The Paradox of Whittaker Chambers A newly published biography conjures the ghost of the rumpled outcast who embodied the Cold War.


The name was always lurking around the edges of memory, perhaps because it was just odd enough. Long after you forgot why you remembered it in the first place, there would still be this faint murmur from the Cold War, a double-exposure ghost in a black-and-white photograph: Whittaker Chambers. Whittaker Chambers? Weren't pumpkins involved?

And another strange name: Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss and Richard M. Nixon and Joseph R. McCarthy and maybe J. Edgar Hoover standing in the mind's eye in a faded Cold War snapshot, waving from the Iron Curtain like those old Soviets in bulky coats on Lenin's tomb. Turns out that the most obscure of the bunch, this Whittaker Chambers, has much to tell us about that strange time, about why we built all the bombs and fallout shelters and how Dr. Strangelove came to rescue Gen. Jack D. Ripper's precious bodily fluids.

You could see it unfold in Chambers, the tormented outsider, the ardent Communist turned rabid anti-Communist, the man reviled a "moral leper."

His ghost is lately much with us. It drifted through the news in November with the death of Hiss at 92. Now from Random House comes the 638-page "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography" by Sam Tanenhaus. A flood of high-profile book reviews has prompted a national seance calling forth the spirit of the man whose testimony helped send Hiss to prison.

In the 1948 photographs, Chambers always appears not to have slept in a week. Not yet 50, Chambers looks closer to 60 with his gray hair and his weary eyes and great bulk seeming to slouch beneath the press of an awful burden. Such a woeful, rumpled figure. There he sits at a packed congressional hearing behind one of those fat, antique microphones, his stubby fingers settled tentatively around the mike stand as if to quell their trembling. Looking at those pictures, it's easy to forget Chambers was the accuser, not the accused.

In the crowd behind him, there's this natty fellow. Slim, dapper in light suit and perfectly knotted necktie. He's bright-eyed and intent, but not terribly anxious. He could be a spectator at the opera. That's the accused Communist spy.

That's Alger Hiss, the man from Baltimore with the Ivy League education, the promising career and the gold-plated personal references. He looks far more than three years younger than Chambers and would outlive him by more than three decades. Hiss was still around when Chambers died in 1961 at his beloved Pipe Creek Farm north of Westminster. Hiss was still proclaiming his innocence when President Reagan awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom and declared the farm -- where Chambers stashed incriminating evidence against Hiss in a pumpkin -- a National Historic Landmark.

Maybe Chambers would have found in that gesture some of the vindication he never received in life. Chambers and Hiss shared that. They collided on the public stage, then spent the rest of their lives vainly seeking vindication.

Their confrontation was big. The "Great Case," Chambers called it.

This was not Kenneth Starr pecking away at a pack of real-estate hustlers. Here you had Chambers, senior editor of Time magazine, fingering Hiss, former diplomat and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Their battle split the country. Choose your man, define your politics: Chambers or Hiss. Something like a "religious war," wrote Alistair Cooke. He called his book on the case "A Generation on Trial."

Two generations later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. By then, Chambers had already faded into a footnote, a bit player from what seems another century.

Yet when Tanenhaus set out to write a book about the origins of the Cold War, the path led to Chambers. The result is the first comprehensive biography of the man one historian called "the most formidable and fascinating of all the Cold Warriors."

"You can see through Whittaker Chambers why there was such a thing as fanatical Communism among the American elite," says Tanenhaus, 41. "You can also see why there was anti-Communist hysteria.

"There's a paradox to Chambers. He's an outcast who stood somehow at the center of the great events of the era. He's one of those rare people that really embody the history of our time."

Pick an hour when the shadows fall heavily at Franklin and Cathedral streets, and it's easy to imagine him mounting the stone steps of the Young Men's Christian Association. The husky, fair-haired 33-year-old man took a room at the YMCA under the name Lloyd Cantwell. A serious-looking fellow with pale blue eyes, "mournful eyes," said novelist Josephine Herbst, who met him then and described him as "not too carefully groomed kindly, but rather melancholy."

He didn't smile much. When he did, he revealed an outcropping of brown, crooked teeth, a missing incisor. His clothes were bad and his teeth were worse. But what did he care? He was on a mission in Baltimore. Everything else was beside the point.

If he'd stayed the course in New York, who knows? Perhaps he was bound for big things in the literary world. He'd already had a Book-of-the-Month-Club hit with his translation of an Austrian children's book, "Bambi." He'd been editor of the Communist Party monthly The New Masses, where his short stories were grabbing the attention of New York's young intellectuals. The journal's former editor called him the city's "hottest literary Bolshevik."

Then the Communist Party asked him to go underground as a spy. He thought about it a while, discussed it with his new wife, Esther Shemitz. And then in 1932, he dropped out of sight.

