Brock Brower, 1960
“The Problems of Alger Hiss”
by Brock Brower (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 Looking For.
At present, Alger Hiss is selling stationery.
He 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.
Since 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 or guilt.
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 as 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 I’m not going to write about my time in prison, because I hold certain strong views about privacy.”
Quite 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.”
Mrs. 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.
“I 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 in 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 start there?
This 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 arguments 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.
In 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, Rhode Island.
His 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 fire.
The 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 get 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 Activities Committee.
“We 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.'”
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.
But 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 eccentricity.
It 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.
But 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.
Hiss’s 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.”
A 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.”
Actually 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.”
Hiss’s 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….
Hiss 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 Square Park.
Only 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 reporters.
It 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.”
Something 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 Feathercomb 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.”)
The 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!'”
Except 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.
In 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.”
Actually 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.
The 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 déshabillé, 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.
“It 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.”
Over 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.'”
Hiss 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.
“Only 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.”
According 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.”
They 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.
The 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.”
But 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.
But 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 Case: bird-watching.
He 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.
In 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, or 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.”
Books 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.
But 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 Van Doren?”
Curiously 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 of bourbon.
There 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.”
Chambers 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.”
But 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.
Besides 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.
He 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.
He’s 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.”
These 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 existence.
Even 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.
More 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 the other.
Many 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.
“But 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.
It 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.
This article is © Brock Brower and reprinted with his permission.