Oral History Interviews

After Alger Hiss died in 1996, an oral history project was created to record the memories of many of his friends and acquaintances. Most of the interviewees were people Alger had spent time with later in life, though there were a few he had known for decades. Several were younger people who had been recruited by friends to read to him as his sight continued to fail. Many of the interviews reveal an extraordinary gift for friendship with people of all ages, and an intellect and curiosity undimmed by blindness or old age.

The project was made possible by the Isabel Johnson Hiss Fund, administered by The Nation Institute.

I think he could have gone on to be president of the United States, or play some very big role in the government. I think he had the makings of it…. I believe he was caught in a Cold War web, and I think it went beyond [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover.

Grambs Aronson, an artist and illustrator of cookbooks, garden and nature books, and children’s books. Her legacy includes the annual Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience at Hunter College. Her husband, Jim Aronson, was the founding editor of the National Guardian, who is honored by Hunter’s James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.

We always were suspicious of the other side saying that he was a spy, because he was such a loyal kind of person, and he was so loyal to Roosevelt.

Rufus Crown, a lawyer, and her husband, Alfred, a Hollywood producer (“Moby Dick”), were close friends with Alger Hiss and Isabel Johnson (later the second Mrs. Hiss), beginning in the 1970s.

The most amazing part about Alger was his inner tranquility.

Ronnie Chalif, a sculptor, and her husband, the attorney Seymour Chalif, met Alger, Priscilla and Tony Hiss shortly after Alger was released from prison.

[Alger] had hoped that either Nixon or particularly Chambers, when they died, would leave some kind of a statement telling the truth, that he would be able to his clear his name that way, and he was extremely disappointed when Chambers died.

—Penny Blum, a neighbor and friend of Alger and Priscilla Hiss in Greenwich Village.

[Alger Hiss] was a very different kind of human being. Obviously spare, upright in both senses of that word. Very correct. Reserved. Obviously very, very smart.

—Lawrence Buttenwieser, an attorney and former president of the UJA-Federation of New York. His mother, Helen Buttenwieser, one of New York’s earliest and best-known women lawyers, was a passionate defender of Alger Hiss and was his principal attorney for two decades, starting in the early 1950s. Tony Hiss lived at the Buttenwieser home during part of the time his father was on trial.

He had an immense, lively sense of humor, including about his own condition. He had to make a living, and in the beginning, I think he was selling combs. As time went on, he went into selling stationery, and our firm bought stationery from him. My partners, who had been at law school with him, had a high regard for his talents from their law school days. [But] I don’t think any of them knew him after they left that Senate committee….

[After his readmission to the Massachusetts bar in 1975,] his first appearance at a large affair, where he would meet peers, I think, came at an anniversary dinner of the Harvard Law Review…. He was immensely fond, almost to the point of worshiping, something about Harvard Law School.

—Victor Brudney, a New York lawyer, met Hiss shortly after Hiss’s release from prison in 1954. At the time of this interview, Brudney was a professor at Harvard Law School, Hiss’s alma mater. He was a witness on Hiss’s behalf for readmission to the Massachusetts bar.

Alger was the golden boy of the New Deal, and his life was all set, and he had all of that destroyed, and he was in prison, and when he came out nobody would talk to him…. It’s interesting that, by the time he became old and ill, he’d been fashionable and radical chic-ized, but when he emerged from the prison, nobody would go near him. Nobody…. That’s why we saw so much of him. Very few people in the late 1950s were willing to have social interaction with Alger Hiss….

He was always able to discuss extremely volatile issues calmly. And the extraordinary thing about Alger was that the personal never got into it.

—Dr. Karen Brudney, Victor’s daughter, is the director of the Infectious Disease/AIDS Clinic and of TB Service at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is also the Senior Expert Adviser to the Centers for Disease Control Division of HIV and Tuberculosis. Her friendship with Alger Hiss began when she was a child, and they remained close for the rest of his life.

