Letters Home: Lessons of the Fathers

I love to visit people in the hospital.

Alger Hiss, quoted in Laughing Last (1977) by Tony Hiss

In 1953, when I was nearly two years old, my father developed a backache that he attributed to a muscle strain. When he finally saw the doctor, he was diagnosed with polio. My sisters and I were vaccinated, and everyone who visited my dad had to wear masks and gowns. But when the treatment for polio had no effect and my dad’s pain continued to worsen, the doctors realized they had made a mistake.

They discovered an abscess on his spine that had damaged the spinal cord. In a subsequent surgery, the doctors severed his spinal cord above the waist, and he was left without feeling or movement in his legs. He was sent to what was then called the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (now the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine) in New York City, and spent two years there, learning to use a wheelchair and undergoing more surgeries.

He returned to the Institute, as we called it, several times before his death in 1971. On his various stays, my dad became friends with Mark DiSuvero, the sculptor, also a paraplegic, whom my dad always referred to as “beatnik” because of his beard and turtleneck sweaters. In the Institute halls, he used to see Roy Campanella, the Dodgers catcher whose career was cut short by a 1958 car accident that left him paralyzed.

On his last stay, in 1966, he met Alger Hiss.

It came about like this. My father’s bosses at the Canton Repository and its owners, Brush-Moore Newspapers, arranged for his New York medical care. The 1966 visit was a particularly long one because my father had developed bedsores that required surgery. During his extended convalescence, a Brush-Moore executive named Bill Vodrey asked my dad if he would be interested in a visit from Alger Hiss, a classmate of Vodrey’s at Harvard Law School. My dad agreed, and Hiss began visiting regularly.

My father wrote home about Hiss’s visits, and they exchanged letters (now lost) after he returned to Ohio. Hence, I developed an abiding interest in the Alger Hiss case. What seemed at the time to be the trial of the century may seem to young people now more like ancient history.

In 1948, a writer for Time and former communist named Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of having been a communist in the 1930s, when Hiss worked in FDR’s State Department. Chambers later testified that Hiss had passed government documents to him, which he in turn delivered to the Soviets. Hiss was tried twice. His first trial ended in a hung jury. In the second trial, he was convicted of perjury and served almost four years at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, from 1951 to 1954. Hiss stalwartly maintained his innocence until his death in 1996. Chambers, who died in 1961, also stuck to his story.

The Hiss case was a watershed a generation ago. Liberals, then and now, largely believe in Hiss’s innocence. Many conservatives still revere Chambers. Richard Nixon built his career on his prosecution of Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1984, Ronald Reagan awarded Chambers the Medal of Freedom.

In 1992 Tony Hiss, Alger’s son, wrote a piece for The New Yorker about his father. He was rejoicing over a report by a KGB agent saying that Hiss had never worked for the Soviets. It seemed that Alger was finally vindicated. (Later, the agent partly recanted, and the waters were muddied again.)

I wrote Tony Hiss a note, care of The New Yorker, telling him that his father had visited my father in a hospital far from home, where he had few friends and no family. I suggested that maybe his father had learned how important such visits were during his years in prison. Tony Hiss replied, expressing his appreciation for the friendship that my father had shown his.

Now Tony Hiss has written a son’s memoir, called The View from Alger’s Window, which consists largely of letters that Alger wrote from prison to his wife, Priscilla (Prossy) and Tony, then around ten years old. “Sunsets are among the prettiest things we have here so I am on the lookout for them,” he wrote. “It’s harder for you to see them in the city but whenever you see a very nice on you can be pretty sure I’m looking at it, too.”

Alger’ss Window is itself a kind of letter, flowing on for 241 pages, uninterrupted by chapter breaks. It begins with a 1997 visit to Lewisburg, where as a boy Tony had visited his father for two hours every month. Afterwards, at his Greenwich Village apartment (where he grew up, and which he now shares with his son and his wife, the writer Lois Metzger), Tony pulls out Alger’s 445 prison letters and rediscovers his father. The book gracefully surveys his family’s life through the prism of those letters and the character they reveal.

A reserved and very busy father (after FDR died, he worked for the UN and the Carnegie Endowment), Alger presented a “stuffy public image,” Tony Hiss told me in an interview. “Most people didn’t get to see into the heart of him. I want to invite people to get to know the man I got to know. He and I got close when he went to jail, of all places.”

Alger’s letters show a side of him rarely evident before prison or in public, a sweetness that flourished, ironically, in prison. Tony writes, “The summer of 1951 was, I think, the moment when listening and responding to other people became what Alger did best.” He quotes his half-brother Tim as saying, “Jail is where Alger became a human being.”

In his own memoirs, Alger is cool and stiff, but the persona of the letters is affectionate and often silly. He creates stories about the Sugar Lump Boy, a fictional character who shared the foibles and strengths of young Tony. He sends rebuses and puns. And he writes to Prossy about Shakespeare (whom Chambers said Hiss disliked) and hope and living a worthy life and abandoning bitterness.

Although Tony denies trying to exonerate his father, he consciously contrasts the cool, traitorous public image with the gentle father writing about sunsets, bird-watching, and tutoring fellow inmates in reading. He refutes the Alger described by Chambers, who claimed to know him well. In none of the prison letters does Alger, who called himself an “unreconstructed New Dealer,” who lionized FDR and Oliver Wendell Holmes, mention communism, espionage, or Stalin.

Tony’s belief in his father’s innocence has not wavered. “It’s one area where I was never shaken,” he told me. Many documents from the trial are gradually being made public. A website devoted to exculpatory information has brought together evidence previously scattered. “The scholars who will sift through all this are now in undergraduate school,” says Tony.

I know only a little about my father’s brief acquaintanceship with Alger Hiss. All I really know is that he appreciated the visits. Now, after reading The View from Alger’s Window, I have a deeper understanding of what moved Alger to visit my father, a stranger, over many months. I’ve also been struck by similarities in the two men’s stories.

Like Alger, my father, Martin Miller, was admired by friends and acquaintances for the courage he showed in facing adversity. In 1954, his friend Darrel Mansell, another columnist for the Canton paper, wrote a letter of encouragement in Ring Lardner-esque prose, saying, “We haven’t seen your chin droop and don’t expect to. By the way, when you get back to where there’s a typewriter, why don’t you try your hand at some of those Millerisms? You’ve got something to write about, son. You’ve gone and had yourself an expeeerience.”

And so my father wrote. He continued to write for the Canton Repository. He wrote for the IPMR magazine when he was hospitalized. And, he wrote letters. He wrote to us when he was away from home and when we were away at college. And, imprisoned at home by his handicap, as people too often were in those days, he wrote to friends and magazines and congressmen and businesses. He wrote so many letters to his friend Mansell that the paper gave him a weekly column, called Letters from Max. Like Alger Hiss, he could reach out through letters to the family and friends he felt guilty about abandoning.

His letters were often goofy and self-deprecating, written in a tongue-in-cheek style. To my oldest sister at college, he complained about having to help me with my homework: “You may recall that your mother is not too good at algebra but is much better at Latin than I am at algebra, which makes it very difficult for me.” His letters preserve his wit and steadfast good humor.

“Letters are, for me, the most effective biographies,” Alger Hiss wrote to his family. I’ve read and reread the letters my father wrote to us, the letters we wrote to him, the letters he wrote home to his mother from Ohio State University in the 1930s. Like Tony Hiss, in reading my father’s letters, I get a little of him back. How lucky we are that our fathers wrote to us.

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