For - And With - Alger Hiss
was around six when I first heard Edward R. Murrow's "I
Can Hear it Now," an album of sound clips from the century's
most important news stories. A track dealt with the Hiss case,
and I can still hear Murrow in his unforgettable timbre, "One
of these two men is the greatest liar in American history."
then it piqued my interest. As I grew older and learned more
about the case, Alger Hiss became for me, like he was for
many people, a twentieth century Job. Here was a man who gave
up a promising law career to serve his country during the
Depression only to end up as an icon of Cold War injustice.
"Mr. Smith Gets Stomped." That to me was the Alger
Hiss story, a symbol of everything that was wrong about American
college, I convinced a professor to let me do an independent
study of the case. A week into my research, I knew for sure
who had been the greatest liar in American history, and it
wasn't Hiss. I also knew I had to do something about it. I
heard Hiss was bringing new litigation. I drove to Boston
in the middle of a New England blizzard, because I knew he
had filed for readmission to the Massachusetts bar and that
I might find his address in his legal papers. I did and wrote
him a letter, offering to join his staff. With typical college-junior
hubris, I imagined I would be the one to break the case wide
week later, a letter arrived on fancy stationery befitting
a man in that business. It was handwritten and began "Dear
Mr. Kisseloff" and ended with a job offer. Four months
later, I was working in a chair next to Alger in the office
of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. We were
searching for a smoking gun amidst thousands of Xeroxed government
documents released courtesy of the Freedom of Information
I began, I told myself that if I ever read anything that raised
questions in my mind about his innocence and I didn't get
a satisfactory explanation, I would simply walk out the door.
I ended up asking a lot of questions, but never once felt
the urge to leave. If anything, the documents only affirmed
his innocence of the charges. But more importantly, Hiss was
no longer a symbol, he was now Alger, the best companion and
role model I had ever had. And for me, the Hiss case was personal.
had never met with such a breadth of intelligence. He could
converse knowledgably on any subject from the Mets' continual
need for a third baseman to the State Department's response
to the Holocaust. At 71, he was still a person of remarkable
grace and dignity, someone who could wear a tweed sports jacket
and turtleneck with holes in them, yet still have the elegance
of a bridegroom in a morning suit.
you walked the streets with Alger, you soon learned, as Whittaker
Chambers did in the 1930s, that he was the easiest mark in
the world. When a beggar would approach with a hand out, Alger
would not just pull a fistful of change from his pocket, he'd
invariably ask, "Is that enough?" Would he have
tossed in his old Ford when he sublet his apartment to Chambers
in 1935? You bet.
also learned something else when you were out in public with
him: people were still touched by his ordeal. I loved hearing
his story about how on the day he was released from prison,
a pregnant woman ran across Washington Square Park to give
him a kiss on the cheek. That was Jack Gilford's wife Madeline.
years later people still recognized him and were still trying
to comfort him. We were at the counter of a copy shop one
day when another customer asked him if he was Alger Hiss.
Alger said he was, and the man said, "Can I make a speech?"
was a bit abashed, but he said sure, whereupon the guy literally
mounted his pedestal a small footstool and delivered
a passionate oration on the case.
day Alger's eyeglass frames broke. There was an optometrist
on the first floor of our building, so we stopped in before
lunch. As the optometrist took the frames and wrote out a
ticket, he asked Alger his name. When Alger told him, the
man looked up, startled. He tore up the ticket and said there
would be no charge. He said it would be a privilege to fix
Alger would have fun with the attention. Once we were having
hamburgers in our favorite coffeeshop. (Alger had an unexplained
fondness for bad hamburgers. It was either because he liked
to sit on the stools and chat with the counterman or because
it was his way of making me feel comfortable.) We were sitting
at the counter of a place we affectionately called "Dirty
Henry's" when a man tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse
me," he said, "but did anyone ever tell you that
you look just like Alger Hiss?"
laughed and said, "Boy, I really feel bad for that guy
if you think I do."
Alger was a very good-looking man, even in his 70s and 80s.
He was over six feet tall, and he had startling blue eyes
that crinkled when he laughed. He laughed a lot. He loved
a good joke - one of his favorites was an off-hued one
involving Churchill and Stalin at Yalta that he would tell
and deliver the punchline with a wonderful shoulder-shrugging
was also the greatest listener I've ever known. People who
didn't know him would often approach him for the first time
in awe, and he had this way of making them comfortable. He
would seek out their thoughts on a subject even while they
knew that he knew more about the topic than they ever would.
friends would constantly call me to make lunch dates. I quickly
learned it wasn't my collegiality that was the attraction.
