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When he was a boy, Tony Hiss paid monthly visit to his father in Lewisburg, Pa. federal prison, occasions on which Hiss says he recalls thinking: "Finally, I have my father all to myself."
Hiss, who spoke at the Queens Museum of Art Saturday, is the son of Alger Hiss, widely considered the most celebrated victim of the McCarthy era anti-Communist witch hunts of post World War II America.
The elder Hiss, a Baltimore-born Harvard law school graduate who served in the State Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was active in the genesis of the United Nations at the Yalta peace conference, spent 44 months in prison on conviction of perjury after two trials.
Tony Hiss, 62, has an 11-year-old son of his own and being a father brings back many memories of his father's ordeal.
"All at once, my dad had to become an expert on how to be a dad at a distance," Hiss recalled. "He would write home and say, 'when I look out the window, I see a great sunset and I'm thinking maybe you're looking out the window and seeing a sunset and we can share that.'"
After his father died in 1996 at the age of 92, Tony Hiss said numerous books came out that seemed to 'convict him all over again." He said he then decided to write his own account of those tumultuous times.
Alger Hiss's ordeal began in 1948 when Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine and former editor of the Communist Party newspaper Daily Worker, denounced him before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities.
Chambers told the congressmen that Hiss handed over to him State Department documents to be transmitted to Soviet spies. Hiss not only denied it but sued Chambers for defamation.
'Hiss's book, "The View from Alger's Window," draws upon the hundreds of letters his father sent from prison to paint a portrait of Alger Hiss as a fundamentally decent person who was drawn closer to his wife and son in a time of great adversity.
"A trial like this really boils down to character," said the younger Hiss. "Who are you going to believe - a man who says one thing or a man who says the opposite?"
The Hiss trials - the first began in 1949 and ended in a hung jury and the second began the same year and ended in 1950 with a conviction - emblazoned the front pages of newspapers nationwide every day for months in an era when much of the country had little or no television.
Ten illustrations of the trials drawn by William Sharp, an artist who settled in Forest Hills after escaping Nazi Germany, are on display at the Queens Museum of Art as part of the "Pointed Pen' exhibit until March 2.
One of them depicts the famed Woodstock typewriter, which prosecutors said Alger Hiss used to type the documents he was accused of passing to the Reds. Another shows a pumpkin which the government said was hollowed out to hide secret microfilm on a Maryland farm.
Hiss said he never doubted his father's innocence because his older half brother, Tim Hobson, who was in his early '20s during the trials, assured him Alger Hiss did not commit the crime for which he was indicted.
"'You don't have to worry about Dad. I was there,'" my brother would say. It was on that bedrock that I grew up," said Tony Hiss.
Tony Hiss said Hobson never testified in the trials, partly because his father feared that prosecutors would reveal that Hobson had been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Navy for involvement in a homosexual incident.
Hiss lives with his wife and son in Manhattan in the same apartment where he grew up. After retiring after more than 30 years at the New Yorker magazine, he is working on a book on transportation and serves as a visiting scholar at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University.
His son, Jacob, knows about his grandfather and has opinions as well.
"Jacob was in preschool playing cops and robbers," said Tony Hiss. "I heard him say to one of the other kids 'no, no, no - you don't understand. Sometimes the good guys go to jail.'"
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.
©2003 Community Newspaper Group
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