Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

Whittaker Chambers, Accuser

That someone was Whittaker Chambers. He had been born Jay Vivian Chambers in 1901 in Philadelphia. The Chambers family always struggled financially and often lived in poverty. His father was a book and magazine illustrator and his mother had abandoned a career as an actress for full-time homemaking. They moved to Long Island while Jay Vivian was little. Called "Vivian," a name he despised, the youngster was often ridiculed at school. His peers made fun of his supposedly sissy ways and called "Mr. Chamber Pot" and "Stinky," because of his aversion to bathing.

When Vivian was ten years old, the Chambers family suffered a devastating trauma. In those days in which homosexuality was scandalous, Chambers' father deserted his mother for a male lover.

Vivian Chambers grew into a pudgy, slovenly, but intelligent youth. He was known to have a tendency to exaggerate and for telling dramatic stories that played fast and loose with the truth. He also had a decided mean streak. The high school that he attended had a tradition of having a student deliver a "class prophecy" at graduation and Chambers was selected for this honor. At the ceremony he caused a female student untold embarrassment by predicting that she would become a prostitute.

However, Chambers had a sterling academic record and was accepted by Columbia University. During his college days, he started calling himself Whittaker, after his grandfather on his mother's side, Charles Whittaker. Considered an excellent writer, Chambers authored a play that the student magazine published. It dealt with the life of Christ in a way that the school thought blasphemous. He was kicked out of Colombia.

At loose ends, Chambers decided he wanted to see more of the world. Together with some like-minded friends, Chambers booked a boat to Europe. During his time there, he read widely in politics and economics, especially in the more radical authors, and enjoyed sexual adventures. The latter were confined to women for the bisexual Chambers was still trying to suppress his yen for men.

The trip ended and Columbia agreed to give Chambers a second chance. However, he had little enthusiasm for course work. For he was now entranced by Marxism and believed Communism held the answers to all the major problems facing humanity. He voluntarily left Columbia to work full-time for the Communist Party.

The Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, hired the young Marxist. Then he went to work for New Masses. His life was largely divided between the work he did for the Communist cause and a free-wheeling sex life that came to include homosexual as well as heterosexual contacts although the former were pursued far more furtively.

In 1926, he met an artist and fellow radical named Esther Shemitz. Whittaker was attracted to her physically and impressed by her willingness to brave police billy clubs at a strike managed by the Communist Party. The two were soon warm friends and, eventually, passionate lovers. Bohemian-fashion, they first moved in together, then legally wed in 1931.

In 1932, Chambers started spying for the Soviet Union. Through a covert group of associates, he received and photographed secret American government documents and passed the film to the USSR. For several years, this dedicated Communist routinely betrayed his country. Treason was more than acceptable to one who was devoted to the doctrines of Karl Marx.

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