Problems of Alger Hiss
Esquire, December 1960
Even at a glance - a second glance really, because the first
is an almost instinctive reaction to the name itself, still
evocative of enshadowed political events from a decade ago:
a pumpkin stuffed with microfilm, a manila envelope crammed
with typescripts of State Department documents and hidden
down a dumb-waiter, a gift-horse red rug, a thrice-denied
1929 Ford, a ludicrously ominous prothonotary warbler, an
old Woodstock typewriter, and the shifting accusations of
a witness known as Whittaker Chambers "Carl"/George
Crosley that added up in headlines to the Hiss Case - the
man is still one thing: obviously qualified. He is older now,
fifty-six, gone slightly bald in front since the younger days
of his two trials, but he remains a handsome figure, tall,
lean rather than gaunt, and determinedly energetic. He goes
out of his way to be immediately personable - subsequently
charming, if there is the least friendly response - and always
courteous, in an almost forgotten nineteenth-century fashion
that remembers to write polite notes to friends, reminding
them of book titles and past conversations, and to bring small
gifts to their children on visits (nothing expensive - a tiny
glass horse, or a zapoli from the Sullivan Street festival,
just as a memento). For a serious man, he has, if not sallies,
at least moments of wit ("At one time I thought they
were going to blame everything on me but the Brooklyn Dodgers'
loss of the pennant"), though the essential manner, always
politic, sometimes circumspect - which his enemies called
"evasive," and his friends believe to be "complete
dignity, even in the face of the most demeaning thing"
- has not changed. If anything, it has deepened - ironically,
with the experience of forty-four months in Federal prison
at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania - so that he seems to have matured
in some oblique way along the very lines of his lost career.
He talks and acts like an intelligent, idealistic ex-New Dealer
who hasn't found his right place in the world since the death
of Roosevelt, rather than an exposed asset in an espionage
network. And even thirteen years after its last significant
entry, his curriculum vitae still seems to hold that
ghostly promise of a once-brilliant future - or at least the
promise of steady employment. Harvard Law School, on Law
Review and an Ames Court finalist. Clerk to Supreme Court
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Fourteen years in government
service (AAA, counsel for the Nye Committee investigating
munitions industries. Solicitor General's Office, Director
of the State Department office in charge of United Nations'
affairs), President of the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace. Fluent French, good Spanish, beginning German. Knowledge
of international trade. Administrative skill. Even a good
game of tennis. After Lewisburg, he added some small reputation
as a writer (one book, In The Court of Public Opinion,
one article for Pocket Books, Inc., Yalta: Modern American
Myth) and Speedwriting (sixty to one hundred words per
minute). The only skill he ever seems to have attempted unsuccessfully
is typing. He tried to learn - on the same scholarship that
carried him through Speedwriting after prison - but in the
end he prefers to write everything out in longhand on yellow
legal pads (including the manuscript of his book), forming
long, exact and exacting Victorian sentences. Not a crippling
drawback, however, in a business world full of secretaries,
and under any other set of circumstances he would qualify
as that rare individual, Just the Man that Everybody is Always
present, Alger Hiss is selling stationery.
lives at a water-front address in New York City in a third-floor
walk-up, a sad building with a tattered green awning over
a vacant store front piled high with empty cardboard cartons,
and next door, "Harry Feldman, Slop Chest. Supplies/Everything
for the Sailor." It looks like the kind of hide-out (which,
for Hiss, it is not: simply economy) that Whittaker Chambers
would have picked in his darker days. Last spring the apartment
was robbed. The thief emptied all the drawers, pulled all
the books off the shelves, but the total loot was a $25 ring
and a $5 pair of cuff links.
Since last year, he has been separated from his wife, Priscilla.
the Case began, he has been more or less broke. His legal
expenses amounted to some $100,000, and his own contribution
of $30,000 took all of his savings and more. While he was
in prison, it was his brother, Donald, who helped provide
for his wife and son. His book, which he was three years in
writing, brought him next to nothing. ("It wasn't written
for money.") An Act of Congress, now known as the Hiss
Act, cut him off from any government pension. In 1958, a legacy
of $15,000 from his mother's estate was "helpful in a
time of stringency." But by 1959, he'd lost the only
job he'd been able to find and was collecting unemployment
insurance. His present income from selling stationery starts
at a little more than $75 a week. He manages to do some free-lance
commercial work on week ends, but since he must avoid anything
that approaches the practice of law, his opportunities even
on his own time are strictly limited. These are the barest
circumstances of Alger Hiss's present life, ten years after
his conviction for perjury and six years after his release
from prison. In one sense, they amount simply to another reading
of the Case itself: a part of the aftermath, i.e., as long
ago as 1948, something like his present difficulties could
have been read in the hostile climate of public opinion that
began to settle over Hiss's life, like a night mist. But in
another sense, they provide the mise en scène for an
important afteract to one of the most significant political
dramas of our time. A drama, which, though long spent of its
public emotion, has left at least one of its principals mysteriously
"on stage." Alger Hiss will probably never he entirely
free of those bleak scenes: the Congressional hearing, the
Grand Jury, the trial court. The Case continues to adumbrate
his life. But now, at the remove of a decade, and with the
issues it raised no longer at the raw nerve ends of public
feeling, it is at least possible to consider Alger Hiss as
something besides the Case. His present circumstances, hard
and mundane, raise questions outside the Case: How has Hiss
lived over the past decade? What are his hopes for any kind
of future, and what kind of man has the quotidian, rather
than the extraordinary, day found him to be? He can perhaps
at last be seen as a human being and not simply read as a
piece of a record now dog-eared with inquiries into his innocence
In fact, the one thing to be avoided at this late day is another
reading of the Case. It has been read to death. From the moment
Hiss denied knowing a man named Whittaker Chambers ("So
far as I know I never laid eyes on him, and I should like
to have the opportunity to do so"), it became the Case,
and every pundit and Mr. Dooley has had his crack at delineating
it. The most famous reading, of course, is Whittaker Chambers'
own Witness, which, for a while, became more of a "record"
than the transcripts of the hearings and trials. But there
have been at least eight other books and hundreds of broadsides
discussing the Case, pro and con. The Earl Jowitt, an English
jurist, read it and blamed Hiss's conviction on faulty laws
of evidence. Rebecca West read it and called it America's
Dreyfus Case. Alistair Cooke went to the courtrooms and found
a Generation on Trial. Murray Kempton read it and decided
that Hiss really wanted to be Chambers, and Chambers wanted
to be Hiss, both motivated by a hatred of a "shabby gentility"
right out of Ellen Glasgow. Through newspaper columns and
intellectual scuttlebut, theories proliferated: Roosevelt
could have saved Hiss if he were still alive today, Hiss is
covering up for Somebody Else, the motive for this concealment
attributed to every human nobility as well a every human frailty.
