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I Witness

At one of those deadly rubber-chicken dinners, Clare Boothe Luce said to me, “When I meet a great man, a little bell inside of me goes ding! ding! ding!” She was not amused when I asked if the bell had dinged for Whittaker Chambers, and she huffily replied that she was referring to Winston Churchill. She was not putting Whittaker down. But like many in her social stratum, she would have preferred if he were not quite so paunchy and rumpled. Take 40 pounds off, put him in a Brooks Brothers suit, and she would more likely have considered his greatness. Alger Hiss may have been a traitor, but he was slim, debonair, and his snap-brim hat always snapped.

The time was well past the sweltering August day when Whittaker Chambers, one of Time/Life’s ranking editors, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming a round dozen members of a high-level Communist cell in the federal government and firing a shot that echoed for years. That list included Alger Hiss, once a rising star in the State Department as director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, secretary-general of the San Francisco conference that launched the United Nations, adviser to FDR at Yalta, and then president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Two days later, at his own request, an urbane and condescending Alger Hiss testified before HUAC. He not only denied that he had been a member of a Communist cell, but also that he had ever met “a man named Whittaker Chambers.” Only Richard Nixon, a freshman member of HUAC, pushed a panicked committee to continue its investigation, arguing that details of Hiss’s private life being provided by Chambers could only come from someone with an intimate knowledge of him.

Pressed to the wall, Hiss finally admitted that he had known Chambers as George Crosley, a “deadbeat” writer, though he insisted for a time that he could not make a positive identification until he knew the name of Whittaker’s dentist. Stripped of his defense, Hiss challenged Chambers to repeat his charges where they were not privileged so he could take libel action. Chambers did so on “Meet the Press,” and Hiss sued. In taking Whittaker’s deposition, Hiss’s lawyers demanded proof that Hiss was a member of a Communist cell. Chambers produced a stack of classified State Department documents copied on Hiss’s Woodstock typewriter and four memos in his handwriting. It was now a case of espionage, and since the statute of limitations under the Espionage Act had run out, Hiss was indicted for perjury.

As a Newsweek National Affairs editor, I had from the start been writing the stories on the Hiss-Chambers case, and they caught the attention of a publisher who signed me to do a book. I then set out to dig deeper. First step: talk to the protagonists. But Hiss’s lawyers said nay (“We can’t expose him to a Redbaiter”), and Chambers was talking to no one. A mutual friend interceded for me. “Talk to Toledano,” he said. “You can trust him.” Chambers called me, and I invited him to dinner. He arrived at 7 p.m., rumpled, out of breath, looking slightly apprehensive.

Está en su casa,” I said, and at those Spanish words of welcome Whittaker relaxed. He did not leave until well after 1 a.m. In that time, he fleshed out much that was missing from the news accounts of his recruitment and activities in the apparat. At the start, he warned me that he would “fuzz up” some names and details so as not to involve those not relevant to the case. When he mentioned a prominent literary agent who had been in the underground party and I said, “Maxim Lieber,” he gave me a sharp look. When he referred to the house in Greenwich Village where the microfilm had been processed, I said, “17 Gay Street” and named the owner. Again, he looked at me sharply. For a time, he suspected that I too had been in the underground. When we became friends, he realized that I had learned much as an investigative reporter on the “subversive beat.”

What he spoke of that night went far beyond the police aspect of the case and to its greater significance. It was a microcosm of the conflict between the God-based West and the secularist Marxist-Leninist East, a struggle for the soul of man. The freedoms under attack by what Hiss represented were a political reading of the Bible. Without God, all political and moral license was permissible. As I listened and learned, the little bell began to ring.

In the weeks before the trial, he was summoned to New York for the unremitting probe of what for years he had tried to forget, by FBI agents who called him “Uncle Whit” and by an outsize prosecutor, Tom Murphy, who would only say of himself, “My brother is the pitcher Johnny Murphy; I prosecuted some Nazi spies during the war; my clothes are made by Omar, the Tent-Maker; and I like to read Proust in the French.” After these sessions and during the nerve-draining days on the witness stand, my house became a haven where he could escape the world and recharge his batteries for the continuing ordeal.

