Alger Hiss charmed everyone because he was so corrupt that he could tell anyone a lie and he could brazen out any lie. No one wants to believe that such a one could be a spy also.-Delmore Schwartz, Journal Passage, 1949
The demon of modern conservatism lives in the Hamptons. On a summer morning, he steps out of his red clapborad house to take a walk past the graveyard and into town. His legs wobble. He stumbles sometimes over roots and curbs he cannot see. His breath is wheezy and short. His eyes are blue as cornflowers, but they have failed him in old age, giving him only the cloudy curve of the headstoneds the weary bending of the trees in the wind.
"As you can tell," says Alger Hiss, "I'm a very old man."
Even in his dotage, Hiss is as spindly and bird-sharp in his features as he was the muggy morning of Aug. 3, 1948, when he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to deny everything a man named Whittaker Chambers was saying about him; that he was an active agent of the Communist Party in the '30's, that as a State Department official he frequently passed copies of secret documents to Chambers, who was working then in the Communist underground. Unlike other men whe are provided by time with a pillowy, self-satisfied bulk, Hiss, with his razory jaw and knobby arms, is still as thin as the day in 1950 when he was handcuffed and carted off to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary wearing a three-piece suit, a snap-brim fedore and Mona Lisa smile.
Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury-for lying about the documents and the length of his relationship with Chambers. But Hiss has always maintained his innocence. He once said that by the time he turned 80, he expected to be "respected and venerated." He is 81. And though he continues to search for more evidence, he has exhausted every avenue of judicial recourse. Four years ago in New York, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Owen rejected Hiss' petition of coram nobis to set aside the original verdict on the basis of new evidence. Owen said he saw nothing of merit in documents Hiss had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"He was crushed, like any man would be whose lifelong dream had ended," says his son Tony Hiss. But he never showed it. "Stiff upper lip, that's my father's way, his training." There are so many coats of polish, so many layers of courtesy and calm on the man that little else shows. Not only was Hiss schooled at Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law, not only had he been the brilliant young student described by his mentor Felix Frankfurter as "first rate in every way," he was also a man who had faced an extraordinary trial in childhood and another in adulthood. He met both with steely denial, with masks of patience, serenity and cool. "When Alger was a child, his father killed himself by slashing his throat from ear to ear," says his friend William Reuben. "Then as an adult he endured the HUAC hearings, a trial, a hung jury, then the second trial and jail. He went through all that with WASP reserve. Never cracked. He has spent his whole life building that shell. He wasn't about to lose it all of a sudden."
"It's my way," Hiss says. "I am an objective man."
To take a walk with Alger Hiss along a country road in 1986 is at once remarkable and eerily ordinary.
Remarkable because you cannot help but be aware of the acts he was accused of, the perjury he was convicted of, aware of all the lives he changed, the political careers he made, the bloody, lifelong feuds he caused, the family that struggled around him. To his antagonists, he betrayed his country in his youth and he now betrays his friends by insisting serenely on his innocence. To his smaller group of believers, he will die a brave and dignified martyr, an American St. Joan.
Ordinary because he is also a man -- an old and ailing man with a wife, a son, a simple home in a grand town. Like Trotsky in Mexico, like Kerensky on the Upper West Side, out of time and out of place, Alger Hiss is an unextraordinary man, a stick figure. He is the eye of a strange and endless storm, a dispassionate man with passions of history and personality still swirling around him.
As he walks, Hiss says he is still "interested" in finding other FBI files that would discredit Chambers or J. Edgar Hoover. But the urgency is gone, the fire is out. Hiss knows it's over, at least for now. He compares himself to Dreyfus, to Sacco and Vanzetti, and insists his "vindication is inevitable" -- but "not in my lifetime." And still there are only the slightest fissures in his shell. When he talks about death, his tone betrays a lack of the peace that others his age so often have.
