Authors: Austin Grossman
Mr. Alger Hiss?” Stripling asked.
“Yes; I am.”
“Please stand and be sworn. Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
I could see we had a very different witness in Alger Hiss. This wasn’t the doughy, mush-mouthed Chambers we were up against. Hiss was tall, thin, prim, and patrician in manner. He’d gone to Johns Hopkins and, inevitably, Harvard Law School. He was cut from the same cloth as Jerry Voorhis—a high-minded liberal reformer.
The hearing room was more than a third full this time. The usual clerks and interns and hangers-on, but also a few reporters who could already smell blood in the water. A very tall man stood leaning against the back wall. Another lawyer? I couldn’t tell.
Alger Hiss didn’t seem at all shaken at being called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He took the stand and faced the committee with the poise of an Olympic fencer. He told us how he’d worked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and served as secretary-general at the United Nations charter conference. He told us very plainly that he had never met anyone named Whittaker Chambers, that he was not and never had been a Communist, and that the whole business was absurd and confusing.
He played to the crowd. Here was an honest American singled out for Kafkaesque persecution by an utter stranger who claimed to have lived with him and been his close friend and who alleged that together they’d stolen U.S. government secrets and given them to the Soviet Union. Hiss was politely, firmly, innocently baffled.
What the hell was this? I was ready for a conspirator out of a melodrama. I expected evasion, fear, bluster, righteous anger, something I could beat down and break. But this?
I realized with a sick dread that I might really have gotten the wrong man. I’d been swept up in this grand idea that now seemed incredibly thin and, arguably, a little childish. Was I actually going to try to convince the world this guy was a Soviet secret agent? Where was my evidence? It was like accusing him of being a leprechaun. As proof, I had only the word of weird Mr. Chambers with his slurred speech and his sleepy demeanor and his foul breath, and I began to wonder why I’d staked my career on this guy’s fairy story of ultimate evil.
I couldn’t just apologize and walk away. I had grandstanded for the press and vowed to bring a dangerous conspiracy to light. Hiss was my star attraction and there was no way out but to try to convict him. And Hiss knew it; he saw that it was him or me, that one of us was going to be ruined over this. I could tell from the way he faced up to me on the stand. He hadn’t come looking for this fight, but he obviously had every intention of destroying me.
I thought about whether Hiss might be innocent, but I had a terrible feeling that it was too late for that. The decision had been made. At thirty-five I knew this much about myself, that if I had to choose between ruining my career and convicting Hiss, I would go ahead and convict him. And if he was innocent, maybe I would do something for him later? Of course I would. Once I was in the Senate, I would fix everything.
The following day we brought Chambers back in to explain himself. I demanded, coaxed, begged him to give some solid evidence to support his story. He knew Hiss. He gave a detailed and intimate portrait of Hiss’s life in the 1930s in a quiet, spare little apartment on a dead-end street in a Washington suburb. He had an eye for the telling detail and he seemed to nurse some private grievance. He described Hiss’s wife, another Communist, as “a short, highly nervous, little woman with a habit of blushing red when she is excited or angry, fiery red.” Her son Timmy by an earlier partner was “a puny little boy, also rather nervous.”
The Hisses were struggling, decent, overeducated civil servants; Chambers was a persistent lodger and hanger-on and, possibly, a friend. Chambers’s self-portrait was unsentimental, unsparing, and uncomfortably pathetic. He had been a struggling writer who couldn’t pay his bills. He received the Hisses’ car as a gift, and they forgave him his unpaid rent. Finally he told us in unambiguous language that Hiss was a Communist and a true believer. Hiss and Chambers stole United States government secrets together until Chambers had a change of heart. He’d seen something that changed his mind, something disturbing he refused to divulge. He pleaded with Hiss to leave the Communist Party, and when Hiss wouldn’t, Chambers ended their friendship forever.
When Hiss returned eight days later, he corroborated the domestic details with cool exactness. He was candid and quietly dignified as we rummaged through his personal history. He and his wife were still together. Timmy had grown up, served in the navy; he’d run off somewhere but was in touch through a psychiatrist. Hiss didn’t know a Whittaker Chambers or anyone of this description. The hearing room was shifting uncomfortably—people had come for a story, a drama, and they were getting something a little more human and disappointing. Someone here was acting in bad faith—someone besides myself, that is—but who?
Finally, after long deliberation, Hiss gave us something. That morning, he said, a name occurred to him, a lodger from 1933. A failed writer, he said, a man with bad teeth who had neglected to pay his rent. He had disappeared from their lives in 1935. He wrote the name on a pad of paper in front of him—
We agreed that the following day both men would appear together and meet face to face. And we would learn whether this was an international Communist conspiracy, or a dumpy, delusional middle-aged man.