During the trial, the pressroom at the federal courthouse on Foley Square was a battleground, the overwhelmingly pro-Hiss correspondents pitted against a pro-Chambers handful. On the first day of the trial, Tom Reynolds of Marshall Field’s Chicago Sun asked me, “Do you think Hiss is guilty?” I acknowledged that I did, and he reddened, spun on his heel, and thereafter cut me dead. Reporters for the Baltimore Sun and the Christian Science Monitor argued that the trial was a political lynching, while Victor Lasky of the New York World-Telegram sailed paper planes from the pressroom window inscribed, “Hiss is guilty.” Mirabile dictu, Bill Conklin of the New York Times reported with unflagging objectivity and in reward was consigned to the rubber-chicken circuit.

In the VIP spectators’ section, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wearing one of her yard-wide hats, snubbed the large contingent of Park Avenue ladies who cheered Alger and whispered in reporters’ ears that Chambers was a Jew. Then there was Lloyd Paul Stryker, Hiss’s famous and flamboyant lawyer, who when he made a point would turn to the jury and triumphantly shoot his cuffs. He took me aside once. “Toledano,” he said, “my wife reads your Newsweek stories, and she said to me this morning, ‘Lloyd, you’re just a ham.’ But I really feel it.” It was an expensive feeling; after the jury hung the first trial—the foreman had been reached—Hiss fired Stryker and refused to pay his bill.

The second trial was a dull replay of the first but for one comic passage. The defense had called Dr. Carl Binger, a psychiatrist, to testify that Whittaker Chambers had a “psychopathic personality.” Twelve symptoms of Whittaker’s psychopathology were cited, one of them being that he had repeatedly looked up at the ceiling during his testimony. Knocking each one down in cross-examination, prosecutor Murphy asked, “Doctor, do you know that in 50 minutes on the stand you have looked up at the ceiling 59 times?” There was a roar of laughter. When Harvard psychiatrist Henry Murray, formerly of the OSS and a cousin of Alice Longworth, testified that belief in Soviet espionage was a sign of “instability,” he squirmed and shifted in his seat. “Mrs. Longworth,” I asked her during a recess, “why did he squirm so much?” “Hemorrhoids,” she said.

Days after Hiss’s conviction, Whittaker, who had resigned from Time, told me of a letter from Henry Luce, his friend and employer, who had remained coldly aloof during the trial. “I too,” Luce commiserated, “have been facing an ordeal, trying to decide whether to run for the Senate.” He offered to reinstate Whittaker in his publishing empire and summoned him to New York to work out the details. Luce later reneged.

On the farm to which he withdrew after the trial, Whittaker would wake to the rising sun and the clamor of the birds before the husbandry of his farm, his cattle, and his sheep began. Sitting with me on the back porch as the kingfishers wheeled overhead, his speech was rich in historical allusions—the French Revolution, the marching sailors of Kronstadt, the rise of the Cromwellian mob—making them as alive as if he were there. On my visits, I worked with him taking in the bales of hay and watched him at milking time standing by the barn door patting each cow on the rump and calling it by name.

And so he was with animals. One morning when I had stayed over, I stood at the window, waiting for some sound so I could go down for breakfast. Looking out, I spotted a skunk not 15 yards from the house. I heard the door open and saw Whittaker walking toward the skunk. “O Lord,” I thought, “that tail is going to turn up and he’ll be sprayed.” He talked quietly to the animal, which turned and quietly moved away.

The days and months went by in which he tended his fields and his cattle, writing an occasional article for Life, Look, and other publications—beautifully written and reasoned pieces spelling out the time’s plague. Bill Rusher, publisher of National Review, described him as a “great ho-ho guy” whose wit could burble into hearty laughter. Yet he was burdened by a great sense of failure. “Because of Esther and the children, I cannot pray to God to let me die, but I cannot help from hoping that He will,” he wrote me. “There keeps running through my head an epitaph that Byron saw in an Italian graveyard: ‘implora eterna quietà.’ Add to this the feeling that it was all for nothing.”