"You know one of my best friends here on Long Island is Alden Whitman, the legendary obit man for The New York Times," he says. His vocal cords have bowed with age, giving his voice a quavering, underwater sound. "Alden interviewed me for my obituary about 10 years ago. We joked about it a good bit. I suppose back then I could be more lighthearted about an imminent obituary than I can today." Whitman, for his part, says the obituary is ready to run. "It's in the morgue, but I'm not sure it even has my name on it anymore. It's an important one. Three or four columns -- almost half as long as a Stalin or a Churchill."
Hiss stops under an elm and gestures to the boneyard. "The morgue, at least it's quiet. All you hear is the birds. I've always liked birds, of course." He laughs at that. It seems that everything about the man took on legendary dimensions. Alger Hiss was even a legendary birder. As a young New Dealer in Washington, he once saw a prothonotary warbler on the banks of the Potomac. It was a rare, thrilling find, and he told his friends about it. During the HUAC hearings -- when Chambers was trying to establish his long intimacy and political complicity with Hiss -- Chambers privately informed the committee of Hiss' enthusiasm for birds, for the warbler in particular. When Hiss was asked, seemingly in passing, about the warbler at a hearing, he responded that, yes, he had seen one and wasn't that remarkable? Yes, it was, thought young Richard Nixon and the rest of the HUAC members, indeed it was. From there the Hiss story began to unravel.
His vision is so clouded now that when his visitor, dressed in gray slacks and a sport shirt, asks if Hiss can see him, Hiss says, "I cannot see your features, only the outline. You seem to be wearing jeans and a striped shirt. I think I see stripes." Near-blindness stopped him from driving a car long ago, and several years back he quit his job hawking paper clips for the small New York stationery firm of Davison-Bluth. Friends now take him to the Long Island woods where Hiss "birds by ear."
His sight is a touchstone for him, a way of defining his life and age, his plainness as a man. "It's gone full circle," he says. When he was a boy in Baltimore, his Aunt Lila read the English classics to him. Then, as a young legal aide to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hiss read aloud to the aging justice. Now Hiss invites friends over to read to him. A recent selection was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
When he returns to the house after his walk, there is a rustling in the grass.
"What's that? A rabbit, no?"
He aims his eyes in the general direction of the sound. "Oh, yes, it must be a squirrel. It must be a squirrel."
In fact, it is a pair of robins near the bushes.
"Robins?" he says. "It looked more mammalian than birdlike to me."
The urgency of present events has a way of stripping history of its full narrative, leaving behind only scraps of half-remembered details. The Greek historian Thucydides wrote that in time only "a few irreducible facts will remain; no more, perhaps, than the names of persons and places." To most, the Hiss-Chambers case is a distant affair, a confusing haze of circumstances somehow involving a Bright Young Man lying about his past, a brooding senior editor of Time celebrated by the right as the Former Red Who Saw the Light, an ambitious first-term Congressman from California named Nixon who made his name by pressing the case, mysterious documents hidden in a pumpkin, an elusive typewriter. The details blur.
And yet the images of Hiss and Chambers are imprinted firmly in the memories and souls of some of the present moment's most crucial figures. The president, for instance. Like so many conservatives, Ronald Reagan credits Whittaker Chambers with helping him find the true way, helping him see the struggle of modern history as a Manichean one, a contest between the forces of light and darkness, between the Christian democratic West and the godless Communist East. Reagan is not known as a great reader, and yet to this day he quotes from memory passages out of Chambers' dark memoir, "Witness."
Chambers' conviction that liberals, particularly the generation of Roosevelt's New Dealers, were tied willy-nilly to the forces of totalitarianism became the psychic and political force behind Reagan and much of the American conservative movement. "Chambers is a crucial figure to a lot of people in the administration. He's talked about by the president and a lot of others," says White House speechwriter Tony Dolan. "Around here Alger Hiss is thought of like Quisling or Benedict Arnold and the other great traitors of history."
William F. Buckley, the ringmaster of the right, joined Reagan in praising Chambers as a hero at last year's 30th anniversary celebration of the National Review. Chambers, who died in 1961, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Freedom by the president in 1984. George Will, another acolyte in the Church of Chambers, calls his rumpled hero "an ungraceful man touched in the end by the blinding grace of painful truthfulness."
