Tim Hobson (2001)
Dr. Timothy Hobson, the son of Priscilla Hiss and her first husband Thayer Hobson, was born in 1926 and raised by the Hisses (who married in 1929). In the 1950s, Hobson put himself through medical school in Switzerland and was later chief surgical resident at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. This is the first of two interviews with Dr. Hobson.
Q: How old were you when you moved to Washington with your mother and stepfather?
A: I was three when Alger and Pros married. We were living in New York then. We moved to Washington when he joined the government in 1933, so I was around seven.
Q: During the 1930s, do you recall political discussions around the dinner table between your parents or with guests?
A: They were very liberal Democrats. I don’t recall any discussions where they took a communist point of view. Prossy may have been inclined toward socialism a little bit, but they were both rabid Democrats. New Dealers.
Q: It’s been said that your parents began using the Quaker “thee” and “thy” under the influence of Noel Field, who was also accused of being a spy. Do you remember when that began?
A: Prossy was a Swarthmore graduate, and it probably went back to those days. It made her a little bit distinctive. She was not a practicing Quaker at the time.
Q: Do you recall Field visiting the house?
A: No, he is only a name to me.
Q: When the FBI asked you in 1949 about Whittaker Chambers, you had no memory of his being in the house.
A: I have no recollection at all of ever seeing that man. I’m sure that I did see him, because I do recollect his wife and child staying at our house on P Street [the Hisses lived there from the spring of 1935 to June 1936], and if he was around at the time, I would have seen him, but I don’t recall it now, and I didn’t then. Certainly, if he had been around every two weeks and having dinner with us and being such a close family friend, I would remember him.
I was in a cast in the front bedroom. I was immobilized for well over a month. If he was in the house, he [Chambers] would have known about that, and I would have known he was there.
Q: What do you recall of his wife and daughter?
A: Nothing very much, except Mrs. Chambers painted a picture of me there at the P Street house.
Q. Didn’t you undergo a “truth serum” test, receiving sodium amytal, a variant of sodium pentothal, to see if you had memories of Chambers’ visits? When was it done, and what was revealed?
A: Yes, it was done by the defense lawyers in 1950 or 1951, just prior to my leaving the country to go to Europe to medical school. The session took over two hours, as I recall, and was carefully administered by an anesthesiologist in the lawyer’s offices downtown. It did not reveal any recollection of my ever knowing or remembering Whittaker Chambers, despite his alleged closeness to the Hiss family. That fact didn’t surprise me, as I never could recall him consciously at all, either, and I knew his story to be untrue. A transcript of the interview is on tape and a typed summary exists in the files.
Q: Tell me about your accident where you broke your leg.
A: We were living on 30th Street at the time [the accident was in February 1937; the Hisses had moved to 30th Street in June 1936]. I went down on a hill on a bicycle. I had installed a siren on it, and I thought everybody would stop for me, but when I went through a stop sign a car hit me. It was a bad accident, and my hospitalization was complicated by the fact that I had a severe reaction to the tetanus shot, and I got lockjaw. I was in a cast four months at least, maybe five.
Q: That was the period Chambers said he was a regular visitor at the house picking up documents to be sent to Russia. But when he was asked by members of HUAC to provide details about Alger and Priscilla’s lives at the time, he made no mention whatsoever about you being in a cast.
A: I was in a cast in the front bedroom. I was immobilized for well over a month. If he was in the house, he would have known about it, and I would have known he was there.
Q: And you recall other family friends who were in and out of the house.
A: Oh, yes.
Q: At the trial, your next-door neighbor, Geoffrey May, testified that if there had been a lot of typing going on in the house, he would have heard it, and he didn’t.
A: That’s right, because there were very thin walls. I have no specific recollection of hearing the neighbors, but have a vague memory that we were asked not to play music at odd hours or too loud, and this would have applied to the piano, which I think I recall being there in the living room, [Chambers failed to mention it when he was asked if the Hisses had a piano; see Chambers’ August 7, 1948 HUAC testimony] and I certainly don’t recall my mother doing any typing that would correspond to all those damned documents, and I don’t think she was even qualified to do it.