"He could very well have been the next John Dos Passos or maybe even Edmund Wilson," says Tanenhaus. He gave it up for the cause, which he had joined as a college student in 1925.

In the depths of the Depression, the Communist Party exerted a strong pull on the American intelligentsia and working classes alike. Some went to Russia to help build a Utopia. Some went to Spain to fight the fascists.

Chambers went to Baltimore. It was close enough to Washington to keep in touch with his government contacts. It was far enough away to keep a low profile.

He stayed about a month at the YMCA, then moved to 903 St. Paul St. He would live on Eutaw Place, Mount Royal Terrace and Auchentoroly Terrace and in Woodlawn. Chambers moved his family from apartment to apartment in what he called "a kind of organized flight." Chambers spent about four years in Baltimore with sojourns in New York and Pennsylvania and a brief stay with Alger Hiss in Georgetown.

He conducted furtive meetings with contacts in the U.S. government, receiving and photographing confidential papers and delivering the material to his contact in New York, a man named Boris Bykov. His most productive source of confidential documents in the government, he claimed, was Hiss, who moved to the State Department from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in 1936.

Chambers professed to love Baltimore for its gentle pace and its architecture, but in the brooding prose of his 1952 autobiography "Witness," Charm City seems less the landscape of H. L. Mencken than Franz Kafka. It's how Chambers saw the world: in black and white and directed by Fritz Lang with strong overtones of foreboding. In Baltimore, he had good reason. He lived much of his time here in fear of assassination.

By 1938 Stalin was sending millions of people to the gulag or the executioner for alleged crimes against the revolution. Several of Chambers' colleagues vanished in the terror. Chambers decided seen enough of communism. That spring he turned to Christianity and broke with the party.

In Baltimore, he would emerge from the underground, but never quite escape the shadow of impending doom.

If we can agree on a few symptoms of the Cold Warrior state of mind -- being edgy, fearful, suspicious of strangers and aware of omnipotent danger -- then Chambers was prepared for it well before anyone had heard of Stalin or the atomic bomb. In his home on Long Island, he learned that the world is hostile, that safety may lie behind a mask of your own creation.

Born in Philadelphia in 1901, Chambers grew up in Lynbrook, where his "family drama," as therapists say, might have been written by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.

The boy was apparently shunned by his father, Jay, a graphic artist, who took little interest in his family. Chambers was 7 when his father left and went to live a homosexual life in Brooklyn. About a year later, he returned more withdrawn than ever. He took his meals alone and drank a lot, dying of liver disease at 53.

Meanwhile, the boy's mother, a frustrated actress and erstwhile waitress named Laha Whittaker Chambers, pursued doomed fantasies of an upper-middle-class life on Long Island.

Chambers' maternal grandmother, Mary Whittaker, lived with the family as she declined into a deranged senility in her 70s. She often wandered the house in a sealskin coat armed with a kitchen knife, holding forth against invisible adversaries. Chambers was occasionally called upon to disarm his grandmother. She usually put up a fight.

His kid brother, Richard, who also drank heavily, committed suicide at 23 by inhaling fumes from a gas oven at his apartment in Rockville Centre. The suicide in 1926 intensified Chambers' embrace of communism. The death crystallized for him everything that was wrong with his home in particular, capitalist society in general.

"I used to wish that the house would burn down with all its horrors," he wrote in "Witness."

Then there was his name, the name his parents put on him like a curse: Jay Vivian. Jay for his father, Vivian in homage to one of his mother's dear friend's English ancestors. Everyone called him Vivian. Except his father, who called him by the derisive nickname "Beadle."

Vivian or Beadle -- a humiliation either way. He would spend much of his adult life trying to outrun his own name.

He would briefly become Charles Adams. Then Charles Whittaker, then Whittaker Chambers. In the Communist underground he would be Karl, Bob, David Breen, Hugh Jones, Arthur Dwyer, Lloyd Cantwell. Hiss remembered him as George Crosley.

His shifting identity extended not only to his name and politics, but also his sexual preference.

As a Communist spy in Baltimore he wore mask upon mask, pursuing clandestine meetings both for espionage and homosexual sex. In his mind the two lives were intertwined. During the Hiss investigation, he gave the FBI a letter acknowledging that he conducted homosexual liaisons in public parks and hotels in New York and Washington while working in the underground.

In his day, that made him the outsider's outsider, a role that he seemed to find comfortable. Tanenhaus says Chambers seemed most at ease as a Communist -- a pariah who belonged to a "fellowship of pariahs."

Before there was Sam Ervin vs. John Dean, before Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas, there was Chambers vs. Hiss, a showdown before the House Un-American Activities Committee on what became known as "confrontation day": Aug. 25, 1948. For the first time, television would broadcast congressional testimony live from the U.S. House of Representatives caucus room. The gallery that sweltering morning was packed with 1,200 spectators.

