BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sam Tanenhaus, can you remember the first time you ever heard the name
Mr. SAM TANENHAUS, AUTHOR, "WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A BIOGRAPHY": Yes, I
can. I was about at 11 or 12 years old, and my father, who was a political
scientist and college professor, was explaining to me all the complications of
the McCarthy era and the--some of the cast of characters who were most
prominent then. And one of the first names he mentioned was Whittaker
Chambers, because he'd written a great book about the Communist experience.
There were many people in that era, right after the Second World War, who had
been radicals in their youth, in the 1930s, a time of great upheaval, and then
had had a drastic change of heart and came to regret what they now saw as a
political--mistakes of that era and so recanted. And Chambers was the most
remarkable of those figures, because he'd written a great book about it,
"Witness," which, in 1952, when it was published, was regarded instantly as a
classic, probably the best book ever written about communism by an--an
ex-Communist who is now an anti-Communist. And that convergence of aspects
of Chambers' character made him a unique figure.
And, thereafter, I was conscious of him; it never occurred to me I would write
a book about him or about communism or the Cold War or any of these topics,
but I understood from my father that he was a really singular figure and
someone I ought to know more about.
LAMB: Where did your --where's your father now?
Mr. TANENHAUS: My father died in 1980, --long before I began this book.
LAMB: And where was he when you first started these discussions?
Mr. TANENHAUS: We were then, I think, in Iowa City, Iowa. He taught in the
political science department there. We moved around a little bit when I was
growing up as my father got more prominent, better positions. And so we
always had a library we took with us. That was one of the--the constants in
my upbringing; there were always a great number of books around. And my
father was very much interested in politics as an expression of culture, not
simply who won elections and who lost--although he knew a great deal about
that--but what politics told you about a society. And Chambers emerged very
early in discussions like that as someone who embodied the various forces.
LAMB: Where--where was this picture taken on the cover?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That picture was first published when "Witness" was
in 1952, insofar as I know. It appeared on the front cover of The New
York Times Book Review in May 1952 and accompanied the review by Sidney
the famous philosopher and polemicist. It's taken from some other source, but
I'm not exactly sure what it is; possibly an interview with Chambers from that
era, maybe from a slightly earlier era when he was questioned by the House
Committee on Un-American Activities and was constantly photographed.
LAMB: Now in the At Random publication, they have an interview with you--the
publication that Random House puts out.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: And they call you--and I don't remember exactly--a traditional liberal?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I think I call myself a secular liberal.
LAMB: Secular liberal. What's that mean?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Right. Well, what I meant was that Chambers himself was a
very religious man; even when a Communist, he was a kind of religious man.
That is, he sought great answers and absolute answers, final solutions to
important questions, whereas I was raised and became more of a skeptic, I
guess, much more in the modern vein that he deplored, someone who could never
really find an absolute answer to questions, looked at questions from
different sides. And that made Chambers appealing to me because he embodied
so many of those different sides. But he was never happy during that. He
wanted one answer. If it wasn't communism, it had to be anti-communism. If
it wasn't anti-communism, it had to be Quakerism--something very powerful that
he could invest all his being in. And I think that's a rarity today,
especially among intellectuals. And so I recognized something that would have
made Chambers, I think, unhappy about me as his biographer, perhaps.
LAMB: But would you say politically you are a liberal?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, I would.
LAMB: The reason I'm asking that is that, as you know, this name, when
mentioned, conjures up all kinds of feelings among liberals, conservatives...
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right.
LAMB: ...and was it--have you--do you run into people who have
read this and say, `How could you possibly write this?'
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, especially before I was published. Since then, people
have seen that the work is really quite objective. I have enormous admiration
and sympathy for Chambers. What I remind people, especially conservative
friends, is, Chambers himself, at one point, was one of the most radical men
in America. And it's impossible to understand him--I think this is one reason
biographies were not written earlier; this is the very first one--unless one
has real sympathy for the progressivist or liberal political outlook which he
himself embraced fervently for a number of years. People have the impression
that once he left the party, he instantly became a conservative. That's not
quite right. He became an anti-Communist, as many others did, but his move to
the right was rather more gradual than that, and in his very last years, he
found himself distancing himself from what was then the dominant strain of
American conservatism: the McCarthy wing of the Republican Party, also the
Re--Republican tenets, conservative tenets of National Review. He found
himself increasingly concerned about that. And so, in a sense, Chambers
him--himself, I think, arrived at a kind of liberalism, but never a secular
LAMB: When did he die?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He died in 1961.
LAMB: Of what?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Of prolonged heart ailments.
LAMB: How old was he?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was 60 years old. He had his first heart trouble as early
as the 1940s, when he was working at Time magazine, and there were recurrent
LAMB: You've got some photographs in your book, and the first one I want to
show is the one that's a double page here. We'll get a close-up of this and
show him sitting at the witness table. Where is this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: This is in the caucus room, I believe, of the
of Representatives. This is August 25th, 1948, the famous confrontation day
when Whittaker Chambers, on the far right, and Alger Hiss, on the far left,
were brought together for the first time publicly to make statements and
answer allegations. They had been brought together privately about a week and
a half before. This was televised. This was the first great televised
hearing--congressional hearing in American history.
LAMB: Was it the first televised hearing ever?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I'm not sure. It's possible that it was. It's funny
how much confusion there can be about a matter like that, because television
itself was so new. The great conventions--the 1948 conventions had all been
televised and, for that reason, were held in a single city, Philadelphia,
where the coaxial cable ran. This, I believe, was the first live broadcast of
a congressional investigation. There had been newsreels before.