Conservatives owe a lot to Hiss, too. Without him there would have been no Richard Nixon. Every Halloween a group of conservatives known as the Pumpkin Paper Irregulars gathers in one city or another to celebrate the conviction of Hiss. Last year in New York the Irregulars invited Nixon and presented him with a cryptic scroll making him an honorary member. In his speech Nixon remarked on how the case affected his political career: "The presidential election of 1960 was one of the closest in United States history: A shift of 12,000 votes in Illinois and one other smaller state would have changed the result. A friend of mine, post-morteming the election a few days later, blamed the journalistic antipathy directed against me during the campaign: 'If it had not been for the Hiss case, I think you might have been elected.' I replied that without the Hiss case, I would probably not have been nominated."
The case was the first and most formative of Nixon's "Six Crises." John Dean says that in the Watergate years, Nixon used to urge his aides to read and re-read his account of the first crisis. Charles Colson proved himself the loyal soldier, reading it 14 times. Colson was ignorant of many things, but he knew how crucial the case was to Nixon. Hiss also opened the door for Joseph McCarthy. Just a few weeks after Alger Hiss was sentenced to jail, McCarthy made a Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, W. Va., claiming the State Department was "thoroughly infested with Communists" -- 205 of them, to be exact.
The case was the Rashomon drama of the Cold War. One's interpretation of the evidence and the characters involved became a litmus test of one's politics, character and loyalties. Sympathy with either Hiss or Chambers was more an article of faith than a determination of fact. "I came to believe in the guilt of Alger Hiss," John Kenneth Galbraith said.
Once a litmus test, always a litmus test. As late as 1975, Harper's magazine polled eminent journalists, historians and others on where they stood on Hiss' guilt or innocence. Hiss has had his core of supporters, and they are almost uniformly old acquaintances and friends or on the left: columnist Alex-ander Cockburn, Nation magazine editor Victor Navasky, American Communist Party leader Gus Hall, playwright Lillian Hellman, Institute for Policy Studies cofounder Marcus Raskin, Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas. Obviously, most conservatives side with Chambers -- Buckley, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Clare Boothe Luce, authors Russell Kirk and Sidney Hook. But Chambers also has won the support of liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Galbraith.
"Everybody comes to it with values and preconceptions," says Navasky, who has defended Hiss in his magazine. "It's not surprising that in a case that is 40 years old -- where many of the principals are dead, where the charges of espionage introduce a whole world of lying, deception and code -- it's not surprising that you are left with ambiguity."
The passions and the ambiguities are endless. Historian Allen Weinstein spent years suing the government for documents, tracking down old defense files and interviewing people from Hungary to Mexico to Baltimore. A former professor at Smith College and now a kind of one-man think tank with an office in Washington, Weinstein says he started out "inclined to believe that Alger was innocent." But with the publication of "Perjury" in 1978, he concluded that "the body of available evidence . . . proves the jurors in the second trial made no mistake in finding Alger Hiss guilty as charged." Once more the case came alive, once more the passions were stirred.
Alger Hiss has read "Perjury." Indeed, his face tightens into a walnut when the book is mentioned. He calls it a "mendacious piece of work" and prefers to keep on his shelves in the Hamptons a friendlier biography, John Chabot Smith's "Alger Hiss: The True Story." But the reviewers, including many on the left, sided with Weinstein. One of the most forceful reviews in favor of "Perjury" came from Irving Howe, the critic and democratic socialist. On that score Hiss becomes a political arbiter. "Howe? Howe? I don't consider him on the left."
The passions swirl, but Alger remains rooted and cool. I am an objective man.
When Weinstein was finishing his book, he asked to meet with Hiss one last time at the office of their mutual publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. "I told him that I thought it was only fair that he should know that I would conclude that he was guilty," says Weinstein. "Before we parted at the elevator, Hiss turned to me and said, 'Do you really believe this is going to make me suffer? You can't hurt me, you know. You can't hurt me.'
"And in a way he was right. He has his little group of people around him who believe in him. For Hiss, generations come and go, and since his accusers were Hoover, Chambers and Nixon, he can always revive his own myth. Maybe he's persuaded himself at some psychological level that he's innocent, or maybe he stays the course out of loyalty to those around him. They've been working for him for so many years. To insist on his innocence -- he owes them at least that much."
