- Historic Sites
“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Although the long sessions in the battered rocking chairs on his farmhouse porch deepened the trust Whittaker Chambers felt for Nixon, the latter was troubled by persistent rumors—later stated openly by Hiss—that Chambers was an alcoholic, that he had been in a mental institution, and that he was a homosexual. Every aspect of his story that could be checked by committee investigators was checked. Nixon as a canny lawyer probed Chambers’ memory looking for weakness and dissimulation. He found no evidence of alcoholism and became satisfied that the rumors of hospitalization for mental illness came from Chambers’ two serious heart attacks, one of which meant months of rest in bed.
He could hardly have escaped learning about Chambers’ ferociously damaged childhood, which later was described in the apocalyptic Witness . There Chambers told almost everything about his childhood and youth save that his father had been a homosexual. An unwanted baby, given a name he detested, Vivian, he had grown up in genteel poverty in Lynbrook, Long Island. His mother, a frustrated actress, was intent chiefly on seeing that he grew up into a man of “breeding.” His father, a talented but chronically depressed artist, ignored both his sons, and finally ran off with a male lover when Chambers was nine. His mother put her two sons in her bedroom, kept an axe in the closet for protection, and vowed she would live “entirely for her children.” “A woman with an axe is a match for any man,” she said. Chambers never quite escaped the cot in his mother’s bedroom. Even as senior editor of Time , he would spend five nights a week with his mother in the old Lynbrook home and the weekend with his wife and two children on the Maryland farm.
Whittaker’s father, Jay Chambers, had returned after two years but had lived in continued estrangement from his family in an upstairs bedroom. His own mother, Grandmother Chambers, who had become psychotic, also moved into an upstairs bedroom. When she emerged at all it was to tell gentle memories of her peaceful Quaker childhood or to scream that she was being poisoned with kitchen gas and to threaten her sons and grandsons with scissors and kitchen knives. Young Chambers’ hands were scarred, he said, “where the scissors missed my father and caught me.” For years, he said, “this dark, demoniac presence sat at the heart of our home.”
As an adolescent, Chambers had been fat, effeminate, and friendless. He ran away from home and lived for a time as a day laborer under an assumed name. It was the first of many identities. When he returned, he entered Columbia University. Lionel Trilling, who put him in a novel, said he moved in a group of young men “of intimidating brilliance” despite a physical presence “calculated to negate youth and all its graces,” especially his mouth, which was “a devastation of empty sockets and blackened stumps.”
Chambers’ formidable talents as a linguist and fledgling writer were recognized by his adviser, Mark Van Doren. His one-act drama, A Play for Puppets , published under a pseudonym in the Columbia Morningside , betrayed the death fantasies that would always plague him. It also included a scene in which Roman centurians idly discussed the recently crucified Christ. One says casually, “They say he never lay with a woman.”
When Dean Herbert Hawkes found the play blasphemous and ordered Chambers to confiscate all copies and make a public apology, he refused and left college. Shortly afterward he joined the Communist Party, finding among tough labor organizers and disciplined Party men and women, most of them immigrants, what seemed to be a dedicated brotherhood. They gave him orders, told him never to drink and to forget about the pursuit of wealth. And they promised to save the world.
The childhoods of Nixon and Chambers were similar in that each had felt himself to be the least loved by his parents. Each too had seen a more favored brother die after a harrowing period of illness—as had Hiss also. Richard Chambers, the younger son, handsome as Whittaker was not, and a natural athlete, had returned from college drinking heavily and depressed, and had begged his brother to join him in death. For two years the family had faced the relentlessly aggressive and numbing behavior of the alcoholic and would-be suicide. Twice Whittaker had resuscitated Richard when he found him in a coma from inhaling kitchen gas and he never recovered from guilt over not having been present to save him on the night he succeeded in killing himself.
Chambers wrote that his brother’s suicide made him an “irreconcilable” Communist. Communism, he said, “speaks insistently to the human mind at the point where desperation lurks,” and the choice seemed to him at the time as one “between a world that is dying and one that is coming to birth.” Eleven years later he had come to believe the Party to be “the malevolent god that failed,” and he had begun, “like Lazarus,” the impossible return. This led him through a religious conversion, first to Episcopalianism, and finally to the Quaker Church of his grandmother’s childhood. He would describe it as “a transit that must be made upon the knees or not at all.”