Chambers himself, as we know, admitted many, many lies that he told. So it wasn’t a question of “Who do I believe?” That wasn’t an issue. The issue was, what story was going to be believed, and why? What is it about our culture that responds that way

—Jack Gelber, the American playwright best known for his 1959 drama, “The Connection,” met Hiss while trying to write a play about the Hiss trials.

Right away, I knew it was a put-up job. At least that was my feeling. And … my conviction was instantly against Chambers.

—Ann Geismar, widow of the American author and literary critic Maxwell Geismar, met Alger Hiss through mutual friends. They made an instant connection when it turned out both had attended – and hated – the Aloha Foundation camps in Vermont.

The pressure was so strong on Wall Street not to help Alger, because if the Alger case fell apart, it was going to ruin the Republican plan in 1948 to smear the Democrats out of office. They thought 16 years with Roosevelt and Truman were enough, and I had reason to believe that Bill Donovan [wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA] was part of the group who decided the way to get the Democrats was to go after a few prominent Democrats. Since Alger had been the victim of gossip by Chambers for six years at that point, they focused on his case.

—Tim Horan, an OSS veteran who became an advertising and publishing executive, befriended Alger Hiss around 1960, after spotting him waiting for the print buyer in the Bantam Books reception area. The friendship became close and year-round (in both the Hamptons and New York) for the rest of Alger’s life.

He was very, very comfortable. The one thing that I remember that was so easy to accept – his sense of comfort with us. He made it so easy to love him…. [In 1958, when an agency that found work for people who had been in prison called us about him,] we knew we had to make room for Mr. Hiss, and we did…. We were honored to have Mr. Hiss work for us….

He came with [the business of] every outstanding attorney – I never knew of anybody who had as many friends as Mr. Hiss did…. He was very much concerned about his customers. He took good care of them, and understood what their needs were.

—Tillie Novick, with her husband Abe, was Alger Hiss’s boss for several decades at S. Novick & Son, their family printing business, which had offices in Manhattan’s historic Puck Building. She served as a character witness when Hiss applied for readmission to the Massachusetts bar.

One of my stronger impressions about him is how unpretentious he was, how little he was taken with himself. Modest – there wasn’t anything self-important about Alger … never a hint of self-pity. And very little sense of anger. Alger seemed to me to have a pretty good capacity for dwelling on the people in his life who gave him pleasure rather than being tormented by those who had betrayed him.

—Alan Levine, a law professor who read to Alger Hiss weekly, always on the same day, for about two years. He wrote to Alger after reading his account, in Recollections of a Life, of first being read to as a child, then reading to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when the judge’s eyesight was failing, and then needing to be read-to himself, because “now it’s all come full circle again.”

My parents bought a place on the Eastern Shore [of Maryland] in about ’58 or ’59, and, in ’60, Alger came down for a weekend…. I remember my father and Alger staying up incredibly late at night talking about politics just endlessly, and their memories were so acute….

They were talking about the New Deal, the idealism of it. They didn’t talk at all about the case. They talked a lot about people they knew. Talked a lot about Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom both of them had been law clerks for, and I think he was just beloved by both of them.

—Cindy Hiss Grace, born in 1943, was the older daughter of Alger’s brother and lifelong supporter, Donald Hiss.

Alger made me see that in life one can, and should, pursue much more than just one’s profession. Intellectual interest in arts and science and nature, bird watching or theatre, were very much a part of being a human being. Alger was not one to tolerate much obsession with profession.

—Alexander Papachristou, the son of architect Tician Papachristou, met Alger Hiss when he was just out of college. They had many conversations that Alex said influenced his life “enormously.” He is currently executive director of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association.

He had covered the world physically by reading. By reading, that was his life … he was a man of ideas. And the law. The law, the law was his religion…. He had a firm belief in democracy, flawed as it is. I think he recognized that, more than anything else, it stood up.

—Arthur Penn, the director of “Bonnie and Clyde” and many other movies, met Alger Hiss in the 1960s and became one of his closest friends (Hiss’s 1985 marriage to Isabel Johnson took place in Penn’s Manhattan apartment).