In its very drama and political import, the Case engendered
irrational partisanships, which, on both sides, led otherwise
logical people to swallow scandal and paradox whole, savoring,
more than anything else, the taste of mystery and the other
side's tainted blood. Chambers found the epigram for one camp
when he referred to then-Representative Richard M. Nixon as
"saying in his quietly savage way (he is the kindest
of men): 'If the American people understood the real character
of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil.'" Norman Thomas
probably ticked off the other camp best when he made mention
of "those liberals who can believe Alger Hiss guilty,
but can never forgive Whittaker Chambers."
Actually, the man least interested in this sort of unraveling,
almost by nature, is Alger Hiss himself. "I am not a
mystery man," he insists, and he seems to resent even
the capitalization of the Case (something else he lays on
Chambers) as some sort of distortion of the record. His own
book is aridly devoid of any of the shadow-language of intrigue,
even when he seems to suspect some conspiracy against himself.
In fact, Hiss's detachment was the bane of his publishers,
who kept pleading with him to write more about himself ("What
were you doing all those years?"), but he stubbornly
refused: "The book was written as lawyer's brief,"
Hiss remarks, "and it says all I have to say about the
case. I'm not going to write an autobiography - nothing that
interesting about my life, anyway - just as not going to write
about my time in prison, because I hold certain strong views
pointedly, Hiss's own statement of his innocence - contrary
to all the circulating theories about his relative
guilt or innocence - contains nothing covert. He considers
it a matter of public record, with a few details about forged
typewriters and misappropriated documents yet to be cleared
up. Ironically this open stand, which actually makes Hiss
appear tight-lipped, seems to arouse suspicion rather than
to allay it, but Mrs. Helen Buttenwieser, the lawyer who presently
represents Hiss, explains it quite simply: "If he is
completely innocent, he can't know what's happened. He can't
understand why he was attacked. He went into the first trial
with the firm conviction that his word would be taken. He
saw it as a credible story versus an incredible story. He
simply can't get over the fact that he wasn't believed."
Buttenwieser, a stalwart lady who became a lawyer through
N.Y.U. Law School after she'd raised two children, continues
whatever investigation is possible into "the incredible
story," though she admits there has been "no ground
gained" lately. "But you don't gain ground in a
jigsaw puzzle," she says. "You get pieces and fit
them together. Right now we have a lot of separate pieces."
They seem to be mainly pieces of a questionable typewriter:
where did Woodstock No. 230,099 come from, anyhow? "Wherever
there is a lead we follow it up."
It seems to be a matter of time and long patience, and Hiss
himself is far from being a fanatic absorbed in his own vindication.
He has too many other pressing problems. Unless asked, he
doesn't even discuss the Case, though not from any reticence.
It is much more a deliberate effort to disassociate his own
personality from what he feels was a shadow figure that stood
as the courtroom indictee.
have always insisted on living as an individual, and not as
symbol," he says of himself, and a favorite quotation
is from Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden, about the
accused on trial. The judge in the play reminisces about a
woman he tried for murder, what she said just before sentencing.
" 'What I have been listening to is court,' she said,
'is not my life. It is the shape and shadow of my life. With
the accidents of truth taken out of it.'" Hiss feels
much the same about his own trial days, and he is determined
that his present days will not have that character to them.
Despite a lot of setbacks he has largely succeeded in a life
now kept private and contained. As one small instance, he
has become quite a social catch at New York cocktail parties.
People are astonishingly anxious to make his acquaintance
nowadays, and if there is some cuteness about it at first
("Alger Hiss! Oh, I'm dying to meet him!"), his
relations with people quickly find firmer ground and often,
though cautiously on his part, lead to new friendships. At
a first meeting with someone, he has a way of immediately
seizing on the other person's interests, following these up
in casual chitchat until he's had time to size up his man.
If satisfied, he moves on to more personal give-and-take.
People find him "charming," "a wonderful conversationalist,"
"mentally impeccable," "not bitter, not cynical,"
"a nice, comfortable person" with "a sweetness
about him." If there is some inclination to weave a bouquet
around him, the flowers are real, not artificial. As for the
Case, it never seems to come up - certainly out of deference
to Hiss, but also because he thoroughly enjoys the art of
conversation, and with all the topics at his command, why
is admittedly in sharp contrast with the picture given of
his trial appearance, which has been reported most often as
"cold" and "arrogant." Even the Earl Jowitt,
who found strong argument for Hiss's innocence in his reading
of the Case, got from the record "the impression of a
man somewhat conceited, too conscious that he had met on intimate
terms the most distinguished of his countrymen, not over-ready
to be forthcoming with his less-distinguished patriots, and
in short not suffering fools gladly and not being a 'good
mixer.'" Nothing could be more discrepant, and all that
can be said is that Hiss apparently enters a drawing room
with much more aplomb than he enters a courtroom.
his scant public life since prison, he has tried to follow
the same cautious precepts that guide his private life, but
with much colder results. He still makes a bad and (depending
upon the predispositions of his audience) sometimes damning
public impression. The problem is almost insoluble. When he
was freed in 1954, advice ran two ways: either that he must
certainly disappear from public view and start over again
somewhere else, preferably abroad under a new name, or that
he must certainly appear full-panoplied before the public
eye, knight-errant to his own cause. Neither way suits him
at all. He decided without hesitation to remain Alger Hiss
and to exercise a close choice over his few public appearances.