LAMB: How many people had television sets then?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It was something like 10,000 people or on the East Coast,
maybe a somewhat larger number than that. But millions of people watched
television. Ten million people saw Thomas Dewey make his acceptance speech.
People go to bars, restaurants, one another's homes. It was a great novelty
then to see television. And this attracted a very large audience, so I don't
think the number has ever been calculated.
LAMB: As to how many actually saw it.
Mr. TANENHAUS: As to how many actually saw it. Some--something in the
LAMB: I actually, because I've just read this, remember you saying in
here--and I know it's hard to remember all these figures, about 320...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Three hun--oh.
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right.
LAMB: ...people had television sets in 1948. Let's look at some more
pictures so that folks that have never seen this man can get a sense of what
he was like. And you lead off all the chapters with a picture.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yeah.
LAMB: This first one isn't actually a picture, but what is that?
Mr. TANENHAUS: This is a bookplate designed by Whittaker Chambers'
He was born Jay Vivian Chambers, and his father Jay was a commercial artist
and he was quite well-known for his bookplates, very intricately designed. He
did this in 1902, when Whittaker was one year old.
LAMB: And where was he born?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was born in Philadelphia but raised on Long Island on
South Shore, about 20 miles east of New York City.
LAMB: And you say he was born Jay Vivian Chambers. When did he change his
Mr. TANENHAUS: He changed his name right before he went to college. The
had always been a burden to him because he was known as Vivian. His father
was Jay, and he was not Jay Jr.; he was Vivian, and that was a great
embarrassment for a child. So he changed the name as soon as he could. And
on his college application at Columbia, he called himself Whittaker Chambers.
Whittaker was his mother's maiden name, so he combined the two last names in
LAMB: Here's another photograph for another segment of your book. We'll see
it here in just a minute. This actually, again, not a photograph, but a
sketch. What's this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. This is quite a marvelous creation by Chambers' great
friend, Meyer Shapiro, who was probably the greatest art historian of his era,
perhaps of the century. He and Chambers were very close friends at
Columbia University; both were undergraduates, class of 1924, and traveled
together in Europe in the summer of 1923. In Belgium, Shapiro, who was a
draftsman as well as a critic, made this sketch of Whittaker.
LAMB: And who else was at Columbia at the time that Meyer Shapiro and
Whittaker Chambers were there?
Mr. TANENHAUS: A very brilliant roster of burgeoning American
intellectuals: Lionel Trilling, who later became a critic and scholar and
wrote a novel about Chambers, the best fictional work about him, called "The
Middle of the Journey"; John Gassner, who became very famous as a historian
and critic of drama, professor at Yale; Mortimer Adler, the philosopher;
Clifton Fadiman, the book reviewer for The New Yorker and later Book of the
Month Club editor.
LAMB: Is Clifton Fadiman still alive?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, he is.
LAMB: Did you talk to him about this book?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He claimed--and there was no reason to doubt this--that his
recollections were not clear; however, clear enough to give an interview.
However, he did read the manuscript for the Book of the Month Club and
commented on it for them. Another member of that group was a poet, Lewis
Sukofski, who was one of the most gifted and also obscure poets of his time,
so he's not quite as well-known as he might have been. He and Chambers were
the outstanding creative writers of that era at Columbia.
LAMB: Let's look at another photograph. And I think, finally, we do have a
photograph instead of a sketch. When was this taken?
Mr. TANENHAUS: This was taken in 1931 when Chambers became the hottest
literary Bolshevik in New York. After having had a falling out with the
Communist Party, he won himself back into its graces by writing several quite
ingenious short stories about the Communist movement. And they were published
in the New Masses, the party's monthly literary magazine, and Chambers'
photograph appeared. He later became its editor.
LAMB: The New Masses was circulated to how many people? Do you know?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's a good question. Probably not more than the tens of
thousands. The Communist Party membership was small then. It was throughout
Chambers' years. There were 10,000 or 15,000 when he joined. There were
about that number when he wrote for it. But it was also read by many literary
intellectuals. So, for instance, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Langston
Hughes, some of the great figures of the day were affiliated with the New
Masses even if they weren't really Communists and might not even have read it
LAMB: What were his early--what was Whittaker Chambers' early writings like?
Mr. TANENHAUS: His ear--his very earliest writings were poems. I'm not
including his adolescent pieces; he wrote some short stories in high school
which showed a great deal of literary talent. He was a fine writer even then.
But his first serious work was poetry. He was the very first protege of Mark
Van Doren, the Columbia poet and probably the greatest teacher of literature
in the century.
LAMB: Is that Charles Van Doren's father?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, as a matter of fact, and the brother of--of the other
Charles Van Doren, the historian. Yes, that's right.
LAMB: In other words, Charles Van Doren, the man that was in the box with the
"Twenty-One," the television show...
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right--is the s...
LAMB: ...is Mark Van Doren's son.
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's exactly right. And Mark Van Doren was only seven
older than Chambers. Chambers went to college a little late because he'd had
a year of bumming around and--kind of like a contemporary adolescent before
going off to school. He never wanted to go to college, for all his great
brilliance. Van Doren hadn't really wanted to be a teacher; he wanted to be a
writer, but ended up at Columbia because a job was offered to him and it
seemed a safer route than winging it as a freelance writer. And so he and
Chambers had a natural rapport very early on, because both felt hemmed in
by this Ivy League university. Chambers, like many of the undergraduates of
that era, the names I've mentioned, was enthralled by Van Doren, and Van Doren
saw that Chambers had an authentic literary gift for poetry.