…his mind was really exquisite, and I loved it…. The other thing I loved about him and admired so much was that he spoke in paragraphs.

—Peggy Penn, wife of Arthur Penn, was a poet, a supervising faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy, and a close friend of Alger’s second wife, Isabel.

In some way, the formality of the Episcopal Church was appealing to him. And that was maybe one of the spiritual contradictions within Alger. Part of him liked the simplicity and quietness of the Quaker meeting house, but another side of Alger liked the formality and the poetry of the Episcopal service…. He also liked the openness and the free-ranging, progressive approach of the Quaker Meeting.

I think Alger’s religious experience and his spirituality were tied up in what I would loosely call the poetry of life, the mysticism of the human experience.

—The Rev. Thomas Pike, former rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, in Manhattan, which Alger sometimes attended later in life, became a personal friend.

I think he was a throwback to 19th-century America, to a person who had certain kinds of American traditional values that have almost vanished from the scene today…. And also, I thought he was very much like Candide. He was a total innocent….

I was so astonished at how Chambers was so much intellectually superior almost to everyone in the courtroom, including Alger – as an intellectual, in that sense – that I remember saying to myself, what did they do to that man to make him become this kind of an ogre?

—William A. Reuben, journalist and expert on the Rosenberg and Hiss cases, wrote The Honorable Mr. Nixon, one of the first books on the Hiss case, in 1956. He was also was among the first people to sue for release of all FBI documents relating to the Hiss case, under the Freedom of Information Act. Pursuing the truth about Alger Hiss became his life’s work. Reuben died in 2004, shortly after completing the manuscript of his magnum opus, The Crimes of Alger Hiss.

I would go to read to him on occasion. But I discovered that reading was just an excuse to have company. He was interested in everything. The Bible, literature, writers, artists, the world.

—Walter Rosenblum, the American photographer who photographed the D-Day landing at Normandy in 1944, and was the first Allied photographer to enter the liberated Dachau concentration camp, met Alger shortly after Alger left Lewisburg prison. They became good friends and were also mutual friends of photographer Paul Strand.

[Before going to jail,] he was very much still being Alger, still trying to be in control of the situation. Still being optimistic.

Alger always had the aura of being slightly above everybody. Being perfectly pleasant, perfectly correct, and really you came from different backgrounds and different situations…. It wasn’t so much superiority, it was just this: I am who I am and I’m a somewhat important person. I mean, you are who you are and you’re not quite so important.

[Asked whether he thought Alger would have been capable of maintaining a lie, Simon said]: Yeah. He was a strong person, and I think he would be capable of keeping going a lie. But I don’t think he did.

—Kenneth Simon, an attorney who met Alger Hiss in the spring of 1950, several months after his conviction, worked for Harold Rosenwald during preparation of Hiss’s first appeal.

I can’t name anybody else I’ve met who is so intelligent and so generous and so decent – in a really old fashioned way.  Generous with his time, generous with his ideas, generous about other people. He wouldn’t gossip about anyone or be mean about them behind their back.

—Natalia Schiffrin, a lawyer and daughter of publisher André Schiffrin, began to help Alger with the manuscript of Recollections of a Life in 1985, when she was still a student, and Alger’s eyesight was deteriorating. She later became a personal friend and reader.

Although a lot of people were largely concerned with what had happened to him previously, I think he was just happy to talk about the gross domestic product of Mexico or the wheat achievements in Northern Canada….

If you’re interested in the unfairness of the world, [Alger and Isabel] were a perfect pair to talk to – and not about unfairness to themselves, which it never was, ever. It was always about all the unfairness and inequities everywhere. They’re a pivotal part of my thinking about not only the world, but decency to people, about how you act. Not just political. He was really a gentleman and an honorable person…. [But] he wasn’t very tolerant of people who weren’t smart. I don’t think he had a lot of patience for people who had political views but who were not well-grounded and very intelligent.

—Warren B. Scharf, who met Alger through his wife Jane Spinak (a Columbia University law professor, child welfare expert, and one of Alger’s readers), became executive director of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in 2003; he was previously Attorney-in-Charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn Neighborhood Office.

