NEW YORK -- Tony Hiss' Greenwich Village apartment is furnished much as it was when his parents moved in nearly 50 years ago: the same ancient mahogany desk, upright piano, couch, settee. And the mirror Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes left to his young law clerk, Alger Hiss, the mirror that came from a house used by the British army during the
American Revolution. Holmes used to say he could sometimes see in the looking glass the face of British commander Lord William Howe.
"Can you see it, sonny?" he'd say to Tony's father, Alger Hiss. "Can you see it?"
The gilt-edged walnut mirror hangs above the desk on the third floor at East 8th Street, reflecting the daily life of Tony Hiss -- writer, husband, father, inheritor of the mirror and of a singular American legacy. He is the only biological son of Baltimore native Alger Hiss, the accused Communist spy whose postwar trials divided the country and tore young Tony's home apart.
He and his wife, Lois Metzger, and their 5-year-old son, Jacob, have been rendering whole what was rent on the old Hiss battleground, where the strain of his father's trials and imprisonment finally drove a wedge between Tony's parents, who separated in 1959.
Tony's stable life today is far from the turmoil he experienced in these quarters so long ago, although he suggests no profound motives lay behind his decision to move back into the place with his fiancee after his mother, Priscilla, died in 1984.
"It's a nice apartment," he says.
Don't expect Tony Hiss to dramatize himself. Perhaps life has been dramatic enough. Those who meet Tony Hiss expecting a man obsessed with ghosts in the mirror will be disappointed. Along with a tragic past, he seems to have inherited from his father a buoyant spirit and a reluctance to look back in anger.
"If you just stay angry, the person you ultimately damage is yourself," says Hiss, scholar in residence at New York University's Taub Urban Research Center. "You're cutting yourself off from the richness and the wonder of things. It's a very isolating experience."
At 55, Tony Hiss is interested in the richness and the wonder of things. In examining how we interact with our surroundings, his last book, "The Experience of Place," invited the reader's awakening to the emotional and sensory impact of the environment. He is now writing a sequel to it focusing on transportation. Tony Hiss appears avidly engaged in questions of the present and the future, despite the frequent tug of the past.
When she married Hiss in 1986, Metzger, who met the writer while both were working for the New Yorker, had no idea how much of a part of their lives the Alger Hiss case would be.
"I thought this was all something that had happened 40 years ago and had nothing to do with anything," says Metzger, 41, who will soon publish her third novel for teen-agers. "To me it was so shocking that it was so alive I just didn't think people cared about it so much. They care about it passionately."
Every so often another phone call would come. Somebody writing a docudrama. Somebody writing an article. New information from the Soviet KGB or the CIA or the NSA would surface and some reporter would want Tony's reaction. Alger Hiss' reputation seemed to rise and fall over the last 20 years on the tide of new information and the political fortunes of Richard M. Nixon, who rode the Hiss case to national prominence as a young California congressman in the late 1940s.
After enough time and telephone calls, Metzger understood this was normal life in the Hiss household.
A man and a friend
When Alger Hiss died in a New York City hospital last month, four days after he turned 92, it was another occasion to revisit the passions aroused by the Hiss case. Tony Hiss did more interviews, talking about his father with affection.
This week, Tony joined the speakers at Saint George's Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan in a memorial service for the former diplomat who played a role in determining the shape of post-War Europe and in the founding of the United Nations. Before a gathering of about 800 people, Tony spoke about his father's qualities as a man and a friend, and described him as victim of anti-Communist fervor, the object of attacks that continue to this day as the merits of the case against him are bitterly debated.
After Alger Hiss died on Nov. 15, several columnists took the opportunity to open fire on him for insisting his entire life that he was innocent of espionage, a crime for which he was never tried because the statute of limitations precluded it. George Will wrote that Hiss had spent 44 months in federal prison after being convicted of perjury and "42 years in the dungeon of his grotesque fidelity to the fiction of his innocence."
Tony Hiss says he "only glanced" at the critical columns.
"I just find it very interesting that this phenomenon continues," he says. "They're trying to hang him all over again and try him posthumously. I think it's unfortunate. I think people are stuck and they don't know it."
