Working For – and With – Alger Hiss
Jeff Kisseloff, the managing editor of this site, is the author of three oral history books, Generation on Fire: Voices of Protest from the 1960s, an Oral History; 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 recognized expert on the Hiss-Chambers affair and is the author of Swamped: Alger Hiss and the Tide of History.
I 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.”
Even then it piqued my interest. As I grew older and learned more about the case, Alger Hiss became for me, as 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 politics.
In 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 I 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 open.
A 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 Act.
Before 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.
I 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.
If 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.
You 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.
Twenty 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?”
Alger 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.
One 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 his glasses.
Sometimes, 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?”
Alger laughed and said, “Boy, I really feel bad for that guy if you think I do.”
Actually, 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 laugh.
He 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.
My 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.
For 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.
Alger 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 were 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.
Alger 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.
He 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.
He 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 Lutèce. Only I spelled it “Lou Tess.” Alger never had the heart to correct me.
When 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?”
He looked at me incredulously. “Why do you feel that way?” he asked.
The 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?
There 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?
But 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.
One 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.”
Beatty thought about it for a split second. Then he said, “The Hiss case, what’s the love story in that?”
When 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.
He 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.
I’ve 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.
He 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.
Long 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 stairs.
I’ve 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