Sam Tanenhaus
Sam Tanenhaus
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Pt.1
ISBN: 0375751459
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Part 1
Sam Tanenhaus discussed his book, "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," published by Random House. Whittaker Chambers was a communist author and Soviet agent in his youth and later became a writer at Time. He was the main witness in the case against Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. This segment focused on Chambers's early life and the process of writing the book. This was the first half of a two-hour interview.
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TRANSCRIPT
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Part 1
Program Air Date: February 23, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sam Tanenhaus, can you remember the first time you ever heard the name Whittaker Chambers?
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 published 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 Hook, 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 kind.
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 bouts.
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 Congress--House 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 millions.
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.
LAMB: ...325,000...
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' father. 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 the 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 name?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He changed his name right before he went to college. The name 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 his family.
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 very closely.
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 years 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 bottom 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 that section?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I thought readers should understand that when Chambers lived 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 looked 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 all this.
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 the 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 things?
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 calculated it in awe, because that's the kind of money I have never had any sort of access to.
LAMB: Who paid you to do this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, I had a contract from Random House. I had a wonderful 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 early on.
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 project.
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 him 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 broke 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 and...
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 House, 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 a 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. And 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?
LAMB: Yeah.
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 book 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 even 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. To 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, Walter Kravitsky.
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 assassinated. 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 Levine, 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 ex-Communists.
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 Loomis and 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 yours?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Very early on when I decided I was going to write this book, I 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 withdrew.
LAMB: Working full time not on the book, but...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Not on the book; working for the State Department and also I 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 else. 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 furor 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 Chambers'.
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 Democrats 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 McCarthy?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Today, Bill Buckley says he wished McCarthy had never existed. 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 had 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 Henry 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, too--had 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 was 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.
LAMB: '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 memories.
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 much 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 undergraduate.
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 protecting Hiss.
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 spy 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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