By Richard Jerome
Updated December 02, 1996 12:00 PM

ALGER HISS, WHO DIED OF EMPHYSEMA in New York City on Nov. 15, was many things in his 92 years—lawyer, diplomat, architect of the United Nations. But after 1948, when a TIME magazine editor named Whittaker Chambers accused him of espionage, Hiss became a national Rorschach test. He was seen by some as a betrayer of his country who passed secrets to the USSR before World War II, by others as a selfless public servant who was himself betrayed by self-serving scaremongers.

What people saw in Hiss’s spare, patrician figure spoke volumes about their political faiths. Most conservatives thought his eventual imprisonment for perjury was justified. But to many liberals, Hiss was a martyr to anti-Red hysteria—and to the ambition of an obscure congressman who became famous by destroying him: Richard Nixon. Ironically the two adversaries would both grow old trying to mend shattered reputations. But if Nixon seemed obsessed with redemption, Hiss remained serene. “My father was the most unbitter man I ever knew,” says his son Tony, 55, a contributing writer for The New Yorker. “He believed that…people would come to their senses and exonerate him.”

Indeed, Hiss had many champions, and over nearly five decades, views on his innocence or guilt have waxed or waned with each new book or freshly unclassified document. In 1992, Russian archivist Dmitri Volkogonov said that he had found no evidence of Hiss’s supposed espionage in Soviet government intelligence files, but last year the U.S. National Security Agency released a document from 1945, alluding to a Soviet agent the agency said was “probably Alger Hiss.” “The notion…that there is doubt about his guilt,” says conservative pundit William F Buckley Jr., “is just witchcraft.”

Few people outside government circles had ever heard of Hiss before August 1948, when Whittaker Chambers first appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. An ex-Communist courier, Chambers charged that Hiss, while working for the State Department in the 1930s, had passed him purloined government documents. His most vivid evidence was the so-called Pumpkin Papers—actually undeveloped film Chambers had kept hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. The nation was enthralled by the confrontation between the elegant Hiss, the frumpy Chambers and the dogged investigator Nixon. Hiss, who denied giving information to Chambers, was tried twice for perjury—the statute of limitations for espionage having expired. After one hung jury, he was convicted in 1950 and sentenced to five years in prison.

It seemed a stunning end to a charmed career. Raised by his mother and aunt after his father’s suicide, the Baltimore-born Hiss graduated from Johns Hopkins University, earned a law degree at Harvard and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1933 he joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration, then settled into the State Department in 1936. As an adviser to the President, he attended the 1945 Yalta Conference, where FDR, Churchill and Stalin carved up postwar Europe. Later that year, Hiss played a key role in drafting the United Nations charter. In 1946 he became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York City.

Tony remembers vividly when his father was called before HUAC, on Aug. 5, 1948. “It was my seventh birthday,” he says, “so I was annoyed.” During Hiss’s time in prison, his wife, Priscilla, and their small son struggled to get by. With a scholarship, Tony continued to attend Manhattan’s exclusive Dalton School. I But his mother, who had taught there, I lost her job because of the scandal and wound up working in a bookstore.

In 1954, Alger won early release for good behavior. Disbarred and disgraced, he found jobs scarce and spent almost 20 years as a stationery salesman. “The real casualty of the ordeal was my parents’ marriage,” Tony says. “It was much more damaging to my mother than to anyone else.” Though the Hisses separated in 1959, Alger did not marry Isabel Johnson, his longtime companion, until after Priscilla died in 1984. Readmitted to the bar in 1975, he lectured and launched a legal challenge to his conviction, but the Supreme Court refused to hear his case.

In his last years, Hiss took great pleasure in his only grandchild, Jacob, the 5-year-old son of Tony and his wife, writer Lois Metzger. Jacob too became his defender. Recently the boy was playing in his New York City schoolyard. “The kids said, ‘Bad guys go to jail,’ ” recalls Metzger, “and Jacob said, ‘No, sometimes good guys do.’ ”