THE BLOG
10/16/2014 06:32 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

"The Brother" Who Sent the Rosenbergs to Their Death

Simon and Schuster

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs," Sylvia Plath began "The Bell Jar." My sixth birthday was sandwiched between their execution at Sing Sing on Friday night, June 19, 1953, and their funeral that Sunday morning. The somber procession passed by our block in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and while I was too young to be told details, I was old enough even then to feel the palpable betrayal and shame.

That was the closest I would come to the Rosenberg case for the next 30 years. In 1983, reviews described Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton's "The Rosenberg File" as newsworthy and Arthur Gelb, The Times managing editor, who had covered the execution in 1953, made what to some of his colleagues was a startling suggestion: why don't we do a news story? I made the mistake of not looking preoccupied when Arthur headed toward me, arms flailing.

I first contacted Peter Kihss, who had covered the case. He challenged me to find David Greenglass: the army machinist who had been assigned to Los Alamos, stolen secrets to the atomic bomb, delivered them to his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, to convey to the Soviets and whose testimony sent Julius and Ethel -- David's sister -- to the electric chair. I called Roy Cohn, too, one of the former prosecutors, audaciously seeking the one compelling piece of evidence that would finally solve the case. "The smoking gun," he said, "is the testimony of David Greenglass."

Since he was released from prison in 1960 after serving nearly 10 years and fading into pseudonymity, Greenglass had surfaced only once, in the 1970s, when Radosh and Sol Stern interviewed him and his wife, Ruth. By now, was he senile, like Selig Mindish, the Greenglass character in "The Book of Daniel," E.L. Doctorow's fictional account of the case? Was he even alive?

With the help of Radosh and others, I finally found Greenglass, but he refused to talk. I would periodically write him, requesting an interview, but never received a reply. Until 1996, when a lawyer who had represented Greenglass for 15 years suggested we meet. The lawyer said that just a few days before, Greenglass had told him, "I have a confession to make; I want to tell you who I really am."

"Who are you, Hitler, Stalin?" the lawyer asked, incredulously.

"You remember the Rosenberg case?" Greenglass replied. "I'm Ethel Rosenberg's brother. I'm David Greenglass." The lawyer was dumbfounded. "Do you hate me?" Greenglass said.

He agreed to speak to me -- unconditionally -- for my book, "The Brother," because he needed money, which I grudgingly consented to pay. He was unrepentant, narcissistic, smug, claiming credit for everything from having outwitted the F.B.I. to abetting mutually assured destruction that had prevented nuclear annihilation. After reading transcripts of my interviews, my friend David Halberstam pronounced Greenglass a schmendrick. (I consulted Leo Rosten's "Joys of Yiddish" to be certain of the definition. Halberstam, of course, was correct: "An apprentice schlemiel.")

While I worried that he would wallow in self-justification, Greenglass did just the opposite. Over and over, he patiently revisited his Sophie's Choice, how he chose to sacrifice the sister who helped raise him over the mother of his two children.

"My wife is my wife," he said. "I mean, I don't sleep with my sister, you know."

First, in confessing to the F.B.I., he inadvertently implicated Ruth (who was at least as complicit in the espionage conspiracy as Ethel). Then, to protect his wife from prosecution, he began cooperating with investigators. He fingered Julius, whom prosecutors hoped would confess if they threatened Ethel with execution. Finally, only a week before the trial was to begin, with the government desperate for evidence against Ethel and with Greenglass himself still hoping for a suspended sentence, he averred that maybe Ruth was right in her own recollection a few days earlier, that his sister had typed his handwritten notes for delivery to the Soviets. He testified to that effect. Ruth corroborated his sworn account, and the prosecutor declared in his summation to the jury that Ethel had "struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets."

Except that Greenglass admitted to me that he lied, that he couldn't recall then or now who typed his notes, that he confirmed Ruth's account only because he didn't want to label her a liar. Then, he added a stunning coda: "I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don't remember." Without that testimony, the single most incriminating evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, she might well have been acquitted much less executed.

Just as I was completing "The Brother," I interviewed Herbert Brownell, who served as assistant attorney general while the Rosenbergs were appealing their conviction. What happened to the government's strategy of leveraging the charges against Ethel to get Julius to confess? I was stunned by Brownell's candor - and cynicism. "She called our bluff," he said.

After "The Brother" was published, I kept tabs on Greenglass periodically. This week, when the nursing home where he was living told me that, at 92, he was no longer a patient there, I guessed, correctly, that, having outlived the Rosenbergs by six decades, he had died.

Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenberg's sons and the Cold War's most famous orphans, graciously extended their condolences to the uncle they hadn't seen since 1950. But while they had acknowledged to me earlier that their father, at least, had been guilty of the legal charge against him - conspiracy to commit espionage - they nonetheless still insisted that "without any involvement on our parents' part, David and Ruth were the ones who actually provided atomic information to the Soviet Union, although it was of little value." The information, even from a lowly machinist, was briefly valuable, if superseded by subsequent elaboration from rogue scientists like Klaus Fuchs. And while the Rosenbergs arguably did not receive a fair trial, the judge and prosecution managed to frame a guilty man.

Rebecca West described the unnatural relationship between David and his sister Ethel as "the hostile twin of incest." And Doctorow, describing the drooling Selig Mindish, predicted that "the treachery of that man will haunt him for as long as he lives." How would Greenglass be remembered? He told me he was certain it would be as a man who sent his sister and brother-in-law to their deaths. But he asked people to recall, too, that the Rosenbergs had recruited him as a spy, that nobody really expected the death penalty to be imposed and that most men faced with the same choice, between his sister and his wife, would have done just what he did. What would want his obituary to say, I asked? "I was a good father," he replied. "A good husband. A good son. A good brother. Born in a time which tore people's souls."

Sam Roberts is urban affairs correspondent of The New York Times and author of "The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case," just reissued by Simon & Schuster with a new epilogue.