LAMB: We'll look at another photograph, and this moves along in his
year--actually, there--he's not in this.
Mr. TANENHAUS: No.
LAMB: Who are these three people?
Mr. TANENHAUS: These are all acquaintances of Chambers'; in fact, the
two were a couple who were great friends of his. These pictures come from
still classified documents inside the KGB. These are victims of Stalin's
terror. The top man is named Arnold Ichal--became better known under a
different name in the nat--late 1930s as Arnold Rubens when he was imprisoned
in the Soviet Union. He had been a spy in the United States whom Chambers
knew when both were members of the Soviet underground. Ichal was summoned
home to Moscow; went with his wife, who was American-born. They were both
snatched from their hotel and imprisoned. This is a photograph taken of Ichal
after he was interrogated by KGB officers.
LAMB: Who are the other two?
Mr. TANENHAUS: The other two are a couple. The bottom one is Alex
Willenovsky, who was Chambers' first control in the underground, a Russian who
came from the Crimean, had known Stalin--in fact, had stolen Stalin's winter
coat once when they were prisoners together before the revolution. And above
him is his wife, Nadia. Both were imprisoned later, in the late '40s, during
a second round of Stalinist purges and, ultimately, were released when
Khrushchev came to power.
LAMB: Why did you put these three photos on--you know, at the beginning of
Mr. TANENHAUS: I thought readers should understand that when Chambers
in fear of retribution by the KGB, he wasn't kidding. People he knew had
been--had been murdered or imprisoned, people he'd worked with closely. And
he had very good reason to believe--in fact, he was right about this--that the
Soviet intelligence agencies were watching him very closely. Later, during
the Hiss case, when Chambers was often portrayed as a kind of fanatic or
fantasist, one of the most discredited stories had been that Chambers claimed
to have been pursued by the KGB. And it turns out to have been based on--on
actuality, and these are some examples of colleagues of his who--who died
or were imprisoned. I should have mentioned that Arnold Ichal died in the--in
the Soviet Gulag while in his 30s.
LAMB: Now when did you first think you had a book?
Mr. TANENHAUS: In 1989, I had an idea for either a novel or a non-fiction
study about the early years of the Cold War. The--it was clear at this point
that the Cold War was ending. The Berlin Wall was still standing, but
Gorbachev had come to power and worked his miraculous changes. And it
as if an era had come to an end, and that was the era I'd grown up in. And I
wanted to know how it all began.
LAMB: How old are you?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I am now 41, and I was 32 when I first began looking into
LAMB: What were you doing at that time?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I was working as a--at a--as an editor for an educational
publishing house in New York called Chelsea House Publishers, doing books for
young adults, for teen-age readers. And I had been writing all along; I'd
written a previous book and--and wrote some journalism. And I wanted to tell
the story of the origins of the Cold War. And so I began with the year
1948--the first thing I had was a year--and I chose that year because George
Orwell had written "1984" that year. That's how he arrived at his title; he
transposed the digits. And it seemed to me that Orwell had seen--Orwell, the
great English novelist--in that year, a totalitarian future. He saw something
terrible about to happen. So I wanted to know what it was he'd been looking
at that made him think that.
And so I combed through the events of that year, and one leapt out at me:
the Hiss case. It was the O.J. Simpson case of 1948 and, in fact, of the Cold
War era. And I saw very quickly that the story had been missed by all but a
very few. The story was not Alger Hiss, although I originally thought it was;
the story was Chambers. Chambers, the man who had recanted, the one who'd
traveled that path and recoiled in horror when he saw what it led to and then,
in a very public way, denounced himself and all he had done and came before
the nation to make a kind of confession about the reality of his experience
and the political experience of his generation.
LAMB: Had there ever been a biography written about Whittaker Chambers?
Mr. TANENHAUS: There had not been. There had been a number of books on
Hiss case, which included biographical information--a few pages here and
there. And there had been, of course, Chambers' autobiography, "Witness,"
which I think was one reason people had shied away from writing about him.
He'd written a towering book about himself, although it ended with the Hiss
case and he lived another almost dozen years. And I think many people
probably thought it would be difficult to capture all the different sides of
Chambers. You have to sympathize with him at every phase, which is something
most writers, I think, are disinclined or just incapable of doing.
LAMB: What year did he publish "Witness"?
Mr. TANENHAUS: 1952.
LAMB: Which company published it?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Random House, as a matter of fact.
LAMB: And yours is Random House.
Mr. TANENHAUS: And mine is Random House, too. There are some surprising
parallels between my book and his, although I make no claims for mine compared
with his. His is one of the great American autobiographies. And one of the
things that fascinated me early about Chambers was something that you've
already asked me about, and that is Chambers' literary acquaintances. Here
was a man who, in his early 20s, seemed destined for great literary promise.
He had the talent of Dos Passos, of an--of a major writer, if not of one
of the very greatest writers. He might not have been a Faulkner or a
Hemingway, but he was born to write, and those in a good position to know
these things were convinced of it: Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Meyer Shapiro
and the others. In his very last days, Meyer Shapiro was still lamenting that
Chambers had not become the great poet he should have been. Yet, here was a
man with this great, enormous literary gift who turned his back on them in
order to serve a cause that would bring him no glory and possibly extinction.
LAMB: When you first thought of this, where did you live?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I was living in New York City. And...
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I now live in Tarrytown, which is about 40 minutes north of
New York City, in Westchester County.
LAMB: Are you married?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, I am.
LAMB: When you started all this, did you have any children?
