Correction to This Article
An April 5 Style article said that Alger Hiss was never indicted on espionage charges. The reason, it should have added, was that the statute of limitations had run out.

Stepping Out Of the Shadows

Timothy Hobson in the bedroom of his childhood home in Georgetown, where he was recuperating with a broken leg at the time his stepfather, Alger Hiss, left, allegedly was passing along state secrets there.
Timothy Hobson in the bedroom of his childhood home in Georgetown, where he was recuperating with a broken leg at the time his stepfather, Alger Hiss, left, allegedly was passing along state secrets there. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

In a cramped front bedroom on the second floor of a narrow rowhouse on 30th Street in Georgetown, 80-year-old Timothy Hobson declares, "This is where I was laid up with a broken leg."

It was so long ago, the winter of 1937, when Hobson was 10 years old and had a routine childhood injury that would confine him and make him a witness to history. Though he couldn't have known it then, this was no ordinary home. It was, instead, a place where routine acts of espionage allegedly were committed when his stepfather, Alger Hiss, brought home stolen State Department documents for handoff to a fellow Communist and spy named Whittaker Chambers.

That's the commonly accepted story line of the still-contested Hiss case. But Hobson and his half brother, Tony Hiss, don't believe it, never have. Hiss, 65, has written a couple of books about his father, lives in his father's old Greenwich Village apartment and has made his father's vindication a focus of his life. Hobson, in his twilight, now has joined in, both brothers driven by the heartache of their family history.

The last living link to the events on 30th Street -- and a witness who was never allowed to testify at Alger Hiss's 1949 and 1950 perjury trials -- Hobson returned on Tuesday to the Georgetown house, to refresh his memory in advance of a conference today at New York University, where he will speak in public about the case for the first time.

Hobson looked around his old Georgetown bedroom as if squinting into history. (The home's current occupant, who did not wish to be identified, seemed fascinated by the spectacle.) There'd been a radio on the ledge, where he could listen to "The National Farm and Home Hour." And he'd peer forlornly out of the two front windows, his only portals to the world during his confinement.

When he was well enough, he'd scoot down the stairs on his rear, careful with his cast. 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 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.


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity