Taking a spy turn through city's neighborhoods

April 13, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

Baltimoreans have long debated the guilt and innocence of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. As recently as last fall, as I sat at an informal Sunday evening supper party in Guilford, the guests divided into two vocal camps, those who were pro-Hiss and those who backed Chambers. No one's opinion budged a fraction by the end of that evening.

To this day, the question simmers whether Alger Hiss, the Baltimore-born favorite son, graduate of City College and Johns Hopkins, willingly handed over classified documents to the Soviets in the 1930s. To his death, Alger Hiss professed his innocence. The Chambers-Hiss spy case broke wide open in the late 1940s and has been contested here ever since.

Much of the mystery, as well as the circumstances, of this saga is explained in the 600-plus pages of "Whittaker Chambers, A Biography," the new book by author Sam Tanenhaus, a meticulous researcher who lays out the conflict between these two men in clear sentences based upon diligent research.

This compelling, page-turner of a read started my imagination overflowing about Baltimore in the 1930s. I envisioned our streets, houses and neighborhoods in terms of an espionage thriller. Soon spots as commonplace as Mount Veron Place became meeting locales for the characters in a drama that exploded in highly publicized government hearings and a pair of sensational trials. I questioned how many times this spy courier had walked into Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, bought a day-coach ticket to Manhattan and boarded a maroon coach.

I first encountered the name Whittaker Chambers 30 years ago when I heard he had lived in Charles Village, the neighborhood where I lived then and now. In 1979, I bought a house two doors away from the residence Chambers had purchased 41 years before. Although he, his wife Esther Shemitz Chambers and children Ellen and John lived there only briefly, 2610 St. Paul St. remains Whittaker Chambers' house in neighborhood lore.

On a fine April afternoon last week, when I had just finished the book, my imagination got to me again. I stopped by yet another Chambers house at 2124 Mount Royal Terrace. This house gets my vote as a great example of spooky Victorian Gothic, #i something out of a Charles Addams New Yorker cartoon. The house has a dark brick facade and touches of castlelike architecture at its cornice. It just looks like a spy house.

I was soon constructing a Whittaker Chambers Spy Belt, an imaginary district stretching through Reservoir Hill and along the edge of Druid Hill Park. One key address is 2113 Callow Ave., where a real-life photographer named Felix Inslerman used a Leica camera to take the microfilm pictures of the classified documents that Chambers obtained from his Washington sources.

Tanenhaus informs us that in the period of Chambers' most intense spying, he was living in an Auchentoroly Terrace apartment facing Druid Hill Park.

But he also had residences at the old downtown YMCA (now the Mount Vernon Hotel) at Franklin and Cathedral streets; at 903 St. Paul St.; at 1617 Eutaw Place; and on Old Court Road. He was a spy. He moved a lot. He also had an alias. He was known as Lloyd Cantrell and listed himself in the 1936 Baltimore City Directory under that assumed name.

The book describes his wife, Esther, dressed in a "blue-black felt hat, a gray wool suit, a plain white blouse and flat-heeled shoes. ++ Her warm eyes all but disappeared behind the thick lenses of severe spectacles." In the 1930s, she was briefly an art teacher at the Park School, then located on Liberty Heights Avenue.

The book tells that the wives of the two key figures were friendly. Priscilla Hiss and Esther Chambers sat on benches in Mount Vernon Place, then went down to the Saratoga Street part of the Hutzler Brothers department store and had a soda at the Fountain Shop, a popular gathering spot in 1930s Baltimore. The author tells us they had a soda. I wonder if it were a chocolate ice cream soda, the specialty of the house.

Two downtown office building landmarks figure in the Chambers story. These are the NationsBank Building at 10 Light St. and the old Maryland Trust Co. at the northwest corner of Calvert and Redwood streets. In the 1940s, the masonry towers were the offices of the lawyers for Chambers and Hiss. It was here that crucial depositions were given and the cases first took shape.

Chambers' lawyer was a distinguished Baltimore jurist named Richard Cleveland. Hiss retained William Marbury. It was during one of his conferences with Cleveland that Chambers recalls that he might have stashed away a cache of classified State Department documents that would link him with Alger Hiss. This event happened on the 22nd floor of what was then called the O'Sullivan Building, a Baltimore landmark that has had more names than Whittaker Chambers. Today it's the NationsBank Building, the one whose mansard-roof tower is lighted at night.

The documents he had hidden were in his wife's family home (tucked in the dust of a disused dumbwaiter) in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Chambers fetched the papers and unveiled them at 10 Light St. At the same time, Chambers initially held back on a couple of canisters of microfilm. These he hid in a hollowed-out pumpkin behind a farmhouse he bought in Carroll County outside Westminster. This set of documents became known as the Pumpkin Papers. In time, the Westminster farm and the gourd patch overpowered the Baltimore aliases, the testimony at the local law offices and the Auchentoroly Terrace apartment. Now Sam Tanenhaus has reconstructed the crime and the time, recalling pumpkins and fountain sodas.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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