William Reuben has dedicated much of his adult life to vindicating Alger Hiss. The rest of it he has devoted to clearing the Rosenbergs and handicapping horses. Reuben is 71, a jovial fellow with mutton chops and a series of chins. He is more passionate about Alger Hiss than Alger Hiss. Reuben lives alone in a tiny New York apartment crammed to the gunwales with books, documents and court records. While Hiss himself concedes the futility of vindication in his lifetime, Reuben has never stopped working, pushing for more evidence, wiring and rewiring the jalopy of an FBI conspiracy. He has never given up and does not plan to.
"It frustrates me sometimes that Alger isn't angrier, that he isn't more passionate," Reuben says. "You asked me if it were an obsession? It is, it's an obsession. It's like when someone opens a closet and there's a murdered person inside. You have to find out the answer.
"Alger still has a certain sense of naivete'. When people ask me, 'Why did Alger go through with it, why didn't he just take the Fifth, why did he testify in front of a grand jury?' I say, 'Did you ever hear of the word schmuck ?' "
Reuben describes himself as "to the left of Alger and just about everyone else" on the case. He believes that neither Hiss nor Chambers was ever a Communist. "Chambers told lie after lie. He changed his story all the time, and there was never any corroboration. The whole story, top to bottom, is pure bull."
Asked how he would feel if Hiss on his deathbed told the world that it was true, that in the '30s he had worked as an agent for the Party, Reuben says simply, "I wouldn't believe it."
Reuben started out in life a rich kid: school in Switzerland, a nice job working at Vogue "with all the beautiful models," bridge games at the home of Conde' Nast. After fighting in Europe and winning three Purple Hearts, he returned home radicalized and "looking for something meaningful to do." He wrote for left-wing papers and published a book on his own about Nixon's role in the Hiss case. "I knew the bastard would become president," he says. "I was way ahead on that. I made my living lecturing, huckstering around with my book. I would've loved to have been named by McCarthy so people would have known about the books. No such luck."
Reuben reveres Hiss as a victim, but there are times when he is frustrated by how "distracted Alger can be by all the parties in New York.
"Sometimes I think he doesn't know how important he is. The case is bigger than he is. There were 31 duels fought over the Dreyfus case! Thirty one! I wish Alger were angrier. All he'll call Nixon is 'an opportunist'! He's too polite, as if it were a private argument or something. He doesn't have a Marxist or Socialist view of it like I do. I think Alger is a little like Roberto Duran when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard that last time. 'No ma's, no ma's.' "
Alger Hiss answers the door wearing a tattersall shirt, gray slacks. He asks about my flight, the drive out from La Guardia, the hotel. His courtesy is formal. "Would you like to use the facilities?" "Would you like a glass of water?" "Let me know when you're hungry." This is the same man of whom Richard Nixon said, "If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil."
The house is simple and sparse: a few books on birding and the Hiss case, a poster print of a typewriter, framed photographs, a row of ceramic, lettered blocks on the windowsill spelling out "Liberal Sage." There is a fine garden in the back and a boxy American car in the driveway.
Hiss has one ground rule for these interviews: "You can say I live in the Hamptons, but please don't say which one." A few minutes away are the "cottages" of rock stars, beach-novel millionaires, and 30-year-old investment bankers. "If you were expecting a mansion like the ones near the beach, you must be disappointed," Hiss says. His modest income has come from a variety of sources: his work selling stationery, Social Security, a trust fund set up by friends that yields about $ 5,000 a year. "I have always lived modestly," he says. "I have no financial anxieties. I just have to live carefully." Since being restored to the Massachusetts bar in 1975, he has "practiced a little law. I have one client, a small foundation. But I have to have all the documents read to me."
To be with him is to always feel unsure. Profoundly so. For if Hiss has succeeded at anything, it is to make certainty impossible. Even the most ardent partisans on either side sense the ambiguity. Weinstein, who must feel he knows all he can or wants to about the case, says he "at least reserves the doubt every historian must have." John Lowenthal, an intimate friend of Hiss who made a film supporting him, says, "Anyone who has known Alger must entertain it: 'Might he be lying to me, his good friend?' "
"People believe what they want to believe," says Hiss.
