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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
By late 1939, thanks to the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Communist espionage system in the United States was in a shambles. Chambers himself had been exposed by a former comrade, and only the most naive or doctrinaire of men would have continued, as Hiss apparently did as late as February, 1945, to try to funnel information secretly to the Soviet Union. Despite the wartime alliance, suspicion of Stalin remained endemic, and the Yalta pact, negotiated to a small extent with Hiss’s assistance, had caused cries of outrage. From 1942 on, as we have seen, Hiss had warnings that he was suspect. Still he trusted to simple denial.
Denial had been a way of life in the Hiss family. Alger was not yet three years old when his father, a Baltimore businessman, had cut his throat with a razor. Although there must have been a lot of blood and hysteria in the home at the time, Hiss insisted that only his two older sisters knew and that he and his two brothers grew up in ignorance of the suicide. The conspiracy of deception on the part of mother, sisters, relatives, and friends remained unshattered until he was an adolescent, when a neighbor told him the truth. Bosley, the eldest brother, then sought out the Baltimore newspaper obituary and brought home the grisly details.
Later Bosley Hiss, whom Alger called “a near genius,” ran away from home several times, drifted into dissipation, and died at twenty-six of a kidney ailment said to have been “alcohol induced.” Alger admitted eventually that Bosley had too many women, too much alcohol, and a disposition to shock, to “épater les bourgeois.” These traits he never admired he said. Still, no one was to shock his mother and her bourgeois friends more than Alger, who destroyed himself no less certainly than had his father and older brother.
Two years after Bosley’s death, an older sister, Mary, who had been in and out of sanatoriums, killed herself after a midnight quarrel with her husband. The manner of her death, like Bosley’s alcoholism, was buried in still another conspiracy of Hiss family denial. Later Alger Hiss, out of a sense of propriety, would also cover up the fact that Priscilla Pansier Hobson, whom he wanted to marry, had had an abortion. Still later he would try to hide the fact that his stepson had been discharged from the Navy for emotional problems relating to homosexuality. All these cover-ups, for whatever motive, confirm the role of denial in his life and help to explain his naive and steadfast habit of lying when questioned about himself.
Hiss, who counted himself the least loved of five children, described his childhood as “female dominated,” with a mother, Minnie Hiss, who was an “unloving” woman who never lost an argument. “All we got from Minnie was preaching,” Hiss said. Although he told his defender, Dr. Meyer Zeligs, that from the earliest time he could remember “he knew it was necessary to resist his mother’s will,” and that he was contemptuous of her insistence that he be “especially pleasant to important people,” he did develop a special skill at cooperating with dominating people—his mother, older siblings, teachers, bureaucrats, and finally Presidents.
Hiss married a woman who, like his mother, had conspicuously preferred others to himself. Priscilla Pansier rejected him first to marry Thayer Hobson. After Hobson abandoned her for another woman, she had an affair with a New York newspaperman, who refused to marry her when she became pregnant. Hiss comforted her through the abortion and finally won her for his wife.
Priscilla Hiss was one of the new women of the twenties, demanding respect for her own intellect and career, dabbling in Marxism and psychoanalysis and also, somewhat incongruously, converting to Quakerism. Donald Hiss in 1939 described her privately as “a red hot Communist” but later testified that neither she nor his brother had been Party members any more than himself. Some of Hiss’s defenders, like Eleanor Roosevelt, and for a time his lawyers, thought he was lying to protect his wife. But there is abundant evidence that by the early 1930’s both Hiss brothers and Priscilla were united in their secret dedication to the Party.
According to Chambers, Hiss’s commitment was total. Unlike most of the young idealists flirting with the Party who thought joining a secret Communist cell no more sinister than becoming a Freemason, Hiss turned early to espionage. When Chambers first met him, he was an aide to Francis B. Sayre, Assistant Secretary of State. For a period of about two years he copied or summarized cables that came across Sayre’s desk and turned them over to Chambers for transmission to Soviet agents for photographing. Priscilla, a better typist than her husband, copied Hiss’s summaries and occasionally whole cables on her Woodstock typewriter.