Many Baltimoreans held hope the brilliant youth they knew would be cleared

October 30, 1992|By James Bock and Melody Simmons | James Bock and Melody Simmons,Staff Writers

Edward M. Passano is an Alpha Delta Phi, as is Alger Hiss, and Mr. Passano gloried in his fraternity brother's good news yesterday.

"I think Alger was railroaded pretty much," said Mr. Passano, 87, a member of the Johns Hopkins University Class of 1927, a year TC behind Mr. Hiss. "I think the bulk of my friends felt pretty much as I did. I think the majority felt loyal to him, and I was certainly one."

A Russian general's declaration that Alger Hiss was not a Communist spy is the latest evidence in a case that first polarized Baltimore in 1948. The Hiss-Chambers case particularly pained the city because Mr. Hiss was a Baltimore native and a standout alumnus of the Johns Hopkins University.

Mr. Passano, former president of the Waverly Press, is among the few Baltimoreans old enough to remember Mr. Hiss before his career was destroyed by a 1950 perjury conviction following Whittaker Chambers' accusation that Mr. Hiss was a spy.

The word that almost all Mr. Hiss' contemporaries use to describe him is "brilliant."

The son of a well-to-do dry-goods merchant who committed suicide, Alger Hiss grew up on Linden Avenue in Bolton Hill, played in Druid Hill Park, worshiped at Memorial Episcopal Church, attended City College and was a star at Hopkins.

Mr. Hiss made Phi Beta Kappa and was editor of the college newspaper, president of the student council and head of the dramatic society.

The late William L. Marbury, who grew up with Mr. Hiss and later represented him in a libel suit against Mr. Chambers, wrote in the Maryland Historical Magazine that Hopkins undergraduates claimed that the "college administration all treated Alger as if he had a mortgage on Gilman Hall."

"Alger was a brilliant guy," Mr. Passano said. "He was so smart that wherever we went he stood out as the leader. He was smart as hell, a very personable, attractive guy who could have had almost any woman in Baltimore."

After Harvard Law School, Mr. Hiss plunged into the brilliant career that everyone expected of him -- key positions at the State Department and, in 1946, presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The accusations Mr. Chambers made against him in 1948 -- that Mr. Hiss was an underground Communist who passed Mr. Chambers secret government documents in the late 1930s for delivery to the Soviet Union -- shocked Baltimore.

"Baltimore was aghast," said James H. Bready, a former editorial writer for The Evening Sun. "Here was Hiss, he . . . was a big man on campus at Johns Hopkins, a member of the right fraternity at Hopkins and had social standing. Nobody could understand why he would do anything against the system because he was a part of it. . . ."

Mr. Hiss proclaimed his innocence from the outset, but he was convicted of perjury in 1950 after two trials that cost $75,000 in legal fees. He served more than 3 1/2 years at the Lewisburg (Pa.) federal penitentiary.

"It is safe to say that most Baltimoreans hoped to the very end that Alger Hiss would somehow prove his innocence," The Sun editorialized on Jan. 22, 1950. "Hiss . . . is a Baltimorean of such distinguished attainments and of such high promise that, however indirectly, the self-esteem of the community is somehow affected by his downfall."

Tony Hiss, Mr. Hiss' son and a writer for the New Yorker who profiled Baltimore last year for the magazine, said catharsis has come 42 years later with the Russian general's declaration.

"Certainly in the dramatic fashion it happened, it had that kind of cathartic feeling to it," Mr. Hiss said. "To me what's important is that a lot more people can look at him the way I do -- as a person with extraordinary qualities who had to go through something not of his making."

Yet the debate over the Hiss-Chambers case may never end.

"I question whether too many minds are going to be changed," said Luke Marbury, a son of William Marbury. "Alger himself said a lot of people aren't going to believe anything told them by the Russians. It's very difficult to prove a negative."

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., whose family owns the Carroll County farm where Mr. Chambers said that he hid film that Mr. Hiss allegedly passed to him, said curiosity-seekers continue to visit the "pumpkin-patch."

"They just want to see what the place looks like. They're just fascinated by the whole series of events," Mr. Della said. "They always ask, 'Do you still grow pumpkins?' "

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