For instance, Mike Wallace wanted him to go on his television
show as One of Those People Other People Are Interested In.
Hiss liked Wallace, even played tennis with him, but he refused
to go on the show on the grounds that "I am not a public
freak." On the other hand, he hired a barn-storming pilot
to fly him out of New York in the midst of a storm, just so
he wouldn't be late for a fairly routine discussion of the
United Nations over a local television station in Providence,
excuse for this trip was goodhearted. He likes to speak out
for causes like the U.N. But when he does so nowadays, the
public, which used to find him sinister, simply finds him
dull. In 1956, the Whig-Cliosophic Society at Princeton, a
campus organization dedicated to controversy, invited him
to lecture. The invitation caused a small furor. President
Dodds felt compelled to write to all alumni and parents ("It
is often not enough to tell a child that fire is hot. To learn
the personal significance of fire, the child must sometimes
burn himself..."). The night before, persons unknown
laid down a "pumpkin barrage": a hundred papier-mâché
Halloween pumpkins were strewn over the campus, each containing
a photograph of a Woodstock typewriter and a roll of microfilm.
By the time Hiss arrived, extra police were everywhere, and
the whole town was on a local hookup to hear him speak. His
talk turned out to be a dry refutation of the Soviet prediction
that the twentieth century would be the century of communism.
During the question period, a student asked Hiss a sneaky
one about Yalta. Hiss replied, more or less, that he couldn't
say he'd stop beating his wife because he'd never started.
Everybody went away disgusted, and pretty much unscathed by
plain fact is that they were bored - to some extent because
lurid expectations had been frustrated, but also because the
lecture was dull and uninformative. All this tells heavily
against Hiss. Even his well-wishers came away disappointed,
troubled by a vague feeling that the man must be disingenuous
if he appears that blank in public. He never seems able to
round the difficulty of his own pedantic manner. During his
trials, it led him at one point to make the blunder of correcting
prosecutor Thomas Murphy's grammar from the witness stand.
There's some argument, however, that it's inherent in Hiss's
overcautious legal mind, an asset for an investigator, e.g.,
counsel for the Nye Committee, but a real drawback for an
investigatee, e.g., the witness before the House Un-American
were talking one night about Alger's cautious legal mind,"
says one of Hiss's attorneys (quoted in Fred J. Cook's book
on the Case), "and one of his friends remarked: 'You
can't ask Alger a sample question and get a straight answer
unless he's turned it over in his mind and considered it first
from all angles. If you asked him, for instance, 'Is it raining
outside?' he would either go to the window and look out to
see, or he would say, 'Well, it wasn't raining five minutes
ago when I came in.' Later, I started to tell this story to
Alger, but when I reached the part about his walking to the
window and looking outside, he interrupted me and said with
a grin, 'Or I would say it wasn't raining when I came in.'"
other words, Hiss himself seems to realize his own shortcomings,
though apparently he can do little about them except smile
at them. To a non-lawyer (who usually thinks lawyers are word-twisters,
anyhow), it looks even worse, and the damage to Hiss's public
impression is obvious. If he is taken as a villain, he is
an unconscionable villain, whose hypocrisy and deviousness
know no bounds. And if he is taken as a victim, he is a most
unsatisfactory victim to a public that expects some warmth
and a more heroic and articulate stance from the persecuted
(Sacco-Vanzetti, Eugene Debs, et al.). He becomes, rather
than martyr, the non-hero of his own case.
it's a choice that Hiss has made for himself - whether through
a perverse courage or a black guilt depends upon one's persuasions
about the Case. By way of contrast, his distant public manner
can only be set off against the affability that seems to inform
all dimensions of his private life. In talking about persons
who might know him a little better than Congressional investigators,
Hiss happened to remark, "These are all people I've worked
with - friends of mine - and I might say that I think everybody
I've worked with has been a friend of mine." They not
only have been, but continue to be his friends, going out
of their way to make a point of it. When he went around recently
to see an educational film at the new building which houses
the Carnegie Endowment, his friends came up en masse
to congratulate him on "his building." During his
brief time as president of the Endowment, Hiss managed to
raise the funds for the construction, and nobody there is
about to forget whose building it really is. They are typical
of Hiss's closest friends, who represent in general the more
conservative element of society - lawyers, teachers, publishers,
civil servants, etc., the sort of people whose interest in
Alger Hiss would be taken by their other friends as a forgivable
is true, however, that Hiss is sensitive about his friendships,
and that his friends are protective about him. Hiss seems
to be anxious, above all, that nobody suffer hurt or embarrassment
because of any association with him. His friends reverse the
situation by being zealous for his privacy, many of them refusing
to comment on him publicly at all.
an even sharper contrast with Hiss's unfortunate public manner
comes from the completely opposite end of society: the record
of his life in prison from 1951 to 1954. Officially it was
bound to be impeccable - again, a part of the public impression
- but it was certainly no foregone conclusion that Alger Hiss
would find affection and respect among the usual inmates of
Lewisburg. William Remington, for instance, who was imprisoned
at the same time as Hiss on similar perjury-in-lieu-of-espionage
charges, met his death at Lewisburg. He was murdered in his
sleep by a cellmate wielding a brick inside a sock, the victim
of a prison quarrel that touched in some insane way on patriotism.
