“Lucy, it’s that man again!” Cary Grant trills as he make his entrance in the “screwball comedy” classic The Awful Truth. Goodness knows there are no end of “screwballs” these days (not to mention “curveballs”), but no Cary Grants. We do, however have Alger Hiss again. And with Anna Nicole starting to fade the timing couldn’t be better.
“A Russian researcher, delving anew into once-secret Soviet files from the Cold War, says she has found no evidence that Alger Hiss spied or that Soviet intelligence had any particular interest in him.
In a speech to be delivered at a New York University symposium Thursday, Svetlana A. Chervonnaya says neither Hiss’ name nor his alleged spy moniker, Ales, appears in any of dozens of documents from Soviet archives that she has reviewed since the early 1990s.”
For those of you new to this saga (and you are legion) —
“Hiss, a top State Department official who played a key role in founding the United Nations, was convicted of perjury in 1950 for lying about being a Soviet spy. He served nearly four years of a five-year federal prison sentence and died at age 92 in 1996.
Scholars and experts have debated for decades whether he was guilty or a victim of anti-communist fervor. The case was fraught with Cold War drama, involving a typewriter and a secret film cache in a Maryland pumpkin field.”
In today’s Pravda, an article centered on Hiss’ stepson Timothy Hobson, goes into more detail.
“If you were to dismiss the Alger Hiss case as a thing of history, an iconic Cold War drama with little resonance today, you would be deeply, terribly wrong.
It’s not over, never has been — not for the aging liberals and progressives whose ideological underpinnings in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were torn asunder by the case; not for the scholars still skirmishing in culture wars over the impact of domestic Communism; and certainly not for the sons, Hobson and Hiss.
Alger Hiss was a spy, many scholars say.
He was not, say many others.
But it has to be noted that he was never indicted for espionage”
Pravda goes on —
“The fall of Alger Hiss was among the most spectacular of its day: a New Deal liberal who some believe could have become secretary of state, who sat with President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference during World War II and then led the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945, suddenly accused of being a Communist who passed secrets to the Soviets for several years.
“I have never been, nor am I now a member of the Communist Party,” Hiss told the FBI in 1947
The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Hiss, launching the career of Richard M. Nixon, a committee member who pressed hard for Hiss’s indictment, records would later show. The case was fodder for conservatives bent on portraying liberals as soft on Communism and therefore unpatriotic — not an unfamiliar template for political combat in the modern era.
It also opened a deep fissure within American liberalism that reverberates to this day”
“To this day”? Well maybe for those whose memories are long enough. Back in 1947 (What a year! Good News, Desert Fury, blizzards cover New York, Gore Vidal goes to the Bahamas with Harold Lang, I am born! ) the notion that Hiss was a communist spy was intended as a launching pad for the discrediting of the entire Roosevelt administration — a project that failed due to the fact that despite Nixon’s best efforts. For the case ended up centering entirely on Hiss and his accuser, Whittaker Chambers. An alcoholic closet queen, ex CPUSA member, Chambers quickly entered the “Conservative” pantheon while Hiss after serving time for perjury was reduced to selling stationary supplies. In his memoir Early Plastic recounts Hiss visits to the 8th Street Bookshop, and what a pleasant gentleman he was.
Over the years Tony Hiss, has become a familiar figure, defending the name of his father. Hobson less so. But this stepson was apparently central to the defense.
He knew who came and went, he says, and he never, ever saw Chambers at the house. And Hobson says he never heard the incessant clacking of the typewriter that his mother, Priscilla Hiss, was alleged to have used to reproduce those stolen State Department documents in what would become the Cold War’s most sensational espionage case.
Just as Hobson’s memories of his bedroom were frozen in amber, so, too, is the gnawing sentiment he’s carried for the 57 years since his stepfather’s conviction and 44-month imprisonment for perjury: that the things he did not hear and did not see could have helped clear Alger Hiss’s name. Hobson calls Chambers, Hiss’s accuser, “an unmitigated, pathological liar,” and he believes he could have proven it.
If so this will doubtless rouse the interest of Chambers biographer Sam Tanenhaus, who currently serves as editor of the NYT Book Review.
“Yes, Hobson wants to vindicate Alger Hiss. But he also wants to vindicate himself — the young man, by then in his 20s, who was deemed by Hiss defense attorneys as a liability on the witness stand. They feared prosecutors would skewer him because he’d received an undesirable discharge from the U.S. Navy for being gay.Hobson, who went on to marry, raise four children and live a life both gay and straight, is still bitter”
In short a history that echoes in many respects that of Hiss himself — minus the dishonorable discharge. In his brilliant, posthumously published Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara Joe LeSueur reveals that he once tricked with Alger Hiss’ boyfriend. This in turn
evokes what many have thought to have been Chambers’ motive for sliming Hiss — an “incomplete forward pass.” Of course in those days the slightest indication that one had “the urge to merge with a splurge” was “proof” enough thanks to those gay Cambridge commies. In recent years, however, Hiss’ guilt has been a favorite refrain of the right ever since the emergence of the so-called “Verona file” in which someone named “Ales” is fingered as a spy with the allegation that said person was Hiss. Now that may be open to question, as today’s AP story indicates.
“Chervonnaya said her findings thus far echo those of a former Soviet general who in 1992 quoted KGB secret police files as saying Hiss was not a Soviet spy. But she said that was based on one document, whereas her research draws extensively on now publicly accessible files in which intensive cross-checking would be likely to turn up clues if any existed.
“I reasoned that, provided Alger Hiss had been such an important and long-term Soviet asset, we should logically expect his name to slip at some stage into some of the files,” she said.
None of the documents implicated Hiss, although names of other people to whom he was linked or who also were accused of being Soviet sympathizers do appear, among them Whittaker Chambers, a one-time Time magazine editor who later became Hiss’s chief accuser”
My favorite Hiss story of them all can be found in (of all places ) Edie Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s celebrated oral history of the “Girl of the Year” who now bids fair to be the Girl of All-Time. .
On page 130 the irrepressible Ed Hennessey speaks of the day he and Edie were swanning around Massachusetts avenue and a TV interviewer buttonholed them on their opinion of the popular catchphrase “Better Red Than Dead.” Blinkered as always, Edie and Ed thought it was a question about reading habits inspiring him to say “I think in these troubled times that our government has a debt to its people to promulgate certain information.” And Edie, clutching her copy of A Tale of Two Cities as always, chimed in with “Well, I think that what Eddie has said just about hits the nail on the head,” adding “the whole concept is entirely ludicrous.” Two months later in the Casa B “we ran into Tony Hiss and someone who looked like his father.” Indeed it was his father.
What was Alger Hiss doing at the Casa B? Well might you ask! A fortiori, what was he doing a few nights later at a party given by the fearsome Cloke Dossett (60’s Boston’s very own Addison DeWitt) where Ed and Edie related their TV interview to him. “Alger Hiss laughed and laughed like he thought it was the funniest thing in the world,” Ed relates.
And considering all he’d been through, Alger Hiss needed a good laugh.
How nice of Edie to be the one to provide it.