The next morning the hearing room was packed. The story had been building in the papers all week, the spy syndicate, the accusation, all hinging on the conundrum of the missing friend, and now we’d learn the truth. I could do only so much to stage-manage this. Chambers (or George Crosley, or whoever) would simply have to make the charges stick and my political career would live or die accordingly.
Hiss arrived and pointedly did not look at Chambers. He took his time through the opening questions, speaking slowly and clearly. He coolly requested we call the Harvard Club to tell them he’d be late for an appointment. Chambers sat quietly across the room until the time came, and we called him to the front.
“Mr. Hiss,” I said, “the man standing here is Mr. Whittaker Chambers. I ask you now if you have ever known that man before.”
Alerted, Hiss stood and approached by a few steps, gunslinger taut. “May I ask him to speak? Will you ask him to say something?”
Hiss examined Chambers, who complied with a childlike docility. He answered biographical questions, read from a copy of
to demonstrate his speaking voice. Hiss had him open his mouth so he could inspect his teeth, strangely decayed. He sat down and cross-examined him until he reluctantly identified him as a man he had known casually under the name George Crosley.
All the while, Chambers spoke to Hiss as he would to an intimate friend, gently and with a certain violence—an intimate friend whose reputation he was going to ruin.
Hiss got out of his chair and advanced on Chambers and had to be restrained. He seemed pushed past the point of endurance. Chambers watched Hiss with a look that was both wounded and nakedly hungry, like he was gazing at a lost love.
The terrible thing was that I thought I understood them; the story made perfect sense with or without the spying. They’d been friends back when they were also people struggling to make their mark, people like me, just as talented, just as intelligent, only a millimeter less fortunate. Moving from one slightly too shabby apartment to the next; begging favors, falling behind on rent. They had shared some secret, too shameful or fearful for their friendship to sustain.
Hiss had made himself into a very different man than the one Chambers had known. He was a rising star now, brilliant and respected. That memory of a closeness between the vulnerable, awkward people they’d been was still with them, a delicate, embarrassing bond unwillingly shared. I was slowly, publicly dragging him out of that lie and he’d rather perjure himself before a grand jury than admit to being the man who was friends with Chambers long ago in a walk-up apartment on P Street. I was spending taxpayer money excavating the ruins of a friendship that had ended a decade ago just so I could stay alive politically, and Hiss knew it.
Hiss made his closing remarks while glaring at me with a sad contempt. I didn’t even have the heart to glare back. Instead, I looked past him to see the tall, dark-suited man again standing at the back of the hearing room. He’d been there all day. Not watching Hiss at all. He’d been watching me.
Over the next
few days Hiss showed the world how he was going to beat me. He was blazingly articulate, dignified, and kept a sharp eye on the mood of the room. He knew this wasn’t a legal trial but a testing of the political waters. He didn’t need to prove anything, only stay in the ring long enough for the press to get bored. I sat with Pat every night, going over the facts, talking about the performance, looking for the angle.
Another long afternoon ended with yet another round of yes-you-did-no-I-didn’t, and I followed the crowd out into the Commodore’s lobby, which was full of reporters and assorted hangers-on. I was shuffling through, nodding to well-wishers, when I saw Alger Hiss in angry conversation with a small, dark-haired woman. She laughed and he turned to go, brushing right past me.
I’d expected him to be holding forth to reporters, taking advantage of the day’s rhetorical gains, as he’d done on previous days. Instead he was almost shoving his way through the crowd, his features rigid in what looked for all the world like panic. I watched him cut through the mob, walking straight-backed and serious. On an impulse, I fell in behind him.
“Mr. Nixon? Mr. Nixon?” a man called after me. Tall, with a long face; it was the man who’d stood at the back of the hearing room. A reporter? I quickened my pace, keeping Hiss in view. I followed him out the door, expecting to see him hail a cab, but instead he rounded the corner and turned uptown. I knew he lived in far-off downtown. Where was he going?
There were a hundred reasonable answers—a doctor’s appointment, a drink with friends. I should have let him go but I couldn’t. I wanted to know what sort of person had been glaring at me across a room. I wanted to know, once and for all, if I was persecuting an honest man or a traitor.
He stopped abruptly, so much so that a large woman behind him almost walked into him. He studied a window display with what seemed like unnatural attentiveness. What was he looking at? Flustered, I stopped where I was and did the same a block behind him. A women’s shoe store, as luck would have it. How did they walk in those things? I glanced ahead just as he glanced back, and our eyes seemed to meet, but his face registered no recognition. In another minute he moved on. I passed the window he’d been looking at—a florist?
