Legacy: The son of accused spy Alger Hiss is forced by current events to look back at the turmoil of his youth. He does so without anger.


December 07, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Tony Hiss' Greenwich Village apartment is furnished much as it was when his parents moved in nearly 50 years ago: the same ancient mahogany desk, upright piano, couch, settee. And the mirror Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes left to his young law clerk, Alger Hiss, the mirror that came from a house used by the British army during the

American Revolution. Holmes used to say he could sometimes see in the looking glass the face of British commander Lord William Howe.

"Can you see it, sonny?" he'd say to Tony's father, Alger Hiss. "Can you see it?"

The gilt-edged walnut mirror hangs above the desk on the third floor at East 8th Street, reflecting the daily life of Tony Hiss -- writer, husband, father, inheritor of the mirror and of a singular American legacy. He is the only biological son of Baltimore native Alger Hiss, the accused Communist spy whose postwar trials divided the country and tore young Tony's home apart.

He and his wife, Lois Metzger, and their 5-year-old son, Jacob, have been rendering whole what was rent on the old Hiss battleground, where the strain of his father's trials and imprisonment finally drove a wedge between Tony's parents, who separated in 1959.

Tony's stable life today is far from the turmoil he experienced in these quarters so long ago, although he suggests no profound motives lay behind his decision to move back into the place with his fiancee after his mother, Priscilla, died in 1984.

"It's a nice apartment," he says.

Don't expect Tony Hiss to dramatize himself. Perhaps life has been dramatic enough. Those who meet Tony Hiss expecting a man obsessed with ghosts in the mirror will be disappointed. Along with a tragic past, he seems to have inherited from his father a buoyant spirit and a reluctance to look back in anger.

"If you just stay angry, the person you ultimately damage is yourself," says Hiss, scholar in residence at New York University's Taub Urban Research Center. "You're cutting yourself off from the richness and the wonder of things. It's a very isolating experience."

At 55, Tony Hiss is interested in the richness and the wonder of things. In examining how we interact with our surroundings, his last book, "The Experience of Place," invited the reader's awakening to the emotional and sensory impact of the environment. He is now writing a sequel to it focusing on transportation. Tony Hiss appears avidly engaged in questions of the present and the future, despite the frequent tug of the past.

When she married Hiss in 1986, Metzger, who met the writer while both were working for the New Yorker, had no idea how much of a part of their lives the Alger Hiss case would be.

"I thought this was all something that had happened 40 years ago and had nothing to do with anything," says Metzger, 41, who will soon publish her third novel for teen-agers. "To me it was so shocking that it was so alive I just didn't think people cared about it so much. They care about it passionately."

Every so often another phone call would come. Somebody writing a docudrama. Somebody writing an article. New information from the Soviet KGB or the CIA or the NSA would surface and some reporter would want Tony's reaction. Alger Hiss' reputation seemed to rise and fall over the last 20 years on the tide of new information and the political fortunes of Richard M. Nixon, who rode the Hiss case to national prominence as a young California congressman in the late 1940s.

After enough time and telephone calls, Metzger understood this was normal life in the Hiss household.

A man and a friend

When Alger Hiss died in a New York City hospital last month, four days after he turned 92, it was another occasion to revisit the passions aroused by the Hiss case. Tony Hiss did more interviews, talking about his father with affection.

This week, Tony joined the speakers at Saint George's Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan in a memorial service for the former diplomat who played a role in determining the shape of post-War Europe and in the founding of the United Nations. Before a gathering of about 800 people, Tony spoke about his father's qualities as a man and a friend, and described him as victim of anti-Communist fervor, the object of attacks that continue to this day as the merits of the case against him are bitterly debated.

After Alger Hiss died on Nov. 15, several columnists took the opportunity to open fire on him for insisting his entire life that he was innocent of espionage, a crime for which he was never tried because the statute of limitations precluded it. George Will wrote that Hiss had spent 44 months in federal prison after being convicted of perjury and "42 years in the dungeon of his grotesque fidelity to the fiction of his innocence."

Tony Hiss says he "only glanced" at the critical columns.

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