Mr. TANENHAUS: No. My daughter was born three years after I began this
project, and I knew it was time to finish when she, at the age of two, out of
the blue, said the word `Nixon,' one of the first words she ever spoke. And I
knew that was not a healthy thing for any of us.
LAMB: Now during the time that you put this book together, did you do other
Mr. TANENHAUS: I did some other things. One of them was to raise grant
money. This is an enormously costly project. I had to send a researcher to
Moscow for six months looking for files, dossiers and whatever information we
could find. I had to travel in search of archives. There are no Whittaker
Chambers papers in one place, as there would be for many other figures.
They're scattered all over. I consulted some 40 to 50 archives. I had to do
a great deal of background reading in areas I wasn't familiar with. And
luckily, I was able to find sponsors who saw the merit of the project without
once interfering with it, for which I'm very grateful. And I did some
journalism. I broke some stories about the Hiss case in--in The New York
Times and Wall Street Journal--small pieces.
LAMB: Let me ask you this. I don't know whether you can do this or not, and
I'm not looking for your personal information, but if you were to total up the
amount of money it's cost up to now to write this book, to keep you going over
the years and to do your research, could you put a figure on it?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Something like $300,000 is my guess, because I have
it in awe, because that's the kind of money I have never had any sort of
LAMB: Who paid you to do this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, I had a contract from Random House. I had a
editor, Bob Loomis, who saw early on that this was a viable project. No one
else did, by the way; he was the only editor who expressed interest in it
LAMB: In the business?
Mr. TANENHAUS: In the business, yes. It was shown to a number of editors
who, either for political reasons or literary reasons, were not interested. I
was nobody; no one had ever heard of me. And this was a book that seasoned
editors could see would take a lot of doing to write. I had no sample
chapters; I could not afford to write them. I had written only a proposal
that included almost no research; I couldn't afford to do research at that
point, either. Random House gave me an advance; then, along the way, I was
able to attract the interests of a number of sponsors, most important of which
was the National Endowment for the Humanities. And I was quite saddened
when conservatives took out after the NEH and tried and maybe succeeded in--in
depleting its funds, because they were an early and strong supporter of this
LAMB: Who was there to support you?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Initially, it was Lynn Cheney. I never met with her, but she
expressed an interest in the book through another sponsor of mine, William
Buckley. And I worked with a very fine man at the NEH named George Lucas,
who helped advise me in the drafting of a proposal.
LAMB: Along the way, Bob Loomis--what are his politics? Do you know?
Mr. TANENHAUS: They're liberal. He knew Hiss, and he lived in the
Village and had socialized with Hiss at one point.
LAMB: How old is Bob Loomis?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He is about 70, I believe. And he has done a fair amount of
history and is very knowledgeable about the Cold War. In fact, I learned from
him a lot along the way--knowledgeable, also, about espionage.
LAMB: What did he think of Alger Hiss?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I think he liked him as a person; many people do. I liked
in many respects as a person, and Chambers did as well.
LAMB: Did you meet with Alger Hiss?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I did not. I wished to but was not surprised when he
declined. It would have made little sense for him to meet with me. His
posture has been that he knew Chambers in only the most superficial way, so
for him to reminisce about him would not have served him well. Bob, I think,
like many liberals, suspected Hiss had been up to some kind of no good, but
more importantly saw that Chambers was a fascinating character. Right or
wrong, there was a story to tell about him.
LAMB: Let's look at a couple more pictures.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Sure.
LAMB: We have a lot more to ask about this particular part of your
experience. But here's a photograph where he's on the couch.
Mr. TANENHAUS: This is a great photograph by the--Alfred Eisenstaedt, the
great Time-Life photographer. Chambers edited supine because of his heart
trouble. He had, also, bouts of exhaustion brought on by overwork. And so
after one episode that kept him out of the office for eight months in the
winter of 1942 and '43, he returned after losing quite a lot of weight, but
was given a couch for him to recline on as he worked. He sometimes worked
48-hour stretches in order to see his sections of the magazine to press.
LAMB: There were points, I know, in your book where you say
that he would literally have an editorial meeting with all the staff sitting
around and he'd be on the couch like that.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, that's right. If he were not feeling well enough to sit
upright at his desk, then he would lie down and conduct the meeting.
LAMB: By the way, how long was he at Time magazine?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was there from 1939 until the case broke in 1948. He
resigned shortly after he produced the so-called `pumpkin papers,' which
proved he had been an espionage agent. He was then forced to resign from
Time, not by the company, but by his own understanding that he had misled it.
He'd misled his friends, Henry Luce and others, who knew he'd been a
Communist, but not a spy.
LAMB: What was the last year that he spent in the Communist Party?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That last year was 1937 and 1938.
LAMB: And how many years had he been in the party?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He entered the party in the very beginning of 1925. He
with it briefly from about 1929 to '31 and then became a spy, went underground
in 1932. So a total of 13 years as a Communist.
LAMB: We have another photograph from the book as you lead off these
sections. Where was this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, this again is from a confrontation day. An array...
LAMB: August 25th, 1948.
Mr. TANENHAUS: 1948. Chambers and Hiss testified for a total of nine hours;
Hiss for seven of them. Chambers then was summoned at the last portion of the
hearing, and here he's listening to a question from one of his congressional
interrogators about his relationship with Alger Hiss, which was the crux of
the inquiry--not centered much on communism, interestingly enough. It was
really about whether the two had been friends.
LAMB: When did Alger Hiss die?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Alger Hiss died last November at the age of 92.
LAMB: Let's go to one more photograph and we'll ask you where this is
Mr. TANENHAUS: This is taken in the subway of Foley Square, the federal
courthouse in Manhattan.
