NEW YORK, Nov. 15 -- Alger Hiss, a distinguished former diplomat accused of helping communists, died Friday at a New York Hospital. He was 92. Jean Brett, a spokeswoman for Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, said Hiss 'died today after a long illness,' but would provide no other details. Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 on the basis of testimony by Whittaker Chambers in a highly publicized case that boosted the early career of Richard Nixon. Chambers, an acknowledged former communist, accused Hiss of having been part of a communist espionage ring in the 1930s, a charge Hiss steadfastly denied. Hiss was the personification of the 'Eastern Establishment,' a brilliant, privileged product of the best schools who gravitated to the law, government and diplomacy. He also was a central figure in one of the bitterest and most sensational controversies of the Cold War period that began shortly after World War II. He served three years and eight months in a federal penitentiary for perjuring himself by denying that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s. He went to prison maintaining his innocence and continued to do so for the rest of his life. His case went through two trials and wasn't finally put to rest until 1983. Along the way,it served as a kind of trophy for those who maintained the federal government had been infiltrated by communists; a bitter pill for those who saw Hiss as a scapegoat for Red-baiting politicians and his case as the springboard Nixon's career and the first clear sign of the McCarthy era to come.
Hiss was a tall, hollow-eyed man of soft speech and aristocratic bearing, so highly regarded in the State Department during World War II that he was at Franklin D. Roosevelt's elbow at the Yalta Conference and the principal staff man at the Dumbarton Oaks conference that drafted the plan for the United Nations. Hiss was born in Baltimore of middle-class parents on Nov. 11, 1904. He was 2 years old when his father committed suicide. He attended Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law school, where he was a protege of Felix Frankfurter. He went directly from law school into service as law clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the 'Great Dissenter' of the Supreme Court. After three years in private practice in Boston, Hiss returned to Washington, joining, like so many other fledgling New Dealers, the Agriculture Department. He worked for a Senate committee investigating munitions manufacturers and then, even though it meant a cut in salary, moved on to the State Department in 1936. Nine years later, he was one of the United States' top professional diplomats and in 1946 John Foster Dulles hand-picked him to succeed Nicholas Murray Butler as president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a journalist and former Communist underground agent, testified before the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities that Hiss, among others, belonged to a Communist 'cell' in New Deal government circles. He said Hiss had given him State Department secrets for the Soviets. Chambers, short, pudgy and rumpled, almost the antithesis of the elegant Hiss, testified in detail about Hiss and his wife Priscilla, their home, and their doings in the 1930s. A brilliant writer, Chambers had become a senior editor of Time magazine after breaking away from Communism. His identification of Hiss extended to such things as recalling that 'when viewed from behind, he walks with a slight mince,' and that Hiss, a bird watcher, had once boasted of sighting the rare warbler near the Potomac River. And he said he remembered that he and Hiss met in the Port Arthur Tavern in New York's Chinatown with a shadowy Soviet underground chieftain, a Colonel Bykov, who persuaded Hiss to send him secret papers through Chambers. Most committee members thought Chambers was lying. These included Nixon, a freshman congressman from California. But Nixon eventually decided it was Hiss who was lying and began a dogged pursuit that ended in the conviction and downfall of Hiss. Hiss demanded to confront his accuser and Nixon brought them together in a room at the Commodore Hotel in New York. Hiss asked to see Chambers' teeth. Chambers bared them. Hiss said this was a man he had known as George Crosley. Thomas F. Murphy, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Hiss in his summation in the second, convicting trial in 1950, told the jury to envision a giraffe and a hippopotamus meeting in the jungle and the giraffe finally saying, 'Why, it's George Crosley!' As the case heated up, Chambers produced microfilmed typewritten copies of secret papers -- film retrieved from a hollowed-out pumpkin at Chambers' Maryland farm and that became known as the 'pumpkin papers.' A New York federal grand jury began investigating thecase. Hiss's lawyers found a long-lost Woodstock typewriter that had belonged to Mrs. Hiss and turned it over to the prosecutor's staff. It turned out to be the evidence that convicted Hiss: FBI experts in two trials testified the keys matched the letters on the typewritten copies of the State Department documents. The grand jury indicted Hiss for perjury on Dec. 15, 1948, on two charges: that he lied when he said he never turned over the documents and when he said he never had seen Chambers since 1937. The first trial, in summer 1949 -- featuring the appearance of two Supreme Court justices as Hiss character witnesses -- ended in a hung jury. The second ended in conviction on Jan. 20, 1950. Hiss went to federal prison, serving just less than four years of a five-year sentence. He came out a ruined man, disbarred in both the federal and state courts. He got work as a printing and stationery salesman and made some public appearances that gradually attracted less and less public attention. Hiss always claimed he was framed by the FBI. He said he was convicted by 'forgery by typewriter,' and that 'We were allowed to find a typewriter that was not mine.' A number of books and a television 'docu-drama' were made about the case. Writers and researchers continually came up with new arguments on one side or the other. After the Watergate tapes were disclosed, Hiss claimed a portion of one Nixon comment in 1973 would help clear him. In the transcript, Nixon told John Dean about the Hiss case: 'Then we got the evidence. We got the typewriter. We got the pumpkin papers. We got all that ourselves ...' But the hope was dashed. On Oct. 11, 1983, one month from Hiss' 79th birthday, the Supreme Court refused to accept an appeal of his 33-year- old conviction. In May 1988, the Chambers farm, site of the pumpkin patch, was declared a national historic monument. Donald P. Hodel, Interior secretary in the Reagan administration, proposed and granted the designation, calling Chambers 'a figure of transcendent importance in the nation's history.' Hodel took the action over objections of the National Park Service advisory board. The board noted a Park Service guideline that 50 years should pass before a site is declared a landmark. Known as Pipe Creek Farm, the site is in Westminster, Md., north of Washington. A Hiss memoir, 'Recollections of a Life,' was published in 1988 when he was 83. Only three of the book's 17 chapters dealt with his confrontation with Chambers and the aftermath. A review in The New York Times Book Review said, 'Since the Supreme Court in 1983 rejected Hiss's appeal of a lower court's denial of his last petition for new trial ... he has, he writes, 'run out my string in court.' Thus 'Recollections of a Life' is probably his own last argument for his innocence.'