Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 65:14 July 9, 1999 p.12

[Three] Books on [Fathers:] Alger Hiss, Ben Reitman, and the Wagner Family

Coming to Terms with One's Father's Past

1460 words

by Leonard Lehrman/Helene Williams

The View from Alger's Window : A Son's Memoir by Tony Hiss; New York : Knopf, 1999, 241 pp.

No Regrets : Dr. Ben Reitman and the Women Who Loved Him by Mecca Reitman Carpenter; Lexington, Mass. : SouthSide Press, 1999, 212 pp.

Twilight of the Wagners : The Unveiling of a Family's Legacy by Gottfried Wagner; New York : Picador (St. Martin's) 1999, 310 pp. English translation by Dell Couling of Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult Koeln : Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1997

[Rehabilitating Alger Hiss]

"Why did he do what he did? Whom was he protecting?" Those questions still haunt experts on the Alger Hiss case, including the judge who, decades later, turned down the final appeal for a new trial.

The 1948 case launched the careers of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, not to mention its key witness, Whittaker Chambers, who would be honored posthumously by (and for having inspired) Ronald Reagan.

Like Oscar Wilde a century ago in England, Alger Hiss was goaded into pursuing a libel case to preserve his own good name, with ruinous results: his diplomatic career, which had culminated in his leading the United Nations conference in San Francisco as its first Secretary-General, was shattered by a conviction of perjury implying that he had been part of a network of spies for Russia.

Tony Hiss's tenth book, written in and taking its title from the Greenwich Village apartment where he grew up and still lives today [with his wife and son], does not address the extensive evidentiary documents on which Alger Hiss was convicted in his second trial-- the first one [in which the prosecutor concentrated on the reliability of Chambers vs. that of Hiss] had resulted in a hung jury.

[These have already been the subject of thousands of pages of inquiry and speculation. And that part of the story is still under investigation: efforts are under way to have 700 pages from Hiss's FBI files "un-blacked out"; and just 7 weeks ago, thousands of pages from the sealed grand jury testimony were ordered unsealed by a federal judge; they are expected to become available this fall.]

What the book does address is his father's humanity and consistency of character, as shown in his private correspondence. The gentle wisdom of this protege of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Franklin Roosevelt inspired Leon Botstein, at whose Bard College there is now an endowed Alger Hiss professorship. It does not--cannot--produce a guilt-convincing "smoking gun," nor its opposite:

"What is the opposite of a 'smoking gun,' the conclusive, clinching negative that sews everything up? We haven't come up with the phrase for such a situation; perhaps we haven't run across enough of them to need one. Swords get beaten into plowshares, or so at least the prophet Isaiah, who saw far into the future, predicted, on a day beyond his time (and still awaited by our own). Maybe the phrase 'shining plowshare' will do." [p.41]

And yet in one sense at least the book does provide a partial answer to the questions with which we opened. Some have speculated that Alger acted as he did in order to protect his wife, who had allegedly typed the incriminating documents but was never indicted. The book now reveals that it was her son Timothy Hobson, Alger's stepson, who was the one being "protected."

v [He had been present at all the Hiss-Chambers encounters, of which he says there were far fewer than Chambers claimed.] Now a retired 72-year-old physician, Tim recalls how the FBI harassed him repeatedly inquiring into his sex life and his dishonorable discharge from the army for homosexuality: "I feel as though I was blackmailed into not testifying in the Hiss case. I wanted to testify, but Alger wouldn't have it. He told his lawyers, 'I'd rather go to jail than see Tim cross- examined about his private life.' That's the way Alger invariably behaved--throwing himself in front of the dragons." [p.220]

v "Tim felt that if he had testified and Alger had been found innocent," Tony concludes, "maybe that could have exerted a moderating influence on the Cold War, and helped keep McCarthy from gaining a foothold. 'Maybe we might even have been spared the Korean War or the Vietnam War!' Tim said." [p.221]

Unscrambling Ben Reitman

v Mecca Reitman Carpenter's ferreting out the story of her father Ben Reitman (1879-1942) makes no claims on such a cosmic scale. But it is a fascinating account of a pioneer in the history of reproductive freedom, who has hitherto been known, if at all, primarily as the "bad boy" manager and sidekick of the flamboyant anarchist Emma Goldman.

