From a Son's Point of View
Laughing Last Alger Hiss by Tony Hiss Houghton Mifflin, 194 pg. $8.95.
THE CROP OF biographies appearing in bookstores recently has been grim, glutted with post-Watergate tales of sin, the Fall, and redemption by the likes of Haldeman, Colson, Dean, Magruder and, eventually Nixon. So Tony Hiss '63 does us all a service with his bittersweet offering Laughing Last, a readable and engaging biography (if it can be classified as such) of his father, Alger Hiss. While the Nixon gang and assorted witnesses and prosecutors continue to churn out bestsellers, this slim volume may be lost in the flood tide of confessions, which is a shame, because Hiss brings a great deal of honest emotion and reflection to his subject, a claim his competitors hardly can make.
The younger Hiss gives us the fascinating story, in fragmented form, of his father's life; a story of bizarre twists of fate and lasting disappointments to be sure, but also one of some happiness. If the name Alger Hiss sounds familiar, but you can't really place it, he was the center of a national crisis of sorts in the late 1940s over whether Communists had penetrated into high levels of the government. In 1948, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a man named Whittaker Chambers had accused Hiss, the head of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace and a respected New Dealer with stellar legal and social credentials, of being a Communist. Later Chambers, a self-admitted former Communist spy, added that Hiss had passed State Department documents to the Communist underground in the 1930s. Hiss vigorously denied the accusations, but after two trials on perjury charges he was convicted and sent to prison. Freed after some 44 months in Lewisburg federal prison, Hiss continued to plead his innocence. To this day, he has remained for some an American Dreyfus, persecuted by the far right for the crime of being a liberal Democrat, his case a disturbing prelude to McCarthyism. To others, the facts call for a different interpretation: Hiss is a modern day Benedict Arnold.
Tony Hiss has decided wisely against a headfirst entrance into the debate. His father is currently pushing for a complete vindication through the courts; Laughing Last, therefore, steers clear of extended technical discussions of the Woodstock typewriter and the Pumpkin Papers microfilm, the evidence dear to the scholars of the case, and instead concentrates on the personal side of Alger Hiss and with equal success, on Tony Hiss his son. This is not to suggest Tony Hiss has any doubts about his father's innocence; on the contrary, quite clearly he thinks a great injustice has been done. Rather than dredging up inconsistencies in the trial transcripts or excoriating the witchhunters and their allies (as Lillian Hellman does in Scoundrel Time), he tries to build a case for the implausibility of Alger Hiss betraying his employers, his family and his country. It is his hope that some pieces in the puzzle called the Hiss case will fall into place and lead us to the conclusion, inevitably, that Alger Hiss couldn't have done what he was charged with.
ALGER HISS has always been something of a mystery. His own book on the case, In the Court of Public Opinion, written after his prison term, is a dry, legal brief attempting to prove how Chambers had practiced "forgery by typewriter," but reveals little of the feelings and emotions expected of a man when he is forced to defend his character and honor in an increasingly hostile arena. The reviewers panned the book and the public didn't buy it.
Laughing Last is much closer to the book Alger Hiss should have written. If Tony Hiss errs, it is on account of a candor that at times is almost too blunt. We are told more about the sex lives of father and son than perhaps we want to know. But that flaw is understandable, the idea behind the book is to get us to see Alger Hiss as do those close to him, as "Al", the disciplined, kind, warm father and husband who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So we learn of Al's love for baseball and his Lewisburg homerun (astounding the other inmates), his enthusiasm for the law, and his bleak days in New York City standing in the unemployment line next to actor Jack Gilford. The best part of the book chronicles Hiss's stay in prison and his troubles after returning to civilian life.
While in Lewisburg, the elder Hiss made his share of friends, the closest being, surprisingly, the Italian convicts who dubbed him "Alberto" and watched after him. At one point, these friends introduced Hiss to Mafia chieftain Tony Costello, who claimed he had been put away on a bum rap, too. There is the chilling story of two cons, incited by a prison guard, who seriously contemplated killing Hiss until talked out of the idea by one of Alberto's friends. Then, after being released, Hiss faced the frustration of trying to find work with a shattered reputation and a disintegrating marriage. But because of his father's inner strength, Tony Hiss tells us, his father has emerged scarred but happy, laughing best because he is laughing last.