Hiss, however, found friends among prisoners and guards alike
(his only detractor was an inmate serving a life term for
treason in broadcasting for the Nazis), and when he went out
of the gates on November 27, 1954, there were rousing cheers
from the bleak prison windows.
success in prison derived from human qualities that it would
be hard to fake. Possibly for some days, or some weeks, but
not for almost four years. It was a test of his human endurance,
and a test of time. "Nobody who hasn't been in prison
can possibly know what it's like. You are surrounded by the
most disturbed personalities, the most unstable human beings,"
Hiss recalls. "And you can't find out about it by a voluntary
enlistment, knowing you'll be out in five more days. You have
to be there, and know you'll be there tomorrow, for a long
time to come." He adds succinctly, "I don't think
it ever did anybody much good."
friend remembers Hiss telling his son, Tony, who was in tears
after the verdict from the second trial, "If I have to
go to jail, I'll just make the best of it." He set about
doing exactly that in typical lawyer's fashion: he got himself
briefed on prison. Austin H. McCormick, head of the Osborne
Association, a group interested in prison reform, had offered
to talk with Hiss about what he might expect of prison life,
and Hiss gratefully accepted. It was McCormick who warned
him of seeking a job in the prison hospital because it would
only suggest to other prisoners that he was getting special
treatment - or, worse, that he could obtain narcotics for
them. (Remington, by the way, did work in the prison hospital.)
McCormick, in fact, warned him against asking anything at
all of prison officials. From the time Hiss went off to prison
on March 22, 1951, shackled to a picture-shy mail thief, he
followed this advice scrupulously, along with another admonition
from a cellmate: "Never start a conversation with the
man next to you. Wait for him to speak. You never know how
he's feeling - what had news he's gotten that morning about
his case, what his problems are, or what you might touch off
inside him." So Hiss kept his peace, went to the prison
warehouse as a sort of porter and clerk, and waited quietly
for whatever might develop, an attitude that has led higher
officials in the Federal prison system to proclaim blandly
that "Hiss didn't talk much while he was at Lewisburg."
he talked as much as any other prisoner and found friends
among the very element that McCormick had predicted he would:
the Sicilian gangsters. "They're the most stable group
in any prison," Hiss says, comparing them to prisoners-of-war
captured by an enemy society. "They have the most wonderful
family relationships. You'd see them on visitors' day, tossing
up their children, catching them, biting them in the leg.
Once you find a common ground - and it has to be a real interest,
nothing egregious - they're wonderful people."
prison companions went on to varying fates after his and their
release. One man, who started reading philosophy in jail and
talked deeply with Hiss, now has a good job with an airline.
Another, however, is already dead, killed in gangland warfare.
But during their time behind walls, Hiss did find common ground
with them, allowing for a few bizarre misunderstandings. He
was never able to convince them, for instance, that they were
hurting their own by hiring out as labor scabs. "It was
a sign of respectability to them to be hired by Henry Ford
at high wages, and they couldn't see what was wrong with it."
On the other hand, the Mafia - either disregarding the charges
against Hiss, or ignorant of them - couldn't understand why,
with all those contacts he had in Washington for fifteen years,
he didn't "clean up." If they'd a been him, they'd
a been rich....
offered them the kind of help the less literate always need
desperately from the more literate: letter-writing, advice
about the minor technicalities of a complex society, talk
about personal problems, even if only to find words for them.
There was also the incredible hunger for contact with humanity
that pervades a prison. "I remember some men hiding sparrows
in their cells, going to great lengths to conceal them from
the guards, just to have a pet" - and Hiss bore it with
the others. It was at best a bad time, but not totally a bad
memory. In fact, Hiss often gets into conversation with bartenders
about gangsters they've had as mutual acquaintances, and he
likes to refer to himself sometimes as "just a knockabout
guy"- apparently a slang term he picked up in A Block.
He gets quite a few letters from convicts asking him for help
"on the outside," and he sends most of them on to
the Osborne Association, whose interest is more in finding
jobs for prisoners once they get out, rather than - as with
Hiss - in seeing that they get safely in. For the record,
Hiss has had no further trouble with the law except for a
$3 fine in 1955 for breaking a park regulation by playing
catch with Tony in Washington Park.
after prison did Hiss set to work on his book. He worked on
it for over three years, finding it "very hard to write,"
and in the end it did him little service. It does indeed read
like a lawyer's brief and demonstrates clearly why actual
briefs are kept to a minimum number of pages by judicial fiat.
Through 424 pages, In the Court of Public Opinion grows
steadily more wearisome. As for the "grounds of appeal,"
they were harshly refuted. The reviewers and commentators
took Hiss's implied plea for exoneration in the "court"
where he feels he was really convicted - "the Court of
Public Opinion" - and turned it right back against him,
arguing that the author was offering no new evidence that
might change the public's mind. The book had only a respectable
sale, nothing like Chambers' Witness. It did, however,
lead indirectly to a job for Hiss - The New York Times
ran a boxed profile on his publication day, May 7, 1957, and
B. Andrew Smith, president and principal stockholder of Feathercombs,
Inc., happened to see it. "You could say I got my job
through The New York Times," Hiss said later to
always has been rumored that Andy Smith never heard of Alger
Hiss before he hired him. He was just looking around for a
twenty-thousand-a-year man to organize his office, and here
was one he could pick up cheap, say, five thousand. There's
some truth to the rumor, but it isn't really half as incredible
as the simple fact that Andy Smith and Alger Hiss actually
worked together for over two years. "Alger, you're the
stubbornest man I ever met in my life!" "Well, next
to you, Andy...."
To begin with, Smith, who arrived in the business world after
art school and a Japanese upbringing, is as mercurial as Hiss
is single minded. He thinks and talks about six different
things at once, running behind and ahead of himself at turns.
