Tony Hiss (2004)

This letter was printed in the March 21, 2004 edition of The New York Times Book Review:

The Hiss Affair, Cont.

To the Editor:

It doesn’t take a “loyal son” – as Max Frankel kindly calls me in his review of G. Edward White’s “Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars” (Feb. 29) – to see that Mr. White’s book is a book with problems. Mr. White presents a psychological profile of a man who he says achieved “inner peace” through “spying and lying.” Because my father steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout his lifetime, Mr. White has had to build his portrait by mixing together two pots of paint. He first re-assembles all the allegations ever brought against Hiss, and is willing to rely on outdated information to do this – as, for instance, his failure to mention Gen. Julius Kobyakov, the retired Russian intelligence agent who surfaced last fall to reveal that it was he who had looked through Soviet files in the 1990s and had been able to establish definitively that my father had never been a Soviet agent.

Mr. White then seeks to “sinister-ize” the rest of my father’s life, offering malign re-interpretations of ordinary events (all based on speculations, as Mr. Frankel points out). Here Mr. White too often pulls away from the careful scholarship that has characterized much of his previous work. Writing a measured biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes a decade ago, for example, Mr. White noted without comment that several of Holmes’s secretaries read aloud to him. Now, in reporting that Alger Hiss, too, read to Holmes, Mr. White has become alarmed in retrospect. He argues that Alger’s eagerness to read to the judge reveals a calculating, conniving personality, because, Mr. White asserts, reading aloud “can subtly change the relationship” between two people from “one of relative equals” to one “more resembling … a caretaker and a patient.”

Similarly, Mr. White thinks my father “duped” and “manipulated” me into writing a book about him in the 1970s. This misapprehension could have been cleared up with one fact-checking phone call. As my editor has this week confirmed, my father was quite reluctant to participate at all and needed a lot of persuading.

New York City