The very private man pulled into the spotlight made an underwhelming first impression.

The dark suit, white shirt, solid black tie. The suit wrinkled, the collar askew. He had not slept the night before and looked exhausted. Even Richard M. Nixon, then a first-term California congressman pursuing Hiss with a vengeance, later remarked in writing on the unkempt appearance of his star witness.

Amid the great drama of the moment, Chambers spoke softly with little inflection. His deep voice with a trace of New York accent frequently trailed off. Nixon found him an "indifferent if not a reluctant witness."

Chambers later professed to find the role of informer loathsome. This was Alger Hiss, after all, whom he claimed had been his closest friend in the underground. He always spoke of Hiss with great affection, which fueled speculation about the nature of their relationship. Hiss, he said, was a man of great warmth and gentle spirit.

But Chambers felt he had no choice. Nine years before, he had told the federal government what he knew about the Communist underground. His comments were on record. He claimed he was pushed toward the witness chair by the tide of history. As he told the committee that day: "in a moment of historic jeopardy in which this nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise."

It was strange testimony -- part accusation, part confession, a witness in the old-time religious sense. A martyrdom.

After two trials -- the first of which ended in a hung jury -- Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury in 1950 for lying to a grand jury about his meetings with Chambers. He served 44 months in federal prison.

Months before the conviction, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. Weeks after, in West Virginia, first-term Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin told a crowd that he had a list of "card carrying Communists" in the State Department.

Homeowners started turning their cellars into fallout shelters, stocking up on canned goods and bottled water. People wondered about a conspiracy to fluoridate the water supply. The Red Menace was upon us.

Chambers, one of very few Americans to actually see communism up close, had meanwhile changed into denim and khaki, donned a baseball cap and withdrawn to the rural seclusion of Pipe Creek Farm in the gentle hills of Carroll County.

Visitors still show up for a peek at a Cold War shrine. They turn off Saw Mill Road East and drive through the brick gateway, past the spruce trees and up a gradual slope in the dirt driveway. If the caretaker's around, they'll ask: Is this the Chambers farm?

"Numerous times I've been asked, 'Where's the pumpkin patch?' " says Fred Hensen, who's been taking care of the place for about 18 years for the owners, George W. Della and his son, state State Sen. George W. Della Jr.

They want to see The Spot. They want to see where Chambers, lover of melodrama, stashed some microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin.

Forget it. There's no sign of a the patch. Nothing but a grassy swatch northeast of the red barn. Nothing marks the farm as a National Historic Landmark. Don't look for a plaque, because there never was one. Not even a sign saying the place is for sale, which is it: $640,000 gets you 40 acres, a house, barn, tractor shed and all the Cold War ghosts.

How appropriate. The man of many secrets honored by a private landmark, its presence invisible to the casual observer. Whittaker Chambers? Did he live here? Wasn't he the anti-Communist zealot?

Well, yes and then no.

For a time he acted as adviser to McCarthy, who would come visit at the farm. On one occasion, Chambers engaged in McCarthyism himself when he recklessly smeared as a Communist a State Department Asia expert. The man's career was ruined.

But as anti-communism raged in America, Chambers again found it necessary to step outside his circle. In his late 50s, the hard-core ideologue was apparently growing weary of ideology. For the first time in his adult life, he was seeing shades of gray.

He eventually repudiated McCarthy, but too late to help all those whose lives had been wrecked. In the National Review, of all places, he argued against the excesses of government wire-tapping and mail tampering. He sounded like a liberal, or at least a conservative civil libertarian.

Here was the great sage of anti-communism writing in support of actor Paul Robeson, who was denied a passport for refusing to declare whether he'd ever been a Communist. Chambers also supported giving a passport to another accused Communist: Alger Hiss.

Hiss had been released from jail by then, had published a book making the case for his innocence. It was the beginning of a public campaign that would go on in vain for 40 years.

Die-hard Hiss supporters still believe Chambers was a pathological liar, a tool of a politically-motivated scheme to frame Hiss. But little reasonable doubt remains that Chambers was right about Hiss.

Tanenhaus, who describes himself as a "mail order liberal," came to that conclusion. So did Allen Weinstein, who wrote "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," considered the most exhaustive study of the evidence. And the end of the Cold War opened the archives of former enemies, providing more material against Hiss.

Chambers did not live to see it. Did not live to see the historic anti-climax of the Cold War: We, uh, won.

The last of a series of heart attacks came before dawn on July 9, 1961. The family waited two days to announce his death. He died without revising his belief that in switching from communism to anti-communism he had, as he put it, left "the winning world for the losing world."

Typical Chambers, says Tanenhaus.

"Chambers was only interested in the battles he could lose. Cause that's what tragedy is. [His] was a tragic American life."

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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