Tony Hiss' local roots prompted magazine article on the city


April 21, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

NEW YORK — New York--Baltimore means many things to many people, and it does also to Tony Hiss, not the least because his family settled in the city more than 200 years ago. There's also the matter of his having spent the last year giving it the up-close-and-personal look for an article for the New Yorker. He likes the Inner Harbor, of course, and the municipal markets and the neighborhoods.

And then there's the tomato aspic.

We'll get to that later, but these are only some of the reasons Tony Hiss is charmed by Charm City. His upbeat depiction of the city, culled from interviews that ranged from Mayor Kurt Schmoke to a butcher at the Northeast Market, will appear in the April 29 issue of the New Yorker, which should be out early this week.

Although it was not his intention, writing the article was a coming home of sorts, Mr. Hiss acknowledges in an interview in his sunlit office in the new digs of the New Yorker.

"My grandmother lived there, so I was always going back to Baltimore as a kid," says Mr. Hiss, 49, a pleasant, low-key sort with an understated, self-deprecating wit that sneaks up on you. "I still have a cousin there."

Although he has lived in New York for most of the past 40 years, Mr. Hiss says that Baltimore "is a city I've had an affection all my life for, although largely from afar. My dad [Alger Hiss] being a Baltimorean, I grew up hearing about Baltimore and followed its resurgence with great interest, and wanted to know what the next step might be.

"Because I grew up hearing so much about the place, to me it seemed natural to write about three flowerings of Baltimore -- one, in the early years of the century after the [1904] fire, when my dad remembered it; the second, culminating in the Inner Harbor and redevelopment; and the prospective third one -- what's next. . . . I think there are signs that good things could be in the works. I see a lot of hopeful signs."

That hopefulness was apparent, he says, compared to the cynicism he sees every day in New York.

"People in Baltimore were as friendly as I had always heard they were," he says. "I'd say it was more reassuring than surprising, finding how many good people were devoting their best efforts to think about what comes next for Baltimore. It was a very encouraging sign, particularly to a New Yorker, because this city has developed an unfortunate habit of pessimism in the last couple of decades.

"One of the greatest achievements of what I was calling the second flowering of Baltimore is that the people really broke through that and regained not only a sense of themselves but a sense that they could get things done."

Perhaps because of his familiarity with the city, Mr. Hiss picks out aspects of the city that go beyond the more obvious parts, such as the Inner Harbor. He calls Baltimore "a city of unsung treasures," and that's where the aspic comes in.

"There are three rooms that I write about that became real favorites of mine, and that I kept coming back to, from the older Baltimore," he says. "One is the main reading room in the library of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, a wonderful place. Then there's the children's department of the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library -- I've never seen a room designed with such care to make reading something that a kid would just demand to do. And then there was the Woman's Industrial Exchange, where I would have lunch whenever I could.

"This may be because of my own upbringing, but the chicken salad and aspics reminded me of the food I ate when I was growing up. It was ambrosia to me" -- he breaks into a slight grin -- "and I liked the fact that the wonderful old waitresses there are the last living link to the old downtown department stores, such as Hutzler's -- the great dining rooms people would eat at when they came to Howard Street to shop."

Occasionally, he says, he would be asked about his last name, and whether he was related to the Alger Hiss -- the native Baltimorean and former State Department official who was accused of being a communist and spy, and spent nearly four years in prison in the early 1950s.

"It depended on the age of the questioner -- the early 40s is the cutoff," Mr. Hiss says. "Some people would just respond to it as an old Baltimore name, because there is a Hiss United Methodist Church somewhere up Harford Road, and then others in their 50s would remember the historical events. But the younger people -- nothing."

In "Recollections of a Life," published in 1988, Alger Hiss wrote of the impact his imprisonment had on Tony, who was 10 when his dad began his prison term in 1951. After a while, he writes, Tony stopped coming to see him at Lewisburg (Pa.) Penitentiary: "The prison visits had been too troubling for him."

And in his own book, "Laughing Last: Alger Hiss," published in 1977, Tony Hiss acknowledges he started seeing a psychiatrist during his father's imprisonment and had dreams about stepping in front of trains.

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