opportunity to help his country and enhance his fame, establishing America’s first code-breaking unit with Elizebeth and William in charge.

Soon they were breaking codes for the War, Navy, State and Justice Departments, inventing their own methodology along the way.

But six months into the war, the Army established its own Cypher Bureau. The Friedmans moved to Washington, D.C., where William Friedman went to work for the Army Signal Corps and she cared for their growing family.

An undated portrait of Elizebeth S. Friedman. (Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation Library)

In 1925, the Coast Guard unexpectedly called on Elizebeth Friedman.

Prohibition had triggered an explosion of criminal activity, with rum runners taking to the seas to deliver bootleg liquor up and down the coasts using sophisticated codes on shortwave radios.

Understanding the damage organized crime was inflicting on the nation, she discovered how criminal syndicates ran their enterprises and became a crucial witness in a series of dramatic trials, taking down the operations of some of the most notorious gangsters in the country.

Then the U.S. came calling again in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

She was working with the Navy, and her team was assigned to monitor communications between a South American Nazi spy ring and the German high command.

German U-boats were attacking Allied transport ships, and by March of 1942, Nazi submarines had sunk more than a million tons of supplies and killed thousands of soldiers. Unraveling the encrypted messages, she soon identified Adolf Hitler’s top spy in South America, Sargo, whose network was transmitting the Allied ship locations, including that of the Queen Mary, the Allies’ largest supply ship. Before the Nazis could strike, Elizebeth was able to warn the captain, who safely brought the ship to port.

“William and Elizebeth could have really made more money in the private sector,” Gazit says. “They chose to become civil servants. They chose to devote themselves to the service of their country. I admired that greatly about them.”

An example of code Elizebeth S. Friedman worked on breaking.

Her remarkable counterintelligence operation was thwarted by J. Edgar Hoover, who, eager for glory, ordered the arrest of the South American spies, which made national headlines but cut off the government’s information pipeline.

When Sargo eluded capture and rebuilt his network, it was Elizebeth Friedman who was asked to monitor his communications again.

Within months, the Nazi threat in the Western Hemisphere was eliminated, but Elizebeth was forced to sign an oath promising her secrecy until death.

She died in 1980 in a nursing home in New Jersey, taking her secret life to the grave.

Gazit says getting all of the information boiled down to under 60 minutes was difficult.

“I wish I had more time to include how fun of a couple they were,” Gazit says. “She was a no-nonsense woman. She was also a woman in a man’s world, but she figured out how to have fun personally. They would host dinner parties, and the invitations would be codes. The guests would have to break the code in order to get the entree. They created games for their children.”

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