And then he proceeds to do what he has done hundreds of times before. He maintains his "complete innocence of the charges." He does so with a terrible evenness, pulling out old anecdotes and character sketches with the ease of an aging vaudevillian. So cool. No one wants to believe that such a one could be a spy. In interviews and even in conversations with friends, Hiss denies himself the passions one associates with the falsely accused: "I do not stoop to the gutter."
Of Richard Nixon, who did more than anyone else to push the case against him, Hiss says, "If I needed a confirmation of my judgment of his moral stature, it was obviously supplied by Watergate. People have marveled, or been surprised, that I am not more bitter at Nixon. He didn't seem worth it." And of Chambers, who tended toward lying, bizarre behavior and wicked swings of mood and political persuasion, Hiss is equally restrained: "I am not bitter at him because I honestly think he was not responsible for his actions."
Objectivity: Hiss uses the word a dozen times in an hour. It's my way.
Hiss talks about the "Kafkaesque" texture of his life, "the element of entrapment in the social setup and in the nature of [Kafka's embattled and nameless] K. Whichever way K. turned, he found inimical elements in the world around him. But objectivity tells me that Kafkaesque elements are a part of the social fabric." Hiss says he was a victim of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which wanted to discredit the New Deal by tying it to Communist espionage and the Soviet Union. He believes that the famous Woodstock typewriter on which he or his wife supposedly copied secret State Department documents was a fake, an FBI forgery. And the Pumpkin Papers that Chambers unearthed from his farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland -- "It was all trumped up," Hiss says.
At the hearings and trials, Hiss was an imperious representative of the old Eastern Establishment whose courtesy seemed at times stiff and arrogant. But he has never lost his bearing, his calm. If he has been lying, it has been with an eerie cool; if he is telling the truth, it is with untold grace. Either way it is hard to see how he maintains his reserve. "Actually," he says, "You're asking me how it is possible for me to be natural. This comes naturally to me.
"You see, I am not obsessed. I have only been trying to correct the injustice to me, to my family, to the record and the general public. With objectivity. I would hope that I have also lived a full, vigorous life, unwarped, with other interests, coping without being obsessed. The other day I saw someone who I hadn't seen for eight or nine years and he asked me, 'Do you see yourself as a symbol?' A common question. And I said, 'Certainly not.' 'Well,' he said, 'how do you avoid it?' Well, simply by regarding myself as an ordinary man who has had some extraordinary experiences. Like people who climb mountains. Like Edmund Hillary or something."
Sir Edmund Hillary! Quite so! The man who conquered Everest, the embodiment of exceptional experience. In 1948 Alger Hiss was heading toward a refined ordinariness, a privileged obscurity.
Whittaker Chambers changed all that.
When Hiss volunteered to testify before HUAC, he had already left government service and was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Although almost every article or book on him describes him as headed toward an ever more glorious public career, Hiss says that he was already planning to leave all government and foundation work and return to the Boston law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart where he began his legal career. He would have preferred the privacy and comfort of State Street over public life.
Then it began, the days in front of the committee, the weeks in the courtroom, the headlines and newsreels. It could only have been pure agony for a self-described "private" man.
And yet there is nothing so striking in meeting Alger Hiss as the impression that he is grateful for his experience, grateful, on some level, for the disdain as well as the admiration. He seems grateful for the passions evoked, for the unexpected exceptionalness of his life. He was not, after all, the only one accused of such things in those days, but unlike so many who refused to cooperate with HUAC, grand juries and other investigatory bodies of the era and merely became footnotes to history, Hiss, against the advice of almost everyone around him, volunteered testimony at every level until the quagmire consumed him. He became, with Chambers, a chapter in history, a lead character in a national passion play.
Is he at all sorry he answered the charges? Why didn't he ignore Chambers or take the Fifth?
"With the hindsight I have now, well, who would want to undergo the deprivation that I have?" he says. "I only hope that I would do the same."
