Hiss, from humble beginnings Assessment: Native son Alger Hiss overcame many struggles to become one of the shining lights of the New Deal.

November 17, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

For nearly five decades, the life of disgraced American diplomat Alger Hiss has been defined by seemingly mundane objects. A borrowed car. A typewriter. A pumpkin on a Carroll County farm.

All these items were used to accuse him in the late 1940s of betraying his country.

Hiss' formative years, spent in Baltimore, were defined instead by a series of crowning accomplishments, each, it would later seem, inexorably leading to another. By the time he graduated from the Johns Hopkins University, a former classmate said yesterday, Hiss already had been anointed as one of the future greats -- the most popular and most respected of his peers.

Yet those who denounced Hiss as the embodiment of the elite Eastern establishment -- a product of the Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School -- missed much about how hard Hiss had to work to emerge as one of the shining lights of the New Deal.

For all of his storied brilliance, he had to overcome the ambivalence he maintained toward academics at Baltimore City College. For all of his aristocratic bearing, he had to overcome the near-poverty of his family -- shabby gentility, one contemporary called it -- before he could join the ranks of the leading liberal lights of their day.

Alger Hiss' family could be traced to roughly the mid-1700s, moving near what would become Baltimore. His father, Charles, committed suicide when Alger was nearly 3, apparently despondent about the family's financial state. With his four siblings, Alger grew up on Linden Avenue in Bolton Hill. The Hiss family was in large measure supported by the kindness of relatives. The family attended Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill every Sunday.

After school, said his son, Tony Hiss, Alger delivered newspapers. At the prompting of his older brother, Bosley, Alger and younger brother, Donald, would also sell squab to neighbors. "The Bad Hiss Boys," the three used to call themselves. And with a friend, Alger often dragged a wagon up to Druid Hill Park and filled jugs at a spring and sold them for about a nickel a quart. The two boys would then buy fried oyster sandwiches.

Every summer, the family would descend on an aunt's farm on the Miles River, where the boys would work in the fields, go crabbing and otherwise fool around. "He had the warmest memories of the Eastern Shore," Tony Hiss recalled yesterday. "That was a magical place for him."

At Baltimore City College, Alger was an unaccomplished athlete and a popular but indifferent student, graduating with an average slightly above 79 out of 100 points, Tony Hiss said. These years, which ended in graduation in 1921, marked the mild delinquency that constituted Hiss' rebellion: "He sometimes cut school and went to nickel movies," Tony Hiss said. "He even went to pool halls and smoked cigarettes."

The yearbook tribute written by classmates for Hiss was particularly effusive, concluding: "Alger, you're irresistible!" After his senior year at City College, Hiss headed to Powder Point Academy, a boys' boarding school in Duckworth, Mass., where he grew significantly taller, ingratiated himself onto the varsity baseball squad and, at last, blossomed academically.

He entered the Johns Hopkins University the next fall a striking, assured young man, and it was at Hopkins, his son said, that Alger Hiss found himself. He majored in romance languages and ultimately earned Phi Beta Kappa honors. He also belonged to the esteemed Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, became president of the student council and participated in dance and singing clubs.

Schoolmates voted him most popular, best "all-around-man" and best hand-shaker, according to accounts in The Sun.

During his junior year, Hiss was selected editor in chief of the Hopkins News-Letter. His predecessors had made calls for school spirit and civility. But Hiss' editorials, while maintaining a high-minded tone, also employed the occasional barb. In one editorial, the paper criticized runaway boosterism of the athletic teams. In another, one in a series of commentaries on the proper role of college journalists, he proclaimed the paper's independence from the university, which prompted praise from a reader.

"In Friday's issue of your foolish little paper appears the first ray of hope that Hopkins will soon have a publication that advocates something better than gracefully bowing to all professors and greeting perfect strangers met on the campus," Lewis Danzinger wrote in spring 1925. "You are to be complimented on your courage."

Another editorial that spring, condemning a provision in the honor code requiring students to turn in cheaters, had a title that now seems cruelly ironic: "I Spy."

"The police idea is foreign to the fundamental purpose of the whole thing," the editorial stated. "It is nearly impossible for a man to deceive those who trust him. Several institutions have abandoned the 'spy' provision as being opposed to the very word 'honor.' We favor not 'I spy' but 'I am responsible for myself.' "

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