LAMB: Where is Foley Square, by the way?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It's near the Brooklyn Bridge. It's downtown near City Hall.
And Chambers there is carrying a copy of "Dante" in all likelihood.
Li--Italian was one of his many languages. And there he is on his way to the
courthouse to testify in the perjury trials of Alger Hiss.
LAMB: The last picture in the book is Whittaker Chambers on the farm.
Mr. TANENHAUS: On the farm. That's right.
LAMB: Is that a lamb he's holding?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, it's a lamb. He loved his sheep and could not bear to
see them slaughtered as some of them had to.
LAMB: Are those sheep in the background, by the way?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I believe so, yes. Yes, they are. And Chambers was a very
serious farmer. It was another facet of his character that interested me.
There was a great back to the earth movement, back to roots movement after
World War II among literary figures, most of whom just bought nice rural
retreats. But Chambers actually became a farmer.
LAMB: How tall was he?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was 5'6 1/2".
LAMB: And in that picture we just showed, if we can look at it one more time,
how heavy was he?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, he got well up over 200 pounds in his last years.
He stopped worrying about his health. However, he was enormously strong. If
you look at his forearms there, he's very powerful. One of his Time
colleagues said, `He was fat, but it was hard fat.' He worked the farm as
well as he could despite his ailments and had been a wrestler in college.
LAMB: Where's the farm?
Mr. TANENHAUS: The farm is in Westminster, Maryland, where Random
interestingly, has its warehouse. It is about 20 miles from Gettysburg, 30
minutes north of Baltimore. And Whittaker's son, John Chambers, still lives
there and commutes from it to his job in Washington.
LAMB: And have you been to the farm?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I have been to the farm; I have not been inside the house.
John Chambers, for very good reasons, prefers his privacy. But I have walked
the farm and its environs. I've seen the land.
LAMB: Now I saw a note in The New York Times a couple weeks ago that it's
national historic preservation site?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. That happened under President Reagan.
LAMB: What does that mean?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, what it means is that a great event occurred there.
the great event is that Chambers hid, inside the famous pumpkin, the microfilm
that eventually led to the indictment and conviction of Alger Hiss. There was
a great deal of controversy when the Reagan administration made--designated
the farm as a--a national landmark.
LAMB: And can people go visit that farm?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, they can. John still lives there and so it's not like a
museum. It's his property, it's private property, but one can make an
appointment to visit, yes.
LAMB: In your book, you talk about two children, Ellen and John.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Ellen is the older sister.
LAMB: And his wife Esther.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: Who's living?
Mr. TANENHAUS: No, she died in 1986...
LAMB: No, I--I'm sorry, who--who of those...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, I'm sorry. Which of them is living?
Mr. TANENHAUS: John and Ellen are both living. Ellen lives in San
Francisco. She was born in 1933. John was born in 1936. They were born
while their father was a Communist spy.
LAMB: Have you talked to both of them?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I have talked to John but not to Ellen. John very graciously
sat for a number of wide-ranging interviews in his office here in Washington.
LAMB: And what was his attitude about talking about it?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He loved his father very dearly and was pleased to know a
was being written about him that was not just, once again, about the Hiss
case. He told me that he keeps "Witness" by his bedside. He reads it often
and closely. He is very deeply immersed in his father's religious world view.
However, he is not happy about much that has been written about Whittaker
by sympathizers and was not thrilled that I was working on this book.
LAMB: Why not thrilled?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I think in part because Whittaker Chambers was his father.
me and you and many others, he's a historical figure. But John lived with him
on the farm. The two were very closed. They joked together a great deal.
They had similar senses of humor. They worked together on the farm many
hours. They talked a lot. John--Whittaker confided in John. Also Whittaker
had a very difficult and tumultuous life and there were aspects of it that I
believe John preferred not to be discussed at great length--for instance, his
father's bisexuality, something that was exploited very cruelly during the
Hiss case at a time when there were only rumors and very vicious rumors at
that. But eventually, Chambers himself, in an act of great courage, told the
FBI that, in fact, he had had a brief period of homosexual activity, and this
emerged in the 1970s when the FBI released documents under the Freedom of
Information Act. And I think John was quite disturbed by that.
LAMB: Now you actually print that in your book--that--that FBI release. Has
that been widely circulated or is that new information from--in this book?
Mr. TANENHAUS: No, it appeared in an earlier book, "Perjury" by Allen
Weinstein. I don't know if he quoted quite as much as I did, but the
substance of the document is there. And I wanted to let Chambers describe
this in his own words. It doesn't seem to me a topic that I ought to be
editorializing about. At the same time, it was something a reader would and
should know about, not only because it tells us something about Whittaker
Chambers, but it also explains the great pressures he labored under during the
Hiss case, because he knew very early that this would be brought up and used
against him in some way.
LAMB: You also point out fairly early in the book that his--Whittaker
Chamber's father was a homosexual?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, he was--a bisexual, I think, as Whittaker was. He left
the family when Whittaker was very young, eight or nine years old, and lived
in Brooklyn for a period lasting from either one year to possibly three.
And while he was gone, there was great disruption in the household--Whittaker,
his younger brother Richard, who later committed suicide, and his mother Laja,
who was very bitter to discover that her husband Jay was bisexual and was
disturbed by it for many years to come.
LAMB: You know, one--there was one point when I was reading that you're
talking about a fellow by the name of the--this is totally out of context,
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: And you said that--that he shot himself or was shot or whatever in a
hotel that is literally less than a block from where we're sitting.
Mr. TANENHAUS: I stayed in that hotel.