Of course, his first leap out of privacy was the decision to answer Chambers' charges publicly. Hiss says he "never had any choice but to testify. At the time of the HUAC hearings, I thought my testimony would clear the whole thing up. I soon learned it wasn't that kind of committee. I felt, too, a sense of relief when I came to court. I felt perfect confidence in that court."
But then all that confidence was dashed. By the truth, say his opponents. By a conspiracy, say his supporters.
He settles in his chair, and his eyes wander. The room and all its objects have lost their sharpness:
"I've spent a great deal of time on the issue of 'Why me?' I came to the conclusion that it's largely accident, that I was well down the list of those who were selected in order to bring about a change in American politics. I believe the trend of McCarthyism and the adoption of an official stance close to McCarthyism was a deliberate attempt to break the hull of liberalism. The people that were picked ahead of me were Harry White, who held a higher position in the State Department than I did. But he died. Then there was Larry Duggan, who was similar in outlook and background to me. But he died in a fall. It's clear that they had collected a dossier on my boss, Francis Sayre, but he was too big. I was the right size. The Rosenbergs and I and others who had been picked were the right size. So fairly early on I disposed myself of the incubus of 'Why me?' It was purely accidental, like a sniper who starts shooting people at random. I got hit."
His life and public image change with the flow of political events. "There are times I get letters in the mail saying, 'You've got a a nice capitalist house in the Hamptons, don't you, you communist. Why don't you just shut up and go to hell.' I still get them." Then the pendulum swings. During the Watergate years, Hiss seized the anti-Nixon feeling as an opportunity to clear his name. He wrote a piece for The New York Times in 1973 called "My Six Parallels" -- a parody of Nixon's sacred memoir and a comparison of his behavior during Watergate to the HUAC hearings.
Then it swings again. Now in the Reagan era, when Whittaker Chambers is the martyr of conservatism, Hiss senses "the enmity has risen against me once more." Nineteen eighty-six is a Chambers year. The letters arrive again at the little red house in the Hamptons.
"I don't spend all my time dwelling on the case," Hiss says. He could not have more friends or go to more parties. He is a popular fellow. In the Hamptons and in New York, Hiss is a fixture on a certain level of the social circuit. His friends are editors, artists, musicians, civil liberties attorneys. He goes to concerts, dinners, theater, even the movies, "though the subtitles are impossible to see." "Alger is all over the place out here," says Alden Whitman, who lives in Southampton. "He gets around. You see him all the time at parties, not at Kurt Vonnegut's or at Mort Zuckerman's place, not on the fast track, but around. He has always been a charming man."
Victor Navasky remembers first meeting Hiss at a social event in the '60s and being "awed": "People can delude themselves, I guess, but he didn't strike me as living in fantasyland. He struck me as a sad and noble man who was trying to vindicate himself. The more I know him, the more I like him. He has friends in what I'd call 'the Old Left set' and the sort of cultural bohemian set."
In the end Hiss sees very little deprivation in his situation at all. "As a matter of fact, I've gained friends because more people sympathized with me and I've come to know more people than if I'd stayed a purely private person."
Hiss still talks of himself in an automatic way as a "private person." But that rings false. He has appeared on the Mike Douglas show between Neil Sedaka and the Fifth Dimension. He was on the college lecture tour in the '70s, ostensibly speaking on the New Deal, but inevitably answering questions on his trials. In his own book on the case, "In the Court of Public Opinion," Hiss chose not to answer Chambers' "Witness" with an equally personal testimony. He stuck to "objectivity," to "the facts." "A lawyer's brief," he calls it.
In the months he spent in jail, Alger Hiss made a few friends, mostly mobsters. His best friends were named Vincenzo and Angelo, two "racket men" who had been prosecuted, ironically, by Joe McCarthy's old confrere, the late Roy Cohn. Hiss admired his cellmates' "strong sense of loyalty and family ties."