Q: Was she a touch typist?
A: [Laughs] I would say a feel typist, not a touch typist.
Q: Chambers claimed you were placed in a succession of schools, and that each was less expensive than the previous one. He said Alger and Priscilla were taking the difference in tuition that was being given to them by your father and handing it over to the Communist Party. Was it true?
A: That was false. The schools were more expensive, and Alger had to dip into his pocket to pay the difference because my father did not pay it.
Q: In 1948, when you first heard about Whittaker Chambers’ charges against your stepfather, did you connect them to the man who had stayed in your apartment years before?
A: No, because I had no idea who Chambers was.
Q: What was your reaction when you first heard about the charges?
A: That the whole thing was ridiculous. That wasn’t Alger.
Q: Did you volunteer to testify?
A: I always did from beginning, long before the FBI began their shenanigans on me.
Q: What did they do?
A: Let me go back a bit. I volunteered for the Navy at age 17 and went into a program called the V-12 Officer Training Program. They saw fit to put me into an engineering college program. During that time, my homosexual inclinations and activities, which had begun in high school, continued. I had a strong internal conflict between who I was and what I was doing, and what was expected of me as a Naval Officer. I didn’t know who to talk to about it, so I went and talked to the Navy doctor up in Union College in Schenectady. He didn’t know what to do. He looked it up in the book, and then he threw the book at me, and I received an undesirable discharge in 1945.
I was working in a nightclub in New York when I found out from friends that the FBI had come around to see them. Then they interviewed me. That was in early 1949. I think they were talking to my friends so they could demonstrate to me and the family that they knew all about my activities. But when they spoke to me, they didn’t threaten me.
Q: But afterward didn’t Alger feel they would try to hurt you if you testified?
A: I don’t think Alger was homophobic, but he had an old-fashioned Baltimore morality, and I don’t think he had any concept of how many people around him were homosexual and what that life was like. When he decided not to have me testify, I think he was legitimately saying he didn’t want “Timmy” to be hurt, but I think the lawyers were saying, they didn’t want Alger to be hurt. I suspect it would have hurt Alger to have it brought in front of the jury that he had a homosexual son.
On the other hand, I have never quite forgiven [Lloyd Paul] Stryker [Hiss’s attorney in the first trial] for not once turning to Chambers and saying, “Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?” because that would have blown the whole case out of the water. It would have opened up a whole bag of worms for the prosecution. I think Chambers would have had to have hedged because he had already given sworn testimony about it to the FBI.
Q: But the defense didn’t know about that, although they had their suspicions.
A: They did, but they didn’t follow through. They didn’t have the guts to do it. But I don’t think they would have lost anything. They had the names of one or two people that he had contact with years before. There was a fellow named “Bub” who was the little boy that he was living with out on Long Island.
Q: Do you think your testimony would have still helped Alger if they had brought out your own background?
A: I think it would have helped Alger to have me say, “I was there at the time, and Chambers wasn’t.” And I think it might have backfired on Murphy if he started to smear me.
Q: Were there ever any arguments about your testifying?
A: No. I offered, but I was told that the lawyers didn’t want me to. Claude Cross [Hiss’s attorney in the second trial] was a very uptight lawyer, but I was surprised Stryker didn’t get going on it.
Q: Do you believe Chambers’ homosexuality supplies the motive in this case?
A: I certainly think there are some psycho-sexual aspects to the case which have not been adequately brought out. The only real explanation that I have for why Chambers did what he did was out of frustration that Alger never responded to him.
Q: There was the story that he kept a piece of cloth he had taken from your house; that he kept it and washed it and rewashed it over the years.
A: There was all of that memorabilia that [Meyer] Zeligs heard about and saw when he went out to the farm. I think Zeligs really got it right. He gave an in-depth and understanding summary of both Alger and Chambers. It’s a shame that nobody has really followed his approach to the case. I think it was because he got too close to the truth, and the powerful figures in publishing and the Buckleys and the rest of them are not going to permit that sort of thing to be said. Instead, they make a national monument out of the man.