LAMB: The Bellevue Hotel.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: Out of context, is that known over there at that hotel? I
mean, is that still a...
Mr. TANENHAUS: I've wondered about that, because I can afford its rates and
I've stayed there a few times. And I've been tempted to ask them if they know
about that, but I haven't. That was a traumatic episode for Chambers because
it came not long after he had broken from the underground. And in the book, I
mention, as you know, that Chambers predicted Kravitsky would be
He knew Kravitsky would die soon.
LAMB: Who was Kravitsky?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Walter Kravitsky was a--a Soviet agent, a Russian Jew, as
many of them were and many of Chambers' friends were, who had been the
resident, as it was called, the chief operating officer for Soviet military
intelligence in The Hague, and broke in the late '30s after refusing to
assassinate his boyhood friend Ignas Rice, who was assassinated anyway.
Kravitsky fled to Paris, issued a public statement denouncing Stalin and the
Communists and then fled to the United States. And not long afterward,
Chambers met him through the auspices of their common friend Isaac Don
an anti-Communist journalist. Chambers and Kravitsky then became very close
friends and mutual advisers. Chambers helped Kravitsky acclimate himself to
America. Kravitsky educated Chambers in the importance of informing for
LAMB: And how'd he die?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Kravitsky was--had come to Washington to testify
before the House committee on un-American activities and the night before was
staying in his hotel room. And the next morning, when the maid came to clean
the hotel room, she saw his corpse on the floor and a pistol in his hand and
suicide notes written suspiciously in three languages: Russian, German and
English. Kravitsky's widow had warned, and Kravitsky himself had, that he
might well be killed. And she refused to believe he had killed himself,
because things were actually going very well for him. He'd published a
series of successful articles in the Saturday Evening Post, made quite a bit
of money. His memoirs were a success. And he was making a life for himself
and his son. However, there's no evidence, hard evidence, that anyone
assassinated him. The door was bolted, the windows were locked. So it's
possible he was somehow driven to suicide by his fear of assassination.
LAMB: You mentioned when we were going through the story about Bob
the National Endowment for the Humanities giving you a grant, and another
supporter of yours was William F. Buckley Jr.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: How did he figure in this whole story and why was he a supporter of
Mr. TANENHAUS: Very early on when I decided I was going to write this
knew it would be essential to at least attract the interest and cooperation,
if not support, of William Buckley. He was Chambers' closest friend in the
last years of Chambers' life and had edited a marvelous series of letters
called "Odyssey of a Friend," which was the very voluminous correspondence
Chambers sent him from 1954 until his death in 1961. Chambers was bedridden
in his last years. This is something, I think, even people who know a fair
amount about him don't realize. I learned it simply because I had to prepare
a chronology for my book and I calculated what he was doing in any
given month. And he was on his back a lot of the time.
So he wrote very lengthy letters to Bill Buckley, who became a kind of second
son to him. He was 24 years younger than Chambers. He was handsome and
gifted and brilliant and determinedly anti-Communist, very literary, wonderful
writer, very charming. And Chambers saw him as someone who, perhaps, could
carry the torch. And also Buckley had a great gift of friendship. He would
visit Chambers a lot at the farm. So I knew that Bill Buckley was one of the
gatekeepers to the Chambers legacy. And so I approached him, explained I
wanted to write this biography, that it would be a full portrait of Chambers,
not simply a rehash of the Hiss case. And he said, `I'd like to help, but
another guy's been working on this book for seven years and hav--that--hasn't
gotten very far with it.' And...
LAMB: Who--who was that?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, he's a--quite a gifted writer named John Fox, who is
now, I believe, with the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund,
at--was, at one point, with the State Department. He got a great deal of
wonderful research on Chambers which was very generously shared with
me. He found the project overwhelming. He was working full time and so
LAMB: Working full time not on the book, but...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Not on the book; working for the State Department and
think writing articles in addition. And so William Buckley was initially
skeptical. Then I think he saw, after a certain point, that I really meant
business, that I was going to write this book. And then he became more
interested in it. We began to correspond. And he opened many doors for me
and advised me in countless ways, although in the most inconspicuous
and graceful manner. He never once asked to see a word or page, never told me
what I ought to be doing, what I ought to be thinking. He was just a great
source of encouragement throughout.
LAMB: How many folks did you send the galleys to read before it all
came out to make sure that you were right?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Very few, because by the end, I knew more than anyone
And this--this happens often with biographers. A certain point comes in the
research when you stop talking to people, even people who knew your subject
very well, because they've forgotten, they are confused about dates, they
remember what they'd like to remember rather than what really happened. By
the time I had completed the manuscript, there was really no one left who
could tell me all that much. I did show it to Bill and one or two others.
And Bill was not delighted with my treatment of Joseph McCarthy, who's dealt
with quite critically in the book, and to my surprise, the early reviewers
have not mentioned that at all--not so much because I should be praised for
that but because Chambers' relationship with McCarthy was very interesting and
complicated. But otherwise, Bill had no suggestions or changes to make in
the--the presentation of his friendship, for instance.
LAMB: Who was Joseph McCarthy?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Joseph McCarthy, born in 1909, was a junior senator from
Wisconsin in 1950 after the Hiss verdict--the guilty verdict was achieved.
And 15 days later, I believe--about two weeks later--gave a speech in which he
declared there were as many as 205 active Communists still working in the
State Department and thereby...
LAMB: We better go back over that just in case...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: ...people didn't hear it the first time. The --he made this speech
how much after the verdict in the Hiss case?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, I should amend that. It was two weeks after Hiss was
sentenced. The- verdict in the Hiss...
