A Son's Memoir

By Tony Hiss

Knopf. 241 pp. $24

As a young boy several years before his father's perjury conviction in 1950, Tony Hiss tried to stop an enraged group of farmers from killing a five-foot snake. "They thought it was venomous," he writes, "and somehow I had enough information to know (correctly) that it was only a milk snake, shy, harmless, even a friend to farmers, because milk snakes eat rodents." Ignoring his sobbing protests, the farmers killed the snake, and the boy learned a hard lesson: "There were times when an idea was stronger than the truth."

Half a century later, Tony Hiss has written a loving son's memoir in which he quietly insists that the truth about Alger Hiss lies in the man and not in the idea we have of him as a public figure in the "trial of the century." To the outside world, Alger Hiss was a monstrous liar, a devious spy and a traitor. To his son, he was a "translucent father," a man who could be "maddeningly obtuse, hopelessly naive," and yet also "wise, gentle, kind (and frighteningly vulnerable)."

Over the decades, numerous historians have written meticulously footnoted investigations of the Hiss case. In recent years, Allen Weinstein, Sam Tanenhaus and others have declared that history's verdict is in--and that Alger Hiss was indeed a spy. Tony Hiss, the author of nine previous books and contributor to the New Yorker since 1963, does not pretend to answer these historians as a historian. Instead, he has written a beautiful piece of palimpsest, a short, dreamy text as evocative as Gore Vidal's memoir of that title.

Much of the book is an account of Alger Hiss's prison years as seen through the eyes of a child. Tony was but 10 years old when his father entered the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa. Once a month, he and his mother, Priscilla, were allowed to visit for two hours. It was then--and through their prison correspondence--that young Tony got to know his "world-travelling, dazzling, handsome, hardworking, so-often-away-from-home father." But for these prison years, an extraordinary father-son friendship might never have blossomed.

The trials and subsequent imprisonment were less of an ordeal for the father than for the son. Tony quotes his half brother, Timothy, saying, "Jail is where Alger became a human being." Indeed, he thrived in prison; he taught illiterate inmates to read and otherwise won the admiration and friendship of all whom he encountered. Tony, however, was forever traumatized. "I was lost, totally out of my depth, struck dumb, frozen solid, a real boy transformed into a block of wood." But Alger Hiss managed to be both a model prisoner and a model father, teaching his son how to cope with his loneliness and anger. He instructed Tony to be his "eyes and ears," and Tony complied by taking the first steps to becoming a reporter and writer: "I had been handed the secret I sought--as Alger's extension, I could, like other reporters, walk between the raindrops, talk to anyone, even say anything without being destroyed."

Alger Hiss emerged intact from prison, with, says his son, his "inner sweetness deepened and intensified." And yet Tony could also see his defects. When two schoolboys robbed young Tony of 90 cents, Hiss wrote his son that he was "much sorrier for them than I am for you" because being a bully "is a very unhappy thing to be." Tony saw this response as a "typical Algerish trick of redirecting sympathy onto people who hadn't earned it and had no use for it."

In the eyes of his son, Hiss could be "so brilliant and so dumb, so brave and so foolhardy, so caring and so oblivious." His naivete explains, for the son, how his father could become the victim of a "serial liar" like Whittaker Chambers. This won't convince most historians. But scholars will be intrigued by Tony Hiss's quotation of long passages from nearly 1,500 previously unpublished letters exchanged between his parents, none of which reveals anything remotely incriminating. They will also be interested in a variety of new details, such as confirmation of the suggestion that Timothy Hiss was blackmailed by the FBI into not testifying at his father's trials. Timothy was gay, and though he wanted to testify that Chambers's story was "mostly poppycock," Alger wouldn't allow it. "I'd rather go to jail," he said, "than see Tim cross-examined about his private life."

This son's memoir will not vindicate the father. Even so, Tony Hiss will convince many readers of this graceful volume that his father remains an enduring enigma.

Kai Bird, author of "The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms."