Elizabeth May (2001)
A decade before the end of her long and exceptional life, Dr. Elizabeth S. May (1907-2011), an economist and academic of distinction – she became the first woman director of the Export-Import Bank of the United States in 1964, and from 1949 to 1964 served as dean of the college and twice as acting president of Wheaton College, in Massachusetts – for the first time described her life as Alger Hiss’s next-door neighbor on 30th Street, in Washington, D.C. in 1936 and 1937. These were the years when, according to Whittaker Chambers, Hiss was actively stealing State Department documents for the Soviet Union.
Hiss, Chambers said, would regularly bring official documents home, and Priscilla Hiss would then type copies of them which Chambers would collect. These charges made Elizabeth May, who was then teaching at Goucher College, in Baltimore, and her husband, Geoffrey May, a lawyer who had just gone to work for the Department of Labor, potential eyewitnesses, or at least ear-witnesses, in the Hiss case. The two couples had become friendly. Had the Mays ever seen or heard anything allegedly happening next door, back in those days of noisy manual typewriters?
The two adjacent 30th Street houses were both small, lightly-built, 19th-century wood-frame buildings. Geoffrey May testified for the defense that he never heard typing from next door – at least not while the Hisses were in residence: Things changed, he said, when a new tenant moved in, a newspaper columnist whose typing sessions were frequently both audible and annoying. But Elizabeth May did not take the stand. What did she see or hear? In this 2001 interview with Jeff Kisseloff, she tells why neither she nor her husband ever believed any of the charges against the Hisses, and why she hadn’t told her story in court.
Q: I understand you moved to 30th Street about the same time the Hisses did?
A: Yes, it was in 1936.
Q: Can you describe the house?
A: These were old houses that had been there a long time. They were built for people who worked in the hospital on the next block and had just been remodeled and were very small and very, very compacted. You had trouble when you had company, and you couldn’t find a place to store things.
Q: Would you say your living room adjoined their living room, or your bedroom adjoined theirs?
A: They both adjoined. The apartments mirrored each other, and there was also hardly any separation between the houses. For instance, if you looked through the little hole for blades in the bathroom, you could see into the other house. The Hisses had dogs, and their dogs had fleas, and so they decided to burn a candle, and the fleas all came into our house, and my husband was bitten up by the fleas. That shows you how close they were. And you would hear everything, too.
Q: If Priscilla had been typing those documents at night, would you have heard it?
A: Oh, sure. The walls were paper thin, and those old typewriters were very noisy. And where would she have it? We had twins beds in one room, and that left hardly any space to walk around. The other room was very tiny. Here’s a couple with a child. Where could she sit and work like that?
And if they were having regular meetings with anybody, we would have had to have seen that person. We could see their front door from our house. These houses were so close. Every little sound went through.
Q: Your husband testified at the trial that a journalist moved in next door after the Hisses moved out, and he did keep you up with his typing.
A: That’s true. I knew them, too. His wife was a student of mine.
Q: How well did you know the Hisses?
A: We knew them quite well. We were new to Washington, and they had just moved in and were friendly. We didn’t know them in terms of the work we did, but Priscilla and I were both interested in good works, the League of Women Voters and that sort of thing. When there were hearings going on, I’d tell her or she’d tell me, and we’d go together, and we’d exchange ideas.
Q: In your conversations with her, did you ever hear her take positions that you thought reflected the Communist Party’s point of view?
A: Oh, no. We were the same. We were activists. The League of Women Voters was liberal activist in its concern about the failures of government in the District of Columbia.
My husband and I, we just couldn’t believe that any of those things that were said against them could possibly have been true.
Q: Did you talk politics with Alger?
A: One day my mother-in-law came to visit us from Minneapolis. She was very interested in world affairs, but she didn’t have much background, so Geoffrey asked Alger if he would be good enough to come over and talk with her for a few minutes. He did come over, and he gave very sober, academic answers to her questions. He wasn’t conservative, but he wasn’t the opposite of that, either. His views were sound and solid and academic.
Q: At the trial, Mrs. Chambers was trying to establish this story that they visited often, and she said the house was gray. But the Hisses said the house was yellow and was only painted gray after they had left.
Q: If Priscilla had been typing those documents at night, would you have heard it? A: Oh, sure.
A: Yes, we were still there, and that sounds right, but it was long ago. If my husband testified to that at the trial [he did], it was true. He was very exact.
There were a couple of other funny little things that I thought about. I used to work on tax estimates, and they were so afraid that somebody would see our estimates, all our worksheets had to be locked up every night. But I discovered that the keys to our file were not separate, and if I knew the numbers right I could go to other places in the Treasury and open up their files. They were very cheap files. I think anybody could have gotten into Alger’s files the same way, because those were standard file cabinets everywhere.
Q: Do you recall Alger’s stepson, Tim?
A: Yes, the house was on a hill, and he had a very bad accident on a bicycle, riding down that hill.
Q: Now, you remember that 65 years later. Chambers had no recollection of that accident 10 years later, which indicates he didn’t know the Hisses as he claimed he did when the accident occurred in 1937.
A: It was a very serious accident. And anybody who would have known them would remember it.
Q: Why didn’t you testify at the trials?
A: My husband didn’t want me to. He said since my testimony would pretty much agree with his, it wouldn’t do that much good. Besides, it was getting really nasty, and he wanted to protect me.