A portrait drawn from faith, love

CATCHING UP WITH... TONY HISS

Tony Hiss has written a memoir to remind the world that his father was 'a real human being, not a monster created by headlines.'

June 13, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- The visitor shows up a couple minutes early for the morning appointment in Greenwich Village; Tony Hiss is still shaving.

He comes to the door in khaki slacks, T-shirt and partially lathered face, displaying the friendliness one comes to expect from him. He's a gentle, 57-year-old man with light eyes and mostly gray hair who bears a resemblance to his father, Alger Hiss, the Baltimore native infamous for his conviction in a Cold War spy case, the Johns Hopkins graduate destined to become an emblem of political and cultural division.

Before stepping away to finish his shave, Tony Hiss offers a seat in the living room to his guest, who is here to talk with him about his new book, "The View From Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir."

The room looks as it did in the last visit at the end of 1996, shortly after Alger Hiss died at 92. It's furnished much as it was when Alger and Priscilla Hiss moved here in 1947, the year they came up from Washington when Hiss left the State Department to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Tony turned 6 that year. One last year of tranquillity in the Hiss household before a self-confessed former Communist courier named Whittaker Chambers told a congressional committee that Hiss, as a member of a Communist underground group years before, handed him confidential government materials.

The piano, sofa, desk, the dining table, the upholstered chair -- the Hisses brought all this with them from Washington. On the wall over the wooden desk hangs the carved wood-frame mirror left to Alger Hiss by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., for whom Hiss served as a clerk. On the piano are two framed photographs of a young Alger Hiss, a handsome, dapper man with a bright future.

One feels the ghosts, not to mention a certain elephant in the room. What can a son say?

What do you say when your father is known for having served time in prison for lying about being a Communist spy? What can you say when the ranks of those who believe your father's lifelong claims of innocence steadily diminish as new Cold War histories appear affirming your father's guilt?

Hiss returns in a crisp, blue shirt. He is cheered this Monday morning with the appearance of a good review in the previous day's New York Times book section. Not for him but his wife, Lois Metzger, who has just published her latest novel for teen-agers. Hiss and Metzger, who met while both worked at the New Yorker, have a son, Jacob. He'll turn 8 late this month.

Tony Hiss speaks softly, slowly, with deliberation. It's as if the hesitation in his speech is some echo of the little boy who spent so much energy controlling his fear and confusion, "practicing reticence," as he puts it in the new book. He was 9 in March 1951 when his father began serving time for perjury at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. By the time Alger Hiss was released in 1954, Tony had turned 13.

What could a boy make of such a thing? What could he say to his father in prison when, as he recalls it, all he wanted to say was "COME HOME NOW"?

Dual realities

Ever since then, Tony Hiss has lived with competing realities. There is the world where members of his family are good people who would not lie to him. There is the world where they all lied, his father and mother, his uncle, Donald, perhaps even his half-brother, Timothy Hobson.

The latter version he dismisses as a fantasy built of distortion and political fever. The story does not hold up to what he knows, he says, notwithstanding the recent scholarship that supports it. More will be revealed, says Hiss, as information becomes available from Eastern Europe and from grand jury records recently orderly released by a federal judge. The definitive his-tory, he says, has yet to be written.

The new book is Hiss' second about his father since "Laughing Last" appeared in 1977. In between he has written about his father for the New Yorker, where he used to be a staff writer. A visiting scholar at the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University, Hiss makes his life studying, writing and speaking about landscape and regional planning.

It seems to him now that the pull toward both journalism and writing about landscape has something to do with Alger Hiss.

While his father was in prison, young Tony created his own newspaper called "The Family Eagle," and sent occasional copies to his father. The boy began to admire reporters as people who had found, as he writes in the new book, "a hiding place, a free pass, a cloak of invulnerability that gave them immunity from the troubles of the world. Immunity and impunity."

He has been alert to landscape as his father was, even when the landscape was reduced to the view from a prison window. In his letters home, Alger Hiss wrote about what he could see from the westward-facing window: the birds, the sunsets and the stars.

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