LAMB: But the Hiss case was over.
Mr. TANENHAUS: ...was about two to three weeks over and caused a great
because Hiss--there had been two trials and Hiss, after the first, had
received a hung jury. The vote was 8:4 to convict. The second trial he was
found guilty of perjury, two counts of perjury, which really meant espionage,
because he had perjured himself in denying he had passed confidential papers
to Chambers. He could not be tried for espionage because the statute of
limitations was only three years at that point and all this had happened in
the late 1930s. After Hiss' conviction, there was a great outcry, and
conservatives pointed not only to Hiss but to his wide support among Truman
administration officials, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a friend
of Hiss', as evidence that Communists were still being sheltered by the
Democrats then in power. And McCarthy with great but ghastly demagogic skills
was able to make that the great frightening crusade of the early 1950s.
LAMB: He gave a speech. What happened?
Mr. TANENHAUS: After he gave the speech, initially, surprisingly little,
because speeches like it were being made by others--not as dramatic as
LAMB: What year?
Mr. TANENHAUS: 1950 McCarthy made his speech.
LAMB: How old was he then? …
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was then 41 or 40. He was born in 1909. Maybe it was
1908. It was a...
LAMB: But he died--What?--in...
Mr. TANENHAUS: He died in 1957 still in his late 40s, by then a--a ruin. As
McCarthy traveled, because he was then on a junket, he found reporters
questioning him about the speech not because of the allegations--the general
allegations he'd made. Interestingly, the language of McCarthy's notorious
address was copied almost verbatim from a speech Richard Nixon, then still a
congressman, had made before Congress, after the verdict again. What was
important was McCarthy's allegation that there were many Communists, active
Communists still in the State Department. And that caused a great furor and
McCarthy realized at that point that he had a live, hot issue, that there was
much more to be made of the Hiss case than anyone had realized. And Chambers
initially supported McCarthy. That's a very important point because it's not
well known. In fact, I, essentially, discovered it while in the course of
researching this book, that for the first couple of years McCarthy was on his
rampage, Chambers, though behind the scenes and backstage and never public in
his endorsement of him, was a supporter of McCarthy.
LAMB: In 1950 he gave his speech. Harry Truman was president; Joseph
McCarthy was a Republican from Wisconsin.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: Who was in control of the Senate? Do you remember?
Mr. TANENHAUS: In 1950, it was still--the Democrats because in 1948,
remember, Truman had won the great upset victory which had swept the
back into power. In 1950, in the off-year elections led by McCarthy,
Republicans were able to cut into that majority. It was not until 1954 or
'52, I believe, that the Republicans actually gained control of Congress.
LAMB: Who was on McCarthy's side and who was against him then?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Among political figures?
LAMB: Yeah, or people that everybody would recognize. I mean, it was--you've
mention Bill Buckley was irritated that--where is Bill Buckley today on Joseph
Mr. TANENHAUS: Today, Bill Buckley says he wished McCarthy had never
However, he believes with many--and they're right to some degree--that
McCarthyism was exaggerated as a threat to American liberty. There they are
quite right. There was a phrase devised at the time called the anti-McCarthy
hysteria, the hysteria about the McCarthy hysteria. Many of those who were
being attacked by McCarthy had, indeed, been Communists who for many years
not raised their voices in protest against far more horrific goings on in the
Soviet Union and yet defended themselves now as true believers in democracy.
There was definitely a hypocrisy there which McCarthy and others seized on.
So his supporters, initially, included many of the Republican conservatives on
the Hill. Even Robert Taft quietly supported--backed McCarthy because of
the--the partisan gains he was making.
LAMB: Where was Whittaker Chambers in 1950?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was on the farm writing "Witness." And this is one of the
extraordinary things about Chambers. I can't think of another man,
another American who could be meeting with Joseph McCarthy one day and the
next writing one of the great literary classics of the century. To combine those
features in a single mind or soul is almost beyond comprehension.
Chambers was introduced to McCarthy by a couple of people, first, Richard
Nixon, interestingly enough, who at that point had the reputation for being
the most successful of the `red hunters' or `witch hunters' in Congress
because he had led the Hiss case. He had led the investigation as a
35-year-old freshman congressman, led it with remarkable brilliance and
tactical savvy. In 1950, Nixon and most Republicans--all the Republicans from
the midlands and the West, the heartland Republicans, were pro-McCarthy. That
did not mean they agreed that everyone he named was a Soviet agent, but
they thought McCarthy was making a valid point, which was that the Communists
had not been driven out of the government.
LAMB: Let me ask you as a side--publishing issue--"Witness" came out a couple
of years ago in paperback by the Regnery Corporation, and you mentioned in
here Henry Regnery, and Al Regnery runs that publishing outfit. Now the book
that they published--Gary Aldridge--recently was a big best-seller. Where
didn't Henry Regnery figure in that whole world back there?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Henry Regnery, another very interesting man--the late
Regnery was another example of a liberal who had gone right. He had been
connected in the late '30s with the American First Movement--America First
Movement, the isolationists, somewhat pro-German faction in the United States.
He ha--was of German descent, spoke fluent German--I believe Al does,
lived in Germany and had favored non-intervention by the United States during
the Second World War.
After the war, he founded a publishing company--then in Chicago; now as you
know it's in Washington--Henry Regnery Company, one of the very few
conservative publishing companies that existed at the time. There were only
two or three of them. And he published William Buckley's first book in 1951,
"God & Man at Yale." That was a best-seller, made its author famous and also
put Regnery on the map. Chambers met Regnery the following year while invited
to Milwaukee to receive an honorary degree at a Catholic college there.
