Sometimes you survive a past by resolving to live squarely in it.Sometimes you transcend celebrity by seeing it in an everyday way.
Tony Hiss still inhabits the house he lived in when his father, Alger Hiss, was sentenced to the Lewisburg Penitentiary -- not for high treason, as federal prosecutors hoped, but for perjury. The younger Hiss is a quiet, warm man, who talks not about the foreign policy expert who, with Whittaker Chambers, was accused of being a Communist Party courier, but about the gentle, decent father whom he says he came to know in prison perhaps better than if Alger Hiss had been a free man.
When Tony was born in Georgetown Memorial Hospital in 1942, Alger Hiss was a successful coordinator of foreign policy at the U.S. Department of State. He had been clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes and would go on to become president of the Carnegie Endowment of Peace -- a bright star in the firmament of Washington power. Like his father, Hiss had every reason to expect a privileged future: He attended the Potomac School, where his mother, Priscilla, was a teacher of middle school English. Their home at 3210 P Street bustled with parties, dinners, barbecues, and Tony, a lone child, remembers sitting half-way down the stairs, straining to hear the grown-up repartee. All that ended when his father was charged with espionage.
Priscilla Hiss got a teaching job at the Dalton School in New York while her husband was on trial, and her son, a bookish boy, attended the school. They moved into the house on the lower East Side where Tony lives to this day. When Hiss was sentenced and the eminences at Dalton asked Mrs. Hiss to leave the staff, she had a difficult time finding work again. "We were strapped," says Tony Hiss, "and at the mercy of our friends' generosity." Finally, Mrs. Hiss found a job at the Doubleday book shop: "Not on the floor, where customers might see her; that would never do," says Hiss. "She found work in the basement office, sorting books."
Tony Hiss attended Putney High School in Vermont, where, he claims, celebrity parents were so common that the issue of his father never came up. He survived the prison visits, the public uproar, the release of his father, and the subsequent separation of his parents with remarkable equanimity. Alger Hiss's prison sentence lasted only five years, but it changed him forever. Who can forget the gaunt apparition that was Alger Hiss, insisting to the very end of a long life (he died in 1996 at 92) that he had been innocent all along?
And yet, Tony Hiss says, "Things unfolded in my life as if Dad had never happened. It was never an issue with other kids. The schools I went to were not places that were politically charged. They didn't brand people."
His was, in many ways, a charmed life. Upon graduation from Harvard, he was was hired by the New Yorker and wrote for that magazine for almost 30 years. He has authored 10 books, among them The Experience of Place and his most recent book, The View From Alger's Window. Currently he is a visiting scholar at New York University, where he lectures about how people are affected by their physical environments. He is married to children's book author Lois Metzger.
So what does he tell his 7-year-old son, Jacob, about Alger Hiss? "I tell him that his grandfather was a wonderful man. That he was able to get through bad times without getting hurt. My message seems to be getting through: The other day I overheard Jacob say to his friends as they thundered through here playing cops and robbers, `Hey, wait a minute! It isn't always just the bad guys who go to jail.' "
CAPTION: Tony Hiss