We went on like that for half an hour. Every four or five blocks he’d stop for a moment. Once he turned left and I hurried to follow. Three more turns and he’d circled the block. It was my first time following anyone, but were all people so suspicious?
We ducked and dodged through the late-afternoon crowd of gray-suited men and he led me five, then ten, then twenty blocks up Lexington Avenue, past the long, curving Buicks and Chevys of that year, past the elegant young men who’d gotten all those law jobs I’d applied for. I sweated through my shirt in the August heat. Plenty of time to think about what I’d say if he picked me out of the crowd. Should I feign an attack of conscience? Probably not. He was a lawyer and knew perfectly well how to make a circus out of it the following day.
Any real political operator would have had a private investigator do this. Jack Kennedy would have, Kennedy who was no doubt in the Hamptons while I straggled up Lexington Avenue in an ill-considered gamble for political gain. I already knew I was making a fool of myself. If I could just resolve what exactly Hiss was, at least I’d know which kind of fool.
odd, damn it. His brittle demeanor, his strange, rigid unwillingness to acknowledge a man who obviously knew him well. And now this paranoia. He was under terrible pressure, anyone could see that, but what was its nature? A Soviet contact, a mistress, a hidden illness?
The shadows were getting longer as the sun went down over the Hudson, the moment when the north–south avenues were half in darkness, and the east–west streets became, briefly, tunnels of golden light. At Seventy-First Street he stopped, his long spindly shadow in front of him. He glanced back once before turning into a side street, and for a moment I was sure he’d seen me. It wouldn’t have been hard; I was puffing, red-faced, and squarely in the middle of the sidewalk. But he missed me or else he covered seeing me extraordinarily well.
I rushed to the spot where he’d turned and then hesitated, evening pedestrians streaming past me. He could be standing just around the corner, ready to confront me. No way to tell. I nerved myself and stepped into the side street just in time to see Hiss’s tall dark figure turning into a distant doorway. I hurried after him, trying to keep a fixed sense of which door it was.
It was an unremarkable building, brick, six stories. A sign above the lintel called it
. I peered in at a tiny lobby: linoleum floor, stairwell, and a dark lift. Apartments or office building? I slipped inside and heard Hiss’s footsteps moving upward and out of reach. Was I really doing this? I had come this far. I pulled my shoes off and gingerly scrambled up the slippery marble steps in my frayed socks, past identical floors of identical hallways, doors receding in the distance. The footsteps stopped on the fifth floor and I stopped on the stairwell beneath, panting. I smelled pencil shavings, mimeograph liquid, old cigarettes. Whatever the mystery was, I was close to it.
It occurred to me fleetingly and too late that there might be actual danger here. If Chambers was right, there were people in the United States in 1948 who were sworn to a foreign power and ready to act against Americans. What if Hiss really was a secret agent? Would he kill to keep his secrets? He might. He could be executed for treason if caught. Communists were murderers and assassins, everyone knew that. I thought of the Czech foreign minister who had leaped or been pushed from a lavatory window out into the early-morning air, pictured vividly the few agonizing moments before he struck the pale stone streets of Prague.
I moved up a few more steps to look down the corridor. Hiss had stopped and was opening the last door on the left. It swung shut behind him. I crept close enough to read the number 519 on the door, cheap wood with a frosted-glass window sealing the mystery behind. I could hear Hiss moving around inside. Shuffling papers, typing. What now? The other offices seemed to belong to accountants, notaries, mail-order firms. The fourth floor was the same.
I walked away and came back and nothing had changed. I could feel in my gut just how bad an idea this was but couldn’t tear myself away now that I was so close. I thought about what I could do if I had proof of treason. Who could ignore me then?
The phone rang, and I heard Hiss pick up and begin speaking quickly, angrily, like a man at the end of his patience. I was leaning in closer trying to make out the words when he hung up and his footsteps came rapidly toward the door. I froze in embarrassment, stood there in the bare hallway as the doorknob rattled and the door swung open. I stepped back to avoid being hit in the face. What could he possibly think when he saw me? Words rose to my lips—an apology or a protest or an accusation, I’ll never know. Then the door began to swing closed and I saw Hiss’s narrow back. He was striding angrily away from me toward the stairs. I stared after him, flooded with adrenaline and animated by a strange idea. The door was still open; the answer to all my questions was just inside.
What I did next came from no conscious plan—my natural inborn genius for bad decision-making came to the fore and I made an uncharacteristically athletic and completely soundless leap forward, then lunged sideways through the closing door and into the unlit office beyond. The door swung to and clicked shut behind me. After that instant of frantic motion, the world became utterly still.