Hiss worked in the stockroom and read books in jail that would have "made Joe McCarthy scream" -- the memoirs of Lenin's widow, the autobiography of a Canadian doctor who joined the Chinese Red Army, a radical interpretation of American slavery, texts of Eastern philosophy. "Those books kept me in touch with progressive, humane aspects of my life so that I didn't feel cut off from the normal flow of things."
But he was cut off from his family. Tony Hiss remembers the monthly visits to Lewisburg with his mother Priscilla, whom Alger always called Pros or Prossy. "I think the inmates earned around two hours of visiting time every month," Tony Hiss says. "It was a long trip and they took us into a huge room with lots of bamboo furniture. I especially remember the big Italian families who had warm reunions. Alger explained that for them jail was nothing to be ashamed of. It was an occupational hazard."
When Hiss was released from prison in November 1954 his fellow inmates crowded around the windows and cheered him. Hiss later described his friends in organized crime as "the healthiest inmates of the prison. They had absolutely no sense of guilt."
Separation was painful for the family. Priscilla struggled at home. "She bore the brunt of it," says Tony. "She supported us on next to nothing. She went to job interview after job interview and nothing."
There had been difficulty in the marriage before the case, but the pressure never subsided for Priscilla. She felt almost as embattled as her husband. Some people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, stood by Alger but believed he was covering up for Priscilla. She was the real "red hot," they felt. Hiss denies she ever did anything wrong. "The case was a terrible burden to her. I think it hurt her in ways it hadn't hurt me."
They began fighting more and more, and in January, 1959, Alger left Prossy. He spent much of the year on unemployment. "That was the low point," he says. "I think I had actual depression."
Within a year, though, Hiss met a tall, beautiful woman named Isabelle Johnson who was a kind of siren of the left. She had once been involved with author Howard Fast and was briefly married to screenwriter Howard Cole, one of the Hollywood 10. Though Hiss soon asked Priscilla for a divorce so that he could marry Isabelle, she would never grant him one.
"I think it was her sense of propriety, loyalty," he says. "She once said she wanted to go down in history as Mrs. Alger Hiss. Of course, she would have even if she had granted the divorce, but that would have been a kind of separation." Alger never forced the issue, says Tony, "probably in the mistaken idea that it would cause her more pain. He hates to inflict pain on people." Priscilla alternately cursed Alger and carried the torch. "She always called him 'my dear Alger,' " says Alden Whitman. "She always told me that she kept the latch open for him."
But Alger never came home. Last year Priscilla Hiss died, and Alger married the woman he has loved for a quarter-century.
During interviews, Isabelle would say a quick hello, then go off shopping in town, work in the garden or stay in the bedroom. She would not be interviewed or photographed. "She doesn't believe in publicity," Hiss says.
Tony Hiss, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the only child of Alger and Priscilla. (Priscilla had another son by a previous marriage, Tim Hobson, a doctor who lives in California.) Tony's memoir, "Laughing Last," is unlike any other work that he has published. It is deeply confessional, marred by a strangely casual, brash tone -- "Before Al went off to the jug . . . he started boning up on what he was in for." Tony writes intimately about incidents of his own impotence and homosexuality. Tony, who was married last year, says, "I don't know if I'd write it that way now."
The book was a blow to the Hiss family, but Tony and Alger have grown closer in recent years. There is something moving in the son's loyalty to the father: "Just going about his business is his way of exemplifying his innocence. Instead of being broken by his troubles he's found a sweetness in adversity. He endured. From Job onward the test is who will be a whole person, who will be broken."
There are pictures of Tony accompanying his father as he left Lewisburg. The little boy is smiling, proud, oblivious to all he would endure in the years ahead as the son of a man so many regarded as a traitor. Now Tony says, "I wouldn't have asked to live through this. It was painful in many ways. But I learned more than I might have about how our minds operate, what sort of pressures we're given to. The case involves every possible emotion: rage, bewilderment, despair. But there still remains the question of what happened."
One of the most suspect memories in history has finished writing a series of "memoiristic sketches." "I never kept a diary," says Hiss. "My vision is so poor I really can't do research. I've had some help with dates, but I've really had to do it all from memory."
