Tim Hobson at 89
As the last remaining eyewitness in the Hiss case, I’m the only one around to share the taste and truth of it all. I’ve got a thought to share to help the reader get past false history, prejudice, politics and doubt and make the whole mess reasonable by answering the question, “Who was the bad guy?” in this dramatic shootout.
In a talk I gave at New York University’s day-long conference about the Hiss case in 2007, I said that the whole case is like a pyramid upside-down, with all the headlines, prejudice and opinions and dirty politics on the top layer; with the biographies and books of untruths reporting the “facts” of the case in the second layer; and down to a single point called Whitaker Chambers, who created the whole false story. [Editor’s note: This was the first time Hobson had ever spoken out in public about the Hiss case. Two videos of excerpts from his talk are posted on this website, as is the complete text of what he said at the NYU conference, in addition to a feature article that ran in the Washington Post that same week, about a trip he made to visit the home he had shared with the Hisses in Washington, DC in the 1930s. Jeff Kisseloff’s two earlier interviews with Hobson are also part of the site, here and here.]
I believe it significant that none of the anti-Hiss authors since Weinstein (who twisted and mis-quoted our few telephone talks) have contacted me for my version of truth in the case.
Alger Hiss was my step-father, who joined my life when I was three, and I lived with him and my mother till I was 14, when I went to boarding school. Since I was born in 1926, this would have included all the years till 1940 – so I was with my family all through the crucial years of the case. I was an outspoken, curious, and intelligent youngster, full of questions and seeking the “why” to everything. Alger was a good teacher and had no secrets. My mind formed the opinion that he was a sort of combination of Eagle Scout and IBM machine of understanding and peacemaking. I consider myself as a completely truthful person without “games,” but Hiss far outshone me.
Back to the meat and bottom line of my 2007 talk: “I was there, and Chambers wasn’t.” I never remember seeing him at our house, he was not a family friend, didn’t join us for dinner, didn’t know me. And remember that I was in the house continuously for months on end with a badly broken leg. “Chambers was an unmitigated and psychopathic liar.” “Either you believe me or believe him.”
In my talk, I alluded to the key to understanding it all – the “why” that puts the pieces in place, the “why” of how it all came about. Recently I’ve read two thick biographies of J. Edgar Hoover, and a wonderful new book by Joan Brady called America’s Dreyfus. She begins to tie all the scoundrels together: Hoover, Nixon, McCarthy, Chambers, and the rest, from a political viewpoint, but she leaves out one key element – Sex and Homosexuality!
Without being a participant, it’s hard to envisage the intense prejudice and bigotry against gays in the McCarthy era, and before, in this country. (Indeed, the McCarthy “red scare” was paralleled by a lesser-known “lavender scare,” which saw the persecution of gays with government jobs.) Although I had volunteered to be a witness in the trials, and at one point even took a prolonged “truth serum” interview to document how nothing I knew supported any of Chambers’ accusations, the defense was fearful of putting me on the witness stand in view of the FBI’s thinly veiled blackmail threat to disclose my Navy discharge and my private life in New York City.
I’ve been gay since I was 15. I never “came out.” I was shot out by the Navy, and I lived through all those years of homophobia that lasted in this country, until the recent military decision to accept gays into the service, and psychologists finally taking such behavior out of the “disease” category, and now even gay marriage.
It is my strong belief that the “why” about Chambers is answered in his written statement to the FBI, admitting his active homosexuality up until 1938. These were the same years he claimed to have been an active agent in the communist underground – meaning that he would have been living two equally clandestine lifestyles simultaneously.
Of course, Chambers’ written confession was illegally withheld from the Hiss defense, and remained hidden for a quarter of a century. The FBI had to protect their only star witness, and could always control him by threatening to expose his admitted lying and perjury in previous sworn testimony. It was a stacked deck against Hiss!
I never had any homosexual contact with Chambers, but Hiss, without realizing it, sure was exposed to it! Later, when I was discharged from the Navy in 1945, I learned that neither Hiss nor my mother knew anything about the subject at all, and both had to do a fast brush-up on the reality of that part of our population, and consulted psychiatrists for advice – even sending me to one for a while to try to “help” me.
I believe that Chambers fell in love with Hiss (he was similarly attracted to other handsome men, as reported by Meyer Zeligs in his book, Friendship and Fratricide). Chambers was rebuffed in his unrecognized approach to Hiss, and his sick pathological brain triggered a retaliation to his rejection. Zeligs reports that this was a compulsive, repetitive pattern in Chambers’ life.
Somehow homosexuality was mixed in with the whole case. In one biography, Hoover has his secret private life repeatedly referred to in a reticent but negative fashion, and, in the other book, there is more insinuation and blatant actual documentation of Hoover being in drag at the Plaza Hotel, and carrying on with a paid young hustler at a party. Certainly we have documentation that McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, was gay, and I suspect that one aspect of the “Communist-friendly” groups of Washington government workers, who were implicated in the Hiss-case investigations by accusations made by Bentley and others, was that at least some of these people were gays who were afraid of government discovery and fearful for their jobs, and used these “study groups” as a way of getting together for social reasons.
Now, at age 89, I don’t think I will live to see a Hiss vindication and proof of his innocence that I personally know to be true. I resent the way the FBI blackmailed me long ago, and the mischaracterization by the anti-Hiss faction of my attempt to set the record straight, such as Susan Jacoby’s comment after my 2007 speech, when she attempted to evade the truth of what I personally witnessed by dismissing me as “a pathetic spectacle of an old man trying to earn a stepfather’s love from beyond the grave.” But perhaps the newly revised Hiss website, and the forthcoming major history and documentation book by Jeff Kisseloff (due for publication in 2017), will help turn the tide. Please remember: you cannot believe both me and Chambers.
Timothy Hobson, MD, FACS