Conversation with him frequently reaches a sort of anagogical
level. "Alger loosened up a lot after about three months
in the office," he remarks of Feathercombs, Inc.'s effect
on Hiss. "He'd come in with the grey coat and the velvet
collar, and somebody'd ask him where his blue suede shoes
were. He was a little nervous, stiff at first, but pretty
soon he was briefing you going down the elevator, he'd run
out and get the taxi, jump in beside you, still giving you
a briefing, ride down to Wall Street without his coat, stop
the cab at the right address, and tell you it's on the twenty-second
floor. A perfectionist."
which Andy Smith is several hundred miles from being, although
his own scattered methods have kept alive for thirteen years
a business that he feels may yet make him his million. The
product is a lightweight, extremely resilient spring that
is used as an invisible comb to hold women's hair in alluring
place. The Feathercombs had enough initial popularity to bring
the big competition down on Smith's neck, and Smith has been
fighting ever since to make his patents stick, and get the
business organized (the last having been Hiss's assignment).
He carries on a large part of the fight - until approximately
noon of each business day - over an intercom system from his
apartment (Utamaro prints backstopping a pink hair dryer)
to his office - whenever he's not in Germany or Japan trying
to find machinery to make the Feathercomb. (Until recently,
all Feathercombs were manufactured by hand in a small plant
run by a 300-pound Negro housewife, who, according to Smith,
"keeps a clean kitchen.")
day Alger Hiss went to work at the offices of Feathercombs,
Inc., Smith flew to Europe. "When I got back six weeks
later, he knew more about the office than people who'd been
there five years," says Smith, admiringly. "He found
letters I'd lost, did everything." Not everybody at the
office, which has its Hollywood types, took to this sudden
efficiency. "Everyone eventually had a run-in with Alger
because he was such a driving perfectionist, knew everybody's
job better than they did. But after the blow-up, they either
liked him - or they found a way to get along with him."
Outside of one nervous breakdown, the office staff settled
down to markedly more efficient operations, and what minor
misgivings remained were taken out in a sort of gallows humor.
If Hiss happened to close his office door, one would bend
over to the other's ear and say, "He's in there stuffing
his pumpkin." Or if the competition took a leap ahead;
"What do you expect? Alger Hiss is leaking the secrets."
Hiss took it all extremely well, though he faced some odd-ball
inquiries into the Case from time to time. "Every once
in a while, somebody'd ask him, 'What's the story? Did you
do it, or didn't you?'" Smith says. "Alger'd say,
'Read my book,' like he always does. Then they'd go away,
come back later and say, 'I give up. I don't care whether
you are or not. I can't read the book!'"
for one brief period of harassment by newsmen, Feathercombs
never suffered in any way from Hiss's affiliation with the
company. News of his hiring didn't even break until two months
after he'd gone to work. Fulton Lewis, Jr. informed the public,
and the reporters descended. "Alger was used to it. I
wasn't," says Smith, who locked his door and refused
to answer the telephone after the second day. "They wanted
to take a picture of us together, and I told Alger, 'I don't
quite go for shaking hands with you in front of a file.'"
But the siege soon lifted, and the hundreds of letters to
Feathercombs ran "eighty-five per cent complimentary,
friendly - even though they never heard of him before - and
the rest were like they wrote it on a wall." After that,
Smith maybe winced a little when Hiss picked up the phone
and answered firmly, "Alger Hiss here!", but before
long he had Hiss countersigning checks.
fact, the name Alger Hiss quite often drew a complete blank
from Smith's business associates. Hiss was introduced at one
meeting to a salesman who shook his hand and asked, "Haven't
I met you someplace before?" Nobody felt called upon
to explain and, after the meeting, Hiss and the salesman,
who was just opening up the New England territory, got into
a discussion of the roads in Massachusetts. Hiss offered what
knowledge he had of short-cuts and throughways, and the salesman
thanked him, apparently even more puzzled. A few weeks later,
Smith, on a trip to New England, asked the salesman what he
thought of Feathercombs' new man. "Isn't that something?"
said the salesman. "A guy like Rudolf Hess knowing all
about the roads in Massachusetts."
Hiss showed a remarkably good head for the business. Smith
gratefully raised his salary at one point to $12,000, although
he happened to pick just that moment when everybody had to
accept a reduction in salary. The cut was Hiss's suggestion,
and he stuck loyally by Smith, trying to make a success of
the venture and to find a solution for the patent imbroglio.
He succeeded in so far as he could before he left - "I
told Andy from the beginning that the best thing I could do
for him was to work myself out of a job" - and Smith
acknowledges the debt. However, he is almost as grateful to
Hiss for his efforts in a more personal direction. Hiss did
a great deal for Smith's oldest son, Chris, who, until he
finally headed back to school in California at Hiss's suggestion,
was turning up at the office with his own share of problems.
"Alger filled in where I couldn't," Smith admits.
best way to suggest Chris's problems is to point out the fact
when he was twelve years old, he already had a mustache. "He'd
go to Carnegie Hall with his mother," his father remembers,
"and everybody'd think he was her escort for the evening."
Since then, Chris had stumbled over several schools, knocked
around a few of the dimmer New York night spots as a volunteer
crooner, and gone to work in advertising at Feathercombs,
where he frequently showed up unshaven, wearing khakis, a
white T-shirt, and tennis shoes. Despite his own deshabille,
however, he started kidding Hiss first about his clothes.
Hiss's wardrobe at this period of his life consisted mostly
of spare suits loaned him by friends. "Everything would
be just fine, except for one particular item each time,"
Chris recalls. "Like a beautiful, grey pin-stripe suit,
right off a diplomat's back - only with brown loafers."
Hiss countered by quietly rearranging the office plan so that
Chris ended up right out in front where everybody could get
a good look at him in his dirty T-shirt. The strategy got
Chris to shaving again, and spruced him up a bit, but he still
kept his collar and cuffs unbuttoned on principle.
was like a lion sparring with a lion cub," according
to Smith. The sparring took place all around town in Union
Square, where they'd go for lunch after picking up sandwiches
at Chock full o' Nuts; at the Morgan collection of rare books;
up at the Young Men's Hebrew Association to hear Robert Frost
read his poetry; out at Forest Hills to watch tennis; or at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an art lecture. All these
were Hiss's suggestions for betterment - "But Alger used
to blame me for taking him to The Blue Angel because he wanted
to go there himself," says Chris. One night they ran
into a well-known jazz singer at the supper club. "She
dumped the guy she was with, and came over to our table. I
started cracking up. Neither of them had the least idea who
the other was. She mentioned she'd gotten busted on a narcotics
rap, and Alger mentioned he'd spent some time in jail too.