Though it leaves out the unsurnamed Jo, the chart of Ben Reitman's seven most important liaisons is extremely helpful. Emma Goldman, the only one older than he (by ten years), was #2, after his first wife May Schwartz. May gave him his first daughter, Helen, who became a lesbian and changed her name to Jan Gay (1902-60). An extremely important activist for Nacktkultur, after extensive travel, especially in Germany, in 1931 she authored and published a beautiful book which has become a classic (still available in some libraries) that deserves to be reprinted: On Going Naked.

How and whether Helen/Jan had been influenced by her father, who had abandoned her and her mother, but whom she later looked up and whose lectures she attended in Chicago, is beyond the scope of this book. But given Ben Reitman's penchant for theatricality (Goldman complained of how he came to a breakfast meeting naked while they were on tour in Oregon), it does seem as if the fruit did not fall that far from the tree. Films of Jan Gay, including excerpts of several productions she participated in of Tom Cushing's classic play Barely Proper are in the possession of and being edited for distribution [by The Naturist Society in Oshkosh, Wisconsin].

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota of recently-arrived Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Ben remained ever attached to his mother (and her "good Jewish cooking"), predeceasing her by two years. Tiring of being tormented as "Sheeny Ben," he "began attending Protestant Sunday School after he heard the local church was giving away free candy at Christmas," and later became a Baptist. Despite his libertinism, he considered himself religious: "To others... religion is piety, morality and inhibition. To me religion is love and service." [p.15]

[Anna Martindale, another Jewish immigrant anarchist from England, bore him his only son, and designated heir, Brutus, who would die tragically of meningitis at age 25, just one year after Ben's death.]

The only other woman Ben would marry, legally, was Rose Siegel (1893-1980), to whom he wrote a poem, "Dear Cautious Jew Rose." She would characterize herself as "the plain little Jewish wife" while trying to get Ben to return to her from the arms of Medina Oliver (1904-1968), who would bear him Mecca (b.1936) and her three younger sisters.

One of the daughter-biographer's first research revelations was the discovery that her parents had never married each other legally. But despite this and his many acknowledged betrayals and infidelities, her overall assessment is distinctly and lovingly positive[: "Self-serving and generous, hypocritical and deeply insightful, dishonest in person but honest with posterity, destructive yet with immense vitality, a crackpot soapboxer with visions for a better world far ahead of his contemporaries." (p.171)]

Dr. Ben Reitman crusaded, was beaten, tarred, feathered, jailed, and run out of town for his efforts on behalf of the rights of women to control their own bodies; and "his lifetime efforts to educate and improve the health of hoboes," of which he had been and at heart remained one, "addressed conditions of the homeless that are with us today." [p.149]

Confronting the Wagner Past

Gottfried Wagner's book attempts to come to terms with his father Wolfgang and his family's past. In print in German since 1997, it has been discussed here at some length. Appearing finally only last May, the English version proves to have been well worth the wait.

On one level, Twilight of the Wagners is a book about Richard Wagner, his musical and political legacy, Bayreuth and the Festspiel, anti-Semitism and Nazism in Germany and the Wagner family. On another level, it is about Gottfried's search for a warm, loving father and family ties. But in the end, it is about Gottfried's own escape from the repressive mindset of virtually the entire Wagner family and tradition, resulting in his growth into a force for positive change in the world.

"We, the children of the victims and... victimizers," begins the six- point program of his Post-Holocaust Dialogue Group, "stand opposed to the repressing and silencing of any and all discussion of the Shoah..., fully believing that we are responsible for our own actions, ever mindful of the 'different other.'" Awkward as the English may sometimes be, the sentiments come through clearly. One looks forward to his staging of the new Jan Hamer- Mary Azrael-Yehuda Nir opera, The Lost Childhood.

photos: Ben Reitman's daughter Helen, who later changed her name to Jan Gay; "Dr. Ben Reitman grants audience to the press" [this is actually the caption for a photo that wasn't used; the one that was used is of a much older Ben] --Ruth and Joel Surgal

Tim [Hobson] with father Alger (middle) and brother Tony--Tony Hiss collection

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