What a strangely cheery and selective memoir Alger Hiss has completed. As he describes it, the book begins with an account of his aunt reading to him from children's books and the English classics, a summer spent in the French countryside with his brother Donald.
The son of conservative Maryland Democrats -- a family that columnist Murray Kempton has described as "shabby gentility" -- Hiss says the Depression "radicalized" him. "The Depression led me to question my own social and political outlook and to decide that I had eschewed politics as something gentlemen didn't sully their hands with. I changed." Hiss remembers a generation when the political spectrum was so wide and change so rapid that Roosevelt would greet his junior New Dealers with "Good morning, fellow socialists!"
Sweet days, days with Roosevelt and Marshall and the rest to Yalta, where he noticed that Stalin doodled while he talked and where Hiss managed to pocket one of the general secretary's doodles.
Did he admire Stalin?
"Oh, yes," says Hiss over a sandwich at a restaurant in East Hampton. "In spite of knowing the extent of his crimes, he was very impressive . . . He was decisive, soft-spoken, very clearheaded. He spoke almost always without notes."
But for Nixon, Hiss cannot muster the same admiration, "I think Newsweek exaggerates when it says 'He's Back.' " He gives Kissinger all the credit for opening relations with China and establishing detente with the Soviet Union.
Hiss says his view of Russia in the '30s was "quite sympathetic. I certainly regarded the Hitlerian threat as paramount and regarded the Soviets as potential allies." After the Hitler-Stalin pact, he says, "it was difficult to be as sympathetic, but I was convinced, looking at it from the point of view of power politics, that they were driven to it by the appeasement policies of Britain. It was every man for himself."
"And now, in terms of American policy, what I think is good for the United States and the world, I have not changed my belief that we should avoid confrontation."
Hiss rips the president at length, especially for his policies in Nicaragua. "My hopes are with Mario Cuomo," he says. But with fantastic understatement Hiss says, "Of course, my endorsement would be of no help."
During lunch, people stare at our table, not quite sure who this old man could be. Who is that eating the blueberry pie and talking so casually about "Dean" and "Averell" and "Franklin." They seem to know he is somebody. Perhaps they would know him by his ancient courtesies: "I insist on making this lunch dutch. That was the way with us New Dealers. We paid our own way." Or maybe they heard something in the way he described the action of the Walker spy ring: "It wasn't a proper way of behaving."
But they do not know him, not without a hint: a pumpkin, a typewriter, his accuser. In this way Alger Hiss, the man, is becoming a half-remembered face, a ghost.
Alger Hiss mentions that his friend, the psychiatrist Meyer Zeligs, regards Alger's objectivity as a neurosis. "Isn't that stunning?"
Hiss knows that many people believe he is so outwardly serene because, while guilty of a crime committed many years ago, he has come to believe himself innocent. He speaks not of delusion, but of the ways the whole affair may have drained him. "How can one judge one's own sanity. I don't think I'm mad. And as I look back at what's happened to me and what's happened to other people, I think I have nothing to justify self-pity.
"I suppose every person has had his momentary feelings of wanting to jump off a high place . . . but a feeling of a thought-out, rational sense of despair? Never! There is too much going on in the world."
We are walking along the road. Hiss is tired and has to stop every 50 yards or so to catch his breath. One of these days we will pick up a newspaper and read his obituary. It will probably begin on the front page next to a photograph circa 1948 of the young Alger Hiss -- handsome, trim and accused. It will be a long and prominent obituary -- almost half as long as a Stalin or a Churchill. Once more the puzzle pieces, the Pumpkin Papers, the typewriter -- all of it will seem familiar again. But it will end in ambiguity. For that has been the triumph of Alger Hiss' dotage. His persistence gives him the possibility of martyrdom, even if he is probably not one. It has helped him win friends, loyal defenders. It has made him more important than he ever could have been, either as a loyal servant to Franklin Roosevelt or to the Communist Party. Ambiguity has been a savior to him.
But could there be a surprise in his obituary? Could death be the opportunity to tell the world any secrets?
"Will we learn anything more about you?" I ask him. "Do you have a secret to tell?" Hiss stops near the graveyard and leans against a tree. "I have none," he says. "No secrets."