That's what they found in common to talk about. The clink."
a two-year period, however, Chris found a lot to talk about
with Hiss: politics ("He's really middle-of-the-road,
a sort of classical Republican"), civil rights ("Alger
worried about things like, if you were extra nice to a Negro,
wasn't that just another form of discrimination?"), Mort
Sahl, Proust, Albert Camus ("He told me I should forget
about Beckett and read this man"), and, most of all,
Chris's own problems. "He said I wasn't doing anything
to develop myself where I was, and I knew it, but I didn't
know what to do about it. I finally ended up using Alger as
a sort of battering ram to knock down a lot of blocks that
were standing in my way." But Hiss never pressed him
on anything. "He was always watching my reactions to
things. He wanted to know what I thought. I could never get
him to agree with me on anything completely. I'd try to pin
him down on a key point, and he'd laugh and say, 'You're too
subtle for me,' or 'I'm just a country boy.'"
also appointed Chris as his "publicity agent." "Whenever
somebody'd call him up to ask him to appear somewhere, I'd
intercede. Then he'd ask me whether he should do it or not
- sort of mockingly - but a lot of times he took my advice."
Chris went along on the stormy flight to Providence, Rhode
Island, as his manager. "The pilot was more scared than
Alger. Alger was up there, munching on a banana, asking about
the wings, like he knew everything about airplanes, when he
didn't at all. (He used to do that a lot, just start talking
about something he knew nothing about, to see what the other
guy had to say.) The pilot couldn't even use his radio."
They landed safely, however, amid news cameras, taped the
telecast, and got out of the studio around midnight.
the TV station happened to be over a big department store,
and when we got downstairs, Alger suddenly decides he has
to go all through this empty store," Chris recalls what
appears to have been one of Hiss's most lighthearted moments.
"I thought we were going to get arrested. He was trying
to find where the Feathercombs display was, you see. The night
watchman finally came up, and Alger asks him, do they carry
Feathercombs? All this time he's emptying socks and an alarm
clock out of his pockets, putting them back on the counter.
Then he gave the watchman his card. I guess he tore it up
after we got out of there."
to Chris, he was "just being a sort of cutup - you could
tell he'd never had a chance to be one before." A dare
became a big thing between them. Apparently Hiss found it
an effective pedagogic technique for bringing enlightenment
to Chris ("I dare you to read this"), but Hiss also
had to stand and deliver. One time they got into a push-up
contest on the floor of a bar. It ended in a draw, seventeen
apiece. "Another time we were in a restaurant with all
these raw-silk-suited businessmen, and just to see what he'd
do, I dared him to drop his plate of cake on the floor. He
had trouble doing it, but he did it. Then the waiter came
over, and he blamed it all on me, so I lost in the end anyhow."
became fast friends. "I guess I was so diametrically
opposed to him that he was kind of fascinated. Then you know
- even in jail - he's got quite a tradition as a father figure."
Chris is out in California now, twenty-one, recently married,
and once more pursuing a singing career. He still gets letters
from Hiss - as do all of Hiss's friends, including some of
the past inmates of Lewisburg - and, from time to time, a
book as a present. The last one was E. B. White's edition
of Strunk's Elements of Style. "This looks like
a dull book, but it really isn't," the note said. The
warning wasn't necessary; Hiss's Union Square tutoring had
already had its effect; Chris had picked up a copy of the
book long ago.
friendship was kept strictly outside of business hours. On
the job, Hiss gave his meticulous care to the fortunes of
Feathercombs, working out of an office that Smith claims "looked
like a Christian Science reading room." It was always
piled high with books and the inevitable yellow legal pads.
"Alger was a constant note-taker - an interesting fact
in light of the part played by four memoranda in Hiss's handwriting
during the Case - "and if you want to know what's on
Alger's mind, just go look at his yellow pads, and you'll
know what he's been thinking for two weeks."
what Hiss was thinking didn't always coincide with what Smith
was thinking. They came to a friendly parting of ways in 1959,
even though Smith had at one point offered Hiss a stock option.
It was bound to come. The two men are really two different
methods. Hiss's last service involved seeking an injunction
against competitors for patent violations, and typically he
went right out and got the best lawyers he could find. This
only confused Smith. "Alger got all his friends down
here, and they started writing briefs like crazy," Smith
interprets the move. "I didn't know what it was going
to cost. One night, we're all working around a table, writing
away, and one of them turns to me and says, 'How does it feel
to have a battery of lawyers?' How does it feel?"
It needed a battery of lawyers, however, to fight the case,
and there is no doubt that Hiss left the company in much better
shape than he found it. If nothing else, it is at least organized.
The lawyers think they've got a firm case on at least one
of the patents, and Smith has some TV spots lined up for product
promotion. He may make his million yet.
Hiss is not very close to making his. Contrary to reports,
he did not go on to a better job after Feathercombs, Inc.
He went on to five months of unemployment, once again under
the shadow of the Case.
It was a low time for Hiss, simply because there was nothing
ahead of him. He followed up every job lead that came his
way, but if one of the partners was interested in hiring him,
the other partner wouldn't go along with it, or the board
of directors thought better of it. On top of being out of
work, he was also now separated from Priscilla. (He was deeply
affected by the breakup and for a long time kept in daily
touch with her. He is still extremely sensitive about her
well-being and goes to great lengths to see that nothing hurts
her - even avoiding friends who have been both their friends,
so that she may still have them as her friends.) He lived
on his unemployment insurance in his water-front apartment
and took the time to see a lot of his friends. "He never
communicated the rough times he was having," says Hugh
Miller, an artist who has known Hiss for about the past four
years. "He's amazingly unbitter. Actually he's more likely
to indulge other people's troubles than his own."