I stood in a small office consisting of one room with a single window fogged with dust that looked out onto an air shaft. I stood in the pale gray light, breathing hard from the sudden exertion, waiting for the moment Alger Hiss would come back. It was so perfectly possible—a forgotten wallet, a scrap of paper, anything at all. There would be nowhere to hide and no possible way to explain, but it was too late to think of that now.
And what had I found? It didn’t look like a lawyer’s office. A professor’s, perhaps, an antiquarian of a dozen disciplines.
A chipped wooden desk overflowing with papers; four high, overfull bookshelves crammed with old books, binders, and what seemed like small statuary; two gray metal filing cabinets. The walls were covered in papers of every description: maps, star charts, gravestone rubbings labeled with names of various New England towns.
The window was shut tight. It was still warm from the day’s heat. I breathed in the smells of old books and the sweat of a stranger working long hours in a tiny space. I carried a book to the window where I could read the title.
An Englishman’s Solitary Walk Through the Ural Mountain Regions and the Dire Events There Witnessed.
In succession I pulled down a heavily annotated copy of
Bradford’s History of Plimoth Plantation,
A Speculative Glossary of Early Etruscan,
and the more recent
Burgess Shale Anomalies: An Alarmist View,
which bore the stamp of the Peabody Museum at Harvard. I leafed through that one, looking at fanciful reconstructions of animals with five eyes and disturbing symmetries. On the desk, mimeographs of scholarly works on geology, linguistics, paleontology. What kind of spy was Alger Hiss, exactly?
Finally, rummaging in the drawers, I discovered a notebook marked
A diary. The handwriting within was barely legible, and it grew more ragged as the account went on.
It is with the greatest trepidation that I now set down the disturbing events of the past three years and of my visit to the place known as the Pawtuxet Farm. But I question whether the world should know of this. Perhaps the veil of benevolent illusion that clouds
our common understanding of the universe should remain undisturbed, for having seen these awful sights I shall never again sleep untroubled.
What was he getting at? More philosophical meanderings followed, none of which seemed too relevant. I turned the pages, looking for incriminating passages…
since earliest childhood I have been susceptible to morbid tendencies of the mind…
Was he a psychiatric case? That would explain a lot.
The documents provided proved susceptible to the cryptographic methods of the ancients but the phrases I laboriously revealed created in me a nameless discomfort, a foreboding of
…Jesus, this guy and his discomforts. Was he a spy or wasn’t he? I skipped ahead.
My newfound partners supplied me with promising information, but could they be trusted? The Smiling Woman in particular seemed capable of any violence or subterfuge in pursuit of her own interests, whatever they were. I had embarked down a dark and dangerous path in search of the truth but I couldn’t stop. All thought of a socialist future had ceased to concern me. I did my errands as usual but the abominable truth hinted at in that gentleman farmer’s writings were a more pressing concern. Could the two letters truly be in the same hand, a century and a half apart? What strange materials had arrived under cover of darkness on a Burmese sloop? And why had the Department of Defense issued a quarantine order?
Better! But it wasn’t a smoking gun. And his weird obsession with old letters didn’t add to the picture of a master conspirator.
I proceeded to the central building of which the letters had spoken, this one stone rather than wood or metal. I crept inside in search of the source of those awful cries, still feebly hoping Whittaker had been wrong. I don’t mind saying my hand trembled as it held the flashlight. The door seemed to have
been damaged by an indescribable…
Enough already! I turned over more pages. Photographs of State Department documents. Cargo manifests coming through Boston Harbor. Aerial surveillance photographs showing a row of long white buildings in desert terrain, time-stamped a few months ago. Numerous documents in Cyrillic characters, meaningless to me. I picked up the last few pages.
I was stunned. I now must question everything that has gone before. Did the Soviets even care about the information I supplied them with? Did Moscow orchestrate this hideous journey? Or has
[a name here was crossed out]
forced me to risk my reputation and perhaps my fucking sanity for her own…
Finally. I had no idea what the rest of it meant, but crazy Alger Hiss was a damned Communist. I glanced around, unwilling to leave the treasure-house just yet. I copied down a phone number I saw written on a scrap of paper. I searched for a few more minutes until I discovered a spare key to the office in the back of a drawer.
As long as he didn’t know I’d broken in, he’d leave everything where it was and ready for my return. The important thing was, there would be an absolute triumph in the press. I didn’t even need to feel bad about it because Alger Hiss was a dirty Commie spy. Dick Nixon was a hero.