In a sense, this is a dual biography. Tony Hiss is as frank about his own life as he is his father's. He displays what seems to be a characteristic sense of humor; informing us, for example, that the infamous rug Whittaker Chambers alleges he gave Alger Hiss as payment from the Russians is now his prize possession. There are his own bad times too--he had to learn how to adjust to an overconcerned mother and a father in prison as well as the normal challenges of adolescence. Like his father, though, Tony Hiss says he is now a happy man. A former Crimson editor, he has been working for The New Yorker for over ten years and on the side has been putting out a magazine called The Real World.
THE STYLE throughout much of Laughing Last is choppy and down to earth--deliberately so. It seems the technique is intended to give the reader the feeling of a friend informally telling him the family secrets--closeted skeletons and all--over a drink. Sometimes, however, this tape-recorder like roughness creates non sequiturs. With a few exceptions, though, the unbuttoned style is a success, drawing us into the story, giving it immediacy and, in the end, making us care.
What will probably hurt the reception of Laughing Last is Tony Hiss's handling of the Hiss case itself. Because he is not making a legal argument, or reviewing the evidence, he touches only briefly upon the major issues. He is content to recapitulate his father's well-known version of the story, which is already in the public record, and to quote the opinions of former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who finds the case a shocking miscarriage of justice. Because of the sketchiness of his defense, some people are going to say that he has failed to clear his father. But that is not Tony Hiss's purpose.
Still, we are given a fair share of fresh insights into the motivations of Alger Hiss throughout the living nightmare of the HUAC accusations and the trials. For one thing, his father's originally incredulous attitude towards the charges, perceived by some as patrician arrogance, is cleared up by Tony Hiss--until the vote of the jury in the first perjury trial (8-4 for conviction) Alger Hiss honestly thought no one could take Chambers seriously. And more importantly, Hiss, we discover, had to face not only the immense pressure of the trials but also that of keeping his marriage together. The furor surrounding the case so rattled his wife Priscilla that she verged on hysterics during much of the trial period. Also, it was Alger Hiss's decision to keep Timmy Hobson Hiss, Tony's half-brother, from testifying. Timmy, Tony Hiss believes, could have destroyed Chambers' story of constantly visiting the Hiss household in Washington during the '30s but his father was unwilling to see him take the stand and perhaps face questioning about a homosexual encounter in the Navy. (There was some fear as well that Priscilla's illegal abortion, before her marriage to Hiss, would be raised during the trial.)
HOW DID ALGER HISS get into the spot he did? Tony Hiss sees the case as another example of his father's inability to protect himself. In a way, he finds Alger Hiss to be the perfect fall guy--a loyal and decent man unable to use in his own defense some of the same weapons his enemies have brought to bear against him. There is little bitterness or handwringing on Tony Hiss's part; the thesis of his book is that rather than destroying or humiliating Alger Hiss, adversity has brought out his best qualities. It is a mixed picture though. "People who have an explanation for Al's behavior these days tend to see him either as an unregenerate old villain or a spotless martyr," he writes. "But I'm in a curious position and don't have to see him as saint or sinner."
Laughing Last probably won't change anyone's opinion about the Hiss case. But for that matter, it is doubtful Allen Weinstein, the Smith College professor who claims Alger Hiss was lying all along, will make any converts when his book appears in the spring. The case is too complex, the evidence often hard to make sense of, and the passions still running too high for a dispassionate analysis. Substantive questions do remain and they are left unanswered by Laughing Last, though they probably will not be answered completely by anyone in the near future.
In fairness to the premises of this book, however, the younger Hiss is not trying to play Sherlock Holmes or to refute his father's critics point by point. He is trying to share his perceptions of a very private man, a man he cannot conceive of having committed the crime with which he was charged. And he succeeds as presenting himself as a powerful character witness for Alger Hiss--the book is worth reading for that testimony alone. But the vindication his father is now seeking, if it is to be won, will not be found through an effort like this, but rather through the courts, where Alger Hiss's nightmare began.