Hiss has taken some of his troubles to an analyst, but his
main answer to hard times seems to have been to keep busy
in spite of them - if not doing, at least appreciating.
He's something of a culture bug, with that strain of pedantry
running through his enthusiasms. He goes to a great many openings
of art shows, bringing with him "a good critical sense,"
according to artist friends; and he follows the New York Philharmonic,
though he belongs to the old school that hasn't quite forgiven
Leonard Bernstein his ballet style on the podium. He also
likes the theatre, on Broadway and off and, while out of work,
he took in an occasional matinee. One of his favorite performances
was Hal Holbrook's interpretation in Mark Twain Tonight.
He saw the show five or six times, and once he and Chris threw
a party for Holbrook. Quite often, he will drag people out
to "see something they ought to see," regardless
of their lack of enthusiasm; e.g., late one evening, he stopped
by the darkened U.N. building, got the lights turned on, and
chaperoned a bunch of Feathercombs salesmen through a room
full of Peruvian hangings. But he can get just as much pleasure
out of going off alone on his own tour of the city's churches,
quietly sitting out a noon hour, scrutinizing architectural
details; or, on an early morning walk through Inwood or Central
Park, pursuing that mild hobby that waxed so sinister in the
also likes to visit out of town. While at Feathercombs, he
was gone every Friday at 3 p.m. "By 9 am. Monday he'd
have been all over the country with maybe about three hours
sleep," Chris recalls. Out of work, he took more leisurely
trips, one of them back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see
Tony, who now has a scholarship at Harvard, and to poke around
the offices of the Law Review once again.
town, there's always lunch, which, for Hiss, is an occasion
often booked far ahead. His companion may be A. J. Liebling
of The New Yorker, a fellow bird-watcher, or one of his lawyers,
or a member of the foundations whose work he follows (Religious
Freedom Committee, Osborne Association, Carnegie Endowment,
etc.), or just an artist whose work he likes. He's inclined
to order in the language of the menu, French, German, Spanish,
Italian, "or any other language, even if he doesn't know
it," according to Chris, "just so he can make some
contact with the waiter, get to know him a little."
are important, almost vital to him. As a child, Hiss was something
of a bookworm, and he cannot remember a time when he hasn't
turned to reading as a kind of solace. At law school, he went
through Frazer's Golden Bough, reading an hour every
night before he went to bed as a relief from the dry rigors
of the case system. He was the first of Justice Holmes' clerks
to start reading aloud to the old man after Mrs. Holmes' death,
and he recalls going through Walpole's voluminous Letters
at a rapid clip. In jail, where he had a chance to read "more
systematically than I'd had in a long time," he used
to hole up in the can of the Honor Block with the guards'
acquiescence and sit on a john lid with a book long after
the 10 p.m. lights-out. His tastes are catholic, and he enjoys
passing on a good book almost as much as reading it. The New
York Times is a daily fare, and he's a constant reader
of The New Yorker. He also speaks hesitantly of wanting
to do some more writing himself someday, not fiction, but
commentary on public affairs, if and when the public is willing
to accept him as any authority on its affairs.
Since the Case, however, he's grown highly skeptical about
any public enlightenment. Not that he was ever exactly a man
of the people, but he's become much more distrustful of public
opinion and particularly of the means used to influence it.
He has little use for television, for instance, or for anything
resembling public relations. He even dislikes photographs
in the public print, regarding them as an invasion of privacy.
He is reasoning quite obviously from the Case (his own trial
photos were hardly portraits by Bachrach). He feels strongly
that the mass media distorted the facts and built up a surrounding
atmosphere of public hysteria that made it impossible for
the jury system to work as it should.
he admits that his casual contacts with the man-in-the-street
since the trials have been friendly, even kindly. Whatever
the distortions, he is clearly recognizable from his newspaper
photos, and people are constantly running up to him on the
sidewalk or on a subway platform to shake his hand. "I
just want to say, 'I love you,'" one man stammered effusively
and ran. He's had only one sure raspberry. A truck driver
cut around a corner while Hiss was waiting for a light and
yelled, "Traitor! Traitor!" What more frequently
happens is that people recognize the face, but misappropriate
it. It isn't only confused salesmen who think he's Rudolf
Hess. He's gotten the same hail from little German children
playing in the streets around Manhattan's Yorkville section.
And during the recent TV scandals, he had a number of people
come up and ask him, "Pardon me, but aren't you Charles
enough, the last thing people take him for - and it's a strong
element in his total character - is a Southerner. He has none
of the accent, but he has all of the syntax. His often elaborate
phrasing is distinctly Southern, and his courtesy is clearly
rooted in a genteel Baltimore upbringing. Even his pursuit
of cultural things has a Southern impetus to it. Not the South
of William Faulkner, but the older South of James Branch Cabell
with its unembattled aristocratic tradition, insistent humanism,
and belles-lettres propensities. It makes Hiss, or
at least a part of him, something of an anachronism; and if
his strange composure is not taken as the front offered by
an impassioned Communist, there's some argument that it may
simply be a Southerner's ease, maintained in the face of a
harried, frenetic, sometimes almost marginal life. A more
concrete instance of Hiss's Southern-ness is his love of a
fine mint julep. He will sit and talk for hours with a bartender
who knows how to make one properly, raising moot points about
mint leaves, infusions, crushed ice, and the correct measures
is still, of course, strong feeling in some quarters that
Hiss is forever culpable - no matter which course his present
life may take - because of his ultimate refusal to admit guilt.
In May, 1959, Whittaker Chambers himself broke a silence he
has kept about Hiss since Witness was published, to
speak exactly to this point. Hiss had been granted a passport.