George Will would say that Tony Hiss is stuck in the dungeon of denial with his father. Tony considers his father a devoted public servant who fell victim to a campaign conducted by a man Tony Hiss considers a pathological liar -- Whittaker Chambers -- and another he considers an unscrupulous, ambitious politician -- Nixon.
"I wasn't believing in my father because I had some mystical sense of his decency," he says. "I did have a very direct sense of his decency, but that wasn't why I couldn't bring myself to move beyond some kind of childish denial."
What convinces him of his father's innocence, he says, are the facts of the case. He has found particularly compelling his conversations with his older half-brother, Timothy Hobson, his mother's son from a prior marriage. Unlike Tony, Hobson was alive during the 1930s when Alger Hiss allegedly met with Chambers at the Hiss home in Georgetown. It was there that Hiss supposedly had confidential papers retyped by his wife, nicknamed Prossy, and passed them to Chambers, then a member of the Communist Party. In August 1948, Chambers first accused Hiss of espionage in hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Tony says that Hobson, "who is just the kind of person who if he had seen something would come forward and say it, always used to tell me, 'Hey, I was in the house. This guy wasn't coming over every couple of weeks. Alger wasn't bringing home papers. Prossy wasn't staying up at night typing them. This is all moonshine.' He's an eyewitness I could trust. If my brother told me that, that was the end of it."
Hobson, 70, was 22 years old and already living on his own in Manhattan by the time the Hiss case began unfolding. He recalls that Tony was "carefully protected in some ways all the way through the turmoil" through the attention of a psychiatrist and family friends.
Still, of the two brothers, Tony was closer to the impact of the scandal that enveloped the family.
As Tony Hiss recalls, he didn't see his father so much even before the case began, shortly after Alger Hiss moved his family to New York from Washington to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Tony can hardly forget the day his father first appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to deny Chambers' charges: Aug. 5, 1948, Tony's seventh birthday. Four months later, Alger Hiss appeared before a New York grand jury and was indicted for perjury.
His two trials -- the first ended in a hung jury -- lasted nearly a year during 1949 and 1950. During most of that time, Tony lived with friends of the family on the Upper East Side while attending the private Dalton School. His third-grade teacher, Carla Bigelow, recalls a "very quietly intelligent child" who seemed "rather bewildered by what was going on."
Tony was 9 when his father began serving a 5-year sentence at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa.
"What I remember is the trip down to see Al was not supposed to be fun," he wrote of his prison visits in his 1977 book about his LTC father, "Laughing Last." He recalled that he was "angry at Al for leaving me to live with a lot of men "
He stayed angry for a while. Also shaken into what he calls an emotional "suspended animation state because it's very scary to a little kid to think that people are ganging up on your dad and are coming to take him away. And you sort of freeze."
He and his father never were estranged, but they saw each other infrequently after Alger Hiss was released from prison in 1954. Tony was away at high school in Putney, Vt., then he went on to Harvard.
After graduating from college in 1963, Tony, who had worked on the Harvard Crimson, immediately landed a job as a staff writer on the New Yorker.
He had already decided not to follow his father's example and become a lawyer, having no interest in "the whole idea of adversarial litigation ... From an intellectual point of view you don't settle matters by just presenting arguments on both sides. That hadn't settled the history" of the Hiss case.
His relationship with his father grew closer as the years went on, as Tony Hiss established his own career and his own family. They talked often, meeting at each other's homes or at a favorite Italian restaurant. As Alger Hiss' eyesight failed in the last 10 years, Tony spent many hours reading to him, as law clerk Alger Hiss had done for Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1929. By the time Tony and Lois moved into the 8th Street apartment, the ghosts were easily exorcised.
"I was concerned we'd feel haunted," says Tony. But, "Lois reversed the position of the bookcase and the desk." Somehow that fixed it, he says.
In the last 20 years, Tony has written one book and four articles about his father.
In a 1992 piece for the New Yorker, he wrote that living through the Hiss case has been "like living inside a fairy tale, with a curse that couldn't be lifted."
And now? Now that his father is gone, has it been lifted?
"In some ways it certainly has," says Tony. "It's been very touching, moving, even overwhelming, the incredible outpouring of affection and sympathy that has been flooding in. Calls and letters That's really been very healing to hear."
Pub Date: 12/07/96