They knew that Alger would often come along. He would ask
them question after question, and would stun them by following
up on their responses when they'd meet again months later.
those of us in our early 20s, no adult, let alone such a distinguished
one, had ever taken any of us so seriously before. My friends
and I would leave the table thinking we were the most fascinating
and delightful people - and, believe me, we weren't.
was amazing with young people. He was often on the road, lecturing
at colleges around the country (all the money he earned was
given to NECLC). The usual thing for most campus speakers
was to spend an hour and a half at a school, give a canned
speech, collect a check and move on. Alger would stay three
days, sleep in the dorms, eat with the students and lecture
in classes on topics selected by the students from a list
he provided. Among the topics was the UN, Yalta and FDR. He
pointedly left his case off the list, but the subject nearly
always came up, and he would answer any questions about it.
was a natural teacher, and he loved the lecture trips. Once,
I went to watch him deliver a lecture at Rutgers. I met up
with him in the student cafeteria where he was surrounded
by half a dozen students. He knew all their first names, and
they adored him, but it was clear he was enjoying the experience
as much as they were.
was sometimes criticized for standoffishness, but I was struck
by his natural warmth. When I needed graduate school recommendations,
I was lucky to get two paragraphs out of my old professors.
Alger wrote two pages and spent hours on them. I still have
his handwritten drafts. They are filled with the most marvelous
minutiae about my interests things I had mentioned
in passing months before.
was also lots of fun. We had running bets during the baseball
season. I still have the slips, all signed by him. One says
the loser will take the winner out to Lutece. Only I spelled
it "Lou Tess." Alger never had the heart to correct
I told people I was working with him, almost invariably the
first question would be, "Isn't he bitter?" Few
believed it when I told them he wasn't. It took me a long
time to accept it myself. I remember asking him one day, "Alger,
don't you hate Nixon?"
looked at me incredulously. "Why do you feel that way?"
way he saw it, it wasn't anything personal between them. Nixon
viewed Alger as a means to his political ends, that's all.
"Now, Hoover," he would say, "He should have
known better." That was about as angry as he got, although
he also didn't have kind words for Tom Murphy, the prosecutor.
As for Chambers, he seemed to pity him more than anything
else, saying he was mentally ill and wasn't responsible for
his behavior. How could he be angry with him?
were hints of anger occasionally. He refused to shake the
hand of Allen Weinstein when it was offered, and he would
bristle at some of the things we would find in the FBI documents.
Still, it was amazing he didn't seem angrier. I tried to imagine
myself spending 40 years of my life battling phony charges
against me, spending 44 months in jail for something I didn't
do. How could it not eat you up?
the answer, in part, was that he led a marvelous life. If
the old cliche "living well is the best revenge"
holds true, then Alger bested them all. He had an amazing
array of friends, everyone from ex-cons he served with at
Lewisburg to film stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The great
director Arthur Penn was devoted to him. Even my own friends,
knowing my standards, would chide me about my loyalty to him.
If I mentioned I was dating someone new, the immediate question
was, "How does she feel about Alger Hiss?" They
knew if she didn't answer the question correctly, we didn't
see each other again. Fortunately, my wife-to-be nailed it
in a heartbeat.
of Alger's friends was a well-known entertainment lawyer.
One afternoon they were having lunch when Warren Beatty walked
into the restaurant, fresh off his great triumph in "Reds."
The lawyer introduced them. "You know, Warren,"
he said. "Hiss-Chambers would make a great movie."
thought about it for a split second. Then he said, "The
Hiss case, what's the love story in that?"
Alger lost his eyesight, he had a host of volunteers who would
read to him every day. Actually, I always thought that one
of the most frustrating things for Alger, once he lost his
sight, was that he could no longer annotate the Times
every day. He had a unique way of reading the paper. The margins
were filled with his carefully drawn exclamation points and
question marks and brief comments for his second wife Isabel
to note when she read the paper.
also did this in magazines and sometimes books. Someone should
reprint Alger's copy of the "Perjury" galley.
It's filled with his comments and provides one of the best
defenses of his case I've ever read.
wondered, though, if I would have liked him as much had he
not run into Chambers and his life had proceeded on its uninterrupted
course. His standard line was that 44 months at Lewisburg
was a good corrective to three years of Harvard Law School.
The case clearly changed him. Ironically, he emerged from
it decidedly more liberal than he was when he was accused
of being a communist.
would often laugh at his old haughtiness. He once told me
that when Ralph Bunche came over to his home for dinner, he
and Priscilla invited the maid to sit at the table. In those
days, he was also friendly with Breckenridge Long, the State
Department official who bragged in his diaries about bottling
up Jewish passports despite open knowledge of Nazi repression.
would not have been his friend today. Nor in the 1930s would
he ever have tried marijuana, which he did later. I still
remember his hilarious description of walking across a living
room, high as a kite, lifting his legs as if he were climbing
wondered too what would have happened to him had there been
no Whittaker Chambers or Richard Nixon in his life. Would
he have gone back to government service under Eisenhower or
Kennedy? Maybe. Whatever it was, he would have been brilliant
at it; a lot of people would have benefitted, and somehow
the world would have been a better place, not only from his
work but also from who he was.
JEFF KISSELOFF, February 2000
Kisseloff, the Managing Editor of this site, is the author
of two oral history books, "You Must Remember This: An
Oral History of Manhattan From the 1890s to World War II"
and "The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961".
He is a freelance writer in Ossining, New York.
to We Remember Alger