(He intended to take a European trip with his son. Tony finally
went, but Hiss by then was out of work.) Chambers, writing
in National Review, upheld Hiss's right as an American
citizen to unrestricted travel, but also made it clear that
"ultimately, I cannot say . . . that Alger Hiss has paid
any effective penalty."
continued: "There is only one debt, and one possible
payment of it, as I see it, in his case. It is to speak the
truth. That, to this hour, he has defiantly refused to do.
Worse, he has spent much time and contrivance to undo the
truth. . . . Hiss's defiance perpetuates and keeps from healing
a fracture in the community as a whole. . . . For when you
accept a lie and call it truth, you have poisoned truth at
the source, and everything else is sickened with a little
of that poison." The Case, according to Chambers, "remains
a central lesion of our time," which Hiss can end "at
any moment he chooses, with half-a-dozen words."
Alger Hiss never spoke to any point in just half-a-dozen words,
and on this one in particular - according to a newspaper bromide
that has grown more ominous with the years - he chooses to
remain silent. His silence has been described as "almost
belligerent," and it contains the rebellion of a man
who's been asked the same question too many times, while nobody
heard, or cared for, his answers. Actually his more private
reaction to any mention of Whittaker Chambers is still one
of mystification. He acts genuinely puzzled, as if he simply
did not know yet what to make of the man.
he has always refused the gambit offered by such terms as
"fracture in the community" or "central lesion
of our time." He believes them to be falsifications and
shuns the limbo they open up before him. He has always hoped
that a certain realism would return to the Case and, since
it never has, he has turned from it to more realistic things.
He has been forced to, by straitened circumstances, to be
a salesman for a small line of stationery.
finally found this present job last February, and typically
he's doing well at it. He's already built up a list of some
one hundred new customers. He can't compete for the big orders;
but the smaller customers have been delighted with his services,
and so far he's met with nothing but kindness whenever a buyer
cottons to his name.
frank to say that he regards the job as "only something
temporary." He still has hopes of finding work that makes
use of his better talents. "You can say that I'm still
looking for a job. I've always referred to myself as a teacher
manqué, but I'm afraid teaching isn't going to be possible,
at least not for some years to come. In the meantime, I'd
very much like to work with one of the colonies, like those
emerging in Africa today as new nations - as an adviser."
The trouble here is that there are no American colonies, and
"a British colony naturally turns to a Britisher for
this work or a French colony to a Frenchman." His third
choice is publishing and "there are some hopes that I
might find something of that sort soon."
are quiet hopes, keyed very much to the retiring but useful
life that Hiss has sought since he left prison, and much below
the high drama of the Case. But from the beginning Hiss has
eschewed high drama and fought to keep the Case strictly within
a legal framework, an enclosure that is both more familiar
and more favorable to him than the public confessional. Once
all legal remedies were exhausted, then he considered the
Case finished - unless, and until, it could be legally re-opened.
He wants to give it no independent life outside its legal
when he discusses the Case today, he does so with a lawyer's
detachment. He worked extremely hard on his own defense, and
he approaches even his setbacks as if he were the defense's
attorney instead of the actual defendant. For instance, when
Judge Goddard denied the motion for a new trial in 1952, it
was a death blow to Hiss's best hopes for the hearing of new
evidence. Hiss can believe emphatically that Goddard's decision
was wrong, but he can also explain to himself why a judge
would not want the Case to drag on. He compares the denial
to Holmes' refusal to favor a writ of certiorari in the Sacco-Vanzetti
Case. The courts must be protected. Cases cannot go on forever.
Ask any lawyer.
than anything else in his character, this detached, dispassionate,
ever-rationalizing attitude has kept Alger Hiss a public mystery.
It seems impossible that a man could stand at such a remove
from the very circumstances that have etched his life - or
what is known of it - into the public consciousness. Few are
willing to credit it as simply the man's nature, and there
has always been a kind of breathless public waiting for Hiss
to "make a move." Yet he has conspicuously refused
any martyrdom that would satisfy one camp, and obviously ignored
the challenge to "come clean" that would satisfy
people have speculated about this silence, reading the Case
over and over to find reasons for it. But again, this is a
search for something in the record, and not for something
within the man. Regardless of questions of guilt or innocence
- questions of record, which are outside this present perusal
of character alone - there is at least one distinctly human
reason behind Hiss's stubbornness on this score. It came out
quite abruptly during a luncheon conversation, when Hiss suddenly
stopped cold in the middle of discussing some details of his
life. He'd been talking about his stay at Lewisburg and for
no apparent reason quit in the throes of a long sentence.
here I am talking about myself as if I were an object,"
he went on, visibly annoyed with himself. "And I've said
I'm not ever going to do that."
For in the end, a hero, a martyr, even the convicted man becomes
simply an object. And Hiss refuses to become an object. He
will not be tossed in along with the roll of microfilm, the
Woodstock typewriter, the prothonotary warbler, etc., as just
another piece of the Case. Even if it means opting out, remaining
ambiguously silent, assuming the role of non-hero, he still
insists on his own life, which must remain (as he feels it
always has, really) outside the Case, where only "the
shape and shadow" ever existed.
may be thought a quirkish reason for such a troubling silence,
but in any case the threat of becoming an object quickly ended
the luncheon discussion. Hiss went on pleasantly, but about
other things: C.P. Snow (he's particularly interested in The
New Men), attitudes toward the New Deal, television drama
vs. the live stage. The casual chitchat continued on a short
walk away from Gramercy Park, until he reached a street corner
where his own business began. He shook hands and went off
across lower Fifth Avenue - a tall man in a summer straw,
with certainly no mince to his energetic walk - going after
that most mundane of American goals, and the last one that
anybody would think that Alger Hiss would end up in pursuit
of: a customer.
article is ©Brock Brower and is reprinted with his permission.
to Who Was Alger Hiss?