Regnery had then gone to Chambers' room--hotel room, introduced himself. And
Chambers later said that it was one of the three or four times in his life
that he had instantly struck a rapport with someone.
In the years that followed, Chambers became an unofficial adviser to the
Regnery Company. It was Chambers who helped Russell Kirk's book, "The
Conservative Mind," become a best-seller when it was published. He used his
influences at Time magazine. Chambers and Regnery remained close up until the
time of Chambers' death. He was a literary man. He was the kind of person
Chambers was most comfortable with. Even when he was backing McCarthy, he
never at ease with him. He was never really at east with Nixon, although he
had far greater respect for him. It was a literary man who attracted him and
made him feel comfortable.
LAMB: By the way, a couple of odds and ends. How long did Mrs. Chambers,
Esther Chambers, live after Whittaker Chambers died in 1960?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He died in '61.
Mr. TANENHAUS: She died in 1986, and she lived alone in the farmhouse for
those next 25 years.
LAMB: And you said that you talked to John Chambers but not Ellen. Why not?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I wrote to her and asked if she would like to speak with me
and she did not reply. And John told me that he really acted for the two of
them, that it was very painful for them both. This is something people
probably are not as aware of today unless they have firsthand memories of the
Hiss case. Chambers was reviled in a very nasty and calculated way for
many years. And his children, who were then adolescents at the time of the
Hiss case, the most sensitive time for any child, suffered the brunt of that.
And they simply did not wish to cooperate with another book, even though it
was the first, even though it would be sympathetic, that dredged up those bad
LAMB: This book sells for $35.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.
LAMB: How many did they print?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Thirty-five thousand.
LAMB: What's your suspicion? Enough--you going to--you know, what--how
interest do you think there'll be in this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It's very hard to say. It's a Book of the Month Club dual
main selection. So there are--that would indicate there's some wider
interest. The major book reviews and publications all have indicated interest
in the book. It's not yet published yet. And yet there have already been
five reviews, each was the lead review in the publication in which it
appeared. I was especially pleased that the stronghold of pro-Hiss sentiment
in the United States, The Nation magazine, gave the book a quite favorable
review, which indicates to me that people now are ready to hear the whole
story told from the other side. People, I think, long felt a residual guilt
on behalf of Alger Hiss as long as he was living. While he was there
proclaiming his innocence, it was difficult for many to discount that. With
his death, the case passed into history, and Chambers, I think, is emerging as
the more interesting, fascinating character.
LAMB: By the way, where'd you go to school?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I was an undergraduate at Grinnell College. And...
LAMB: Where's that?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That is in Grinnell, Iowa. And I did a year of graduate work
at Yale University in New Haven.
LAMB: What were you studying at Yale?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I studied English literature. It's also what I studied as an
LAMB: As you know, we haven't scratched the surface on this book yet.
Mr. TANENHAUS: We haven't gotten close.
LAMB: What's new in here?
Mr. TANENHAUS: A lot. My account of Chambers' years in the underground
includes material that comes from KGB documents that are not only new but are
not supposed to have been released. I had a brilliant researcher, Alan
Cullinson, now with Associated Press in Moscow, who was able to get ahold of
documents from the bowels of the KGB that describe, in detail, the
interrogations of some of Chambers' colleagues including one, Arnold Ichal,
whom we showed earlier.
This book also describes in a--completely the--the Hiss case from the first
punch to the final knockout. Oddly enough, it had never been done. There
have been books about the case. They tend to be analytical. Mine is the
first story. What did Nixon say on such and such a date? Who was he
confiding in? What choices was he making? What did Chambers make of Nixon?
Why did Chambers make a certain statement he did on a certain day? And--and
much of that was based on firsthand news accounts. I don't think anyone had
bothered to look at the massive newspaper coverage.
The Hiss case was a local story--the Baltimore papers, the Washington papers.
And as you know, in that era there were far more newspapers than there are
today. That's how people got the news. New York City, for instance, had
eight daily papers. They covered all aspects of the case, and there were many
surprising twists and turns that emerged from that. For instance, I was able
to piece together for the first time the actually sequence of events that led
to Chambers' attempted suicide at the time of the case, mainly by collating
various documents from that period.
Shortly before Hiss was indicted in December of 1948, Chambers had made the
revelation that the two had, in fact, been spies. Prior to that, very
important to know, Chambers had not overtly accused Alger Hiss of being an
espionage agent. He simply said he had belonged to an underground Communist
unit. Later it would be said Chambers lied about this and should be
distrusted. He didn't lie about it. He hedged about it. He said --that
--Hiss' group would eventually have been involved in espionage. He was
LAMB: We're about out of time...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh...
LAMB: ...on this -- of a two-part series on this.
Mr. TANENHAUS: OK.
LAMB: The--the rat poisoning--was that when he tried to kill himself?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. When Time magazine, after Chambers produced the
papers, realized he had lied to them, they knew he would have to be dismissed
and Chambers would, too. Time magazine was his last remaining ally. He went
to the--Foley Square where the in--witnesses were being questioned. It was
still in the grand jury phase. And Alger Hiss, interestingly enough, in a
memo to his lawyer, said, `Whittaker Chambers looked very unhappy today.'
And that happened only a few days after Chambers purchased the rat tin and also
the day after he had publicly announced he would resign for--from Time. So I
realized that was the day he had tried to kill himself.
LAMB: We'll continue this discussion in our second part of a two-part series
on this book called "Whittaker Chambers" by Sam Tanenhaus. Thank you.
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