Financial pressure led him to write Witness, a book that would become the bible of the burgeoning conservative movement. But he had little faith in it and repeatedly suggested that I read the work in progress to reassure him or to tell him to scrap it. It was only after a visit to his farm, when he drove me to the Baltimore station, that he thrust a manila envelope in my hands as the train rolled in—the first chapters of the book that he asked me to deliver to his agent. “You can read them if you wish,” he said. I sat with the envelope on my lap thinking unhappily, “Suppose it’s no good?” I read finally the first chapter, the “Letter to My Children,” and en plein railroad car, I cried. Later he told me that he had thought, “Suppose Ralph doesn’t like it? Suppose he thinks it’s all wrong?”

As he was completing the manuscript, he needed to check the accuracy of a quotation from Pliny’s letters that he planned to use. His reaction when he learned that the letters were out of print: “Lattimore a bestseller and Pliny out of print! If Alaric had not thought writing effeminate, our bookshelves would be crowded with I Liberated Rome.” It was in the same vein that he once brushed off a liberal-Left critic as “a man-eating squirrel.”

He had been struck down by his first heart attack when the English publisher asked for cuts of 150 of Witness’s 600 pages. Esther called me. “Will you do it? Whittaker says you’re the only one he can trust to do the job.” I did it, deleting what would be meaningless to English readers and also the passages about his eccentric family but elsewhere feeling that I was cutting into living flesh.

Witness had made him an icon for people high and low. Honors came to him, as did a flow of leaders and intellectuals. He had believed that this country had broken its compact with God and that only a religious resurgence would save it. So the support he received from Catholics meant much to him, as did the spiritually outstretched hands of priests holding beliefs that reached deeply into an ancient and mystical faith. Dick Nixon, who as senator and vice president turned often to Whittaker for counsel, urged that he and I organize a small Nixon brain trust. But this came to nothing when we realized that all he wanted was a cheering section.

Before the heart attack, Whittaker would spend evenings with me when he was in New York and sometimes allowed me to invite a few of the people who clamored to meet him. One was Hede Massing, a GRU recruiting “revolutionary mattress” who had testified in the Hiss trial. She was a bubblingly talkative woman, but in Whittaker’s presence she was uncharacteristically subdued. “How come?” I asked him after she left. He laughed. “Once an apparatchik, always an apparatchik. I’d had the simulated rank of colonel in the GRU, and she’d been no more than perhaps a lieutenant.”

Unable after two heart attacks to run his farm, he sold most of the acreage and moved from the homeplace, once a log cabin, to a small house farther away from passing traffic. He was trying to write a book on Russia, The Third Rome, but the drive was gone. He burnt most of what he wrote, producing perhaps a few paragraphs a week. Though Sen. Joe McCarthy tried to involve him in politics, Whittaker remained publicly aloof. “Joe McCarthy may be a rogue, but he’s our rogue,” he would remark to me.

Whittaker was tired, tired unto death, and certain that his witness had all been for nothing, that communism had triumphed not in its Soviet manifestation but in its concept of man and its infiltration of American culture. Feeling himself out of the American geist, he would refer to me and to himself as “we Mediterraneans,” finding comfort in the deeper roots of Europe and the poems of Saint John of the Cross that I had sent him. More and more, he sought the eterna quietà of the grave, to which his straining heart had given him easy means. “All I need to do,” he would say, “is to run rapidly up the stairs.” He was convinced that a Democratic victory in 1960 would lead to the reopening of the attack on him by a new Justice Department. He considered Nixon his protector, so the Republican defeat plunged him into deep gloom and fear for his wife and children. He died—perhaps a suicide, as he had intimated to me—in the summer of 1961.

He had known life and laughter, art and music, the benison of knowledge, a prophetic sense of life and history, the touch of hands. Well after the trauma of the Hiss trial and what followed, he had written, “When I was alone, you walked beside me. And when I was without a roof, you sheltered me. You gave yours. You were always there. In my groping way, I am trying to say that I remember.” I answered that I had given him little, but he had transformed my life, opening for me a glimpse of its pain and beauty, and the transcendence that was, is, and will be in saecula saeculorum. He had been father and son and brother to me, as I was to him. Not a day has passed since his death that I do not think of him.

I remember him as on one of those breathing spring days when he heard our car approach, opened his door, waved, and smiled. Perhaps on the End Day, if my sins are forgiven, I will once more see him at that open door, smiling in welcome. 


Ralph de Toledano is the author or editor of over 20 books, including Notes From the Underground: the Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters. 

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