I don’t think I have ever met a more elegant person, not only in appearance, but in spirit, than Alger.  The only thing I ever heard him say that was negative was about Mr. Nixon, and he said he was not really a very nice man….

I never heard him express a negative thought about this country. He loved this country. I felt that he still thought very highly of the justice system.

—Litsa Tsitsera, a Trustee of United World College-USA, met Alger at a party in 1960, and they stayed friends throughout the rest of his life.

[Regarding a lunch Alger Hiss had with Alan Weinstein, author of Perjury:] Weinstein said to Alger, I’m going to find you guilty. Alger says, That’s your privilege – and pays for lunch.

When Alger was in prison, there was an Italian man there who had twelve missing teeth who couldn’t eat, and Alger was working in the kitchen. He used to save the soft rolls for him, not knowing who he was. He was just a person that was in trouble. It was Frank Costello [leader of the so-called “Luciano crime family,” known as “the Prime Minister of the Underworld”]…. That made him precious to the Italian community, and this restaurant [in New York later] catered to him. And when he came in, he was treated like a king.

He never talked about anything against anyone, not even Richard Nixon. That’s what used to get me very angry. I said, if you were Jewish, you would hate him.

—Edith Tiger, director of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee from 1968 until 1998, began working full time for the committee in 1956, five years after its founding. NECLC defended groups whose rights were threatened, including Haitian refugees and the victims of McCarthyism; it also worked tirelessly to reverse Alger Hiss’s 1950 perjury conviction, sponsoring both his 1970s FOIA lawsuit for release of the government files about his case, and his 1978 coram nobis petition to have his conviction expunged on the ground of prosecutorial misconduct.

When you met him, he was the gentlest, most courtly, pleasant, wonderful guy. I really fell in love with him…. When he was on the air being interviewed, it was as if he was an arrogant, snobbish man, and I thought, my god, how can he come across that way on television when I know the man and he is so totally different? And that may have been what was happening during the trial. In a public arena, he was a totally different person, or he came across as a different person. It hurt him with the general public, with anybody who didn’t know him.

—Shirley Wershba

Alger asked me if had read Witness [the 1951 memoir on the Hiss case by Whittaker Chambers, Hiss’s accuser]. No, I had not. He said, “You really ought to read that book. It’s really quite a splendid work of writing.”

I asked Alger if he had read Murray Kempton’s book, in which he played a big part [Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties, published in 1955,] and he said, no…. So I gave him a copy of the book, and he called me up, and he was in a fury. He says, “Where the hell does this guy get the right to pretend to know what I am thinking, because he is thinking those things? [Because] we both grew up in the same city, Baltimore, under the same circumstances, we are sons of the shabby, genteel poor…” He is the only guy I ever heard [Alger] get sore about.

Other times I met Alger, he was with Meyer Zeligs, a psychoanalyst out on the West Coast who wanted to do a psychiatric study of Hiss and Chambers … [that became] Friendship and Fratricide. They’re discussing the case from a psychiatric point of view, and I said, “This is pure bullshit. This is a question of either you are guilty, or you were framed. This case has reversed American history; it has taken liberalism and stopped it cold. The New Deal was dead, and now it’s being buried under this case.” … Well, they were both abashed, because I was really pissed off about it.

—Joe Wershba

Joe and Shirley Wershba, who were married for 63 years, both worked for CBS News (he became an Emmy Award-winning producer of “60 Minutes”; she developed “Dimensions of a Woman’s World,” one of the first programs focusing on women’s issues). Joe Wershba helped report and produce Edward R. Murrow’s celebrated March 1954 “See It Now” broadcast (described as “television’s finest hour”) confronting Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his tactics; Robert Downey Jr. played Wershba in George Clooney’s 2005 hit movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about this program. Wershba first met Alger Hiss at CBS News in 1968, when Mike Wallace interviewed Hiss about a new paperback edition of his book, In the Court of Public Opinion.