Rogues' Gallery: Whittaker Chambers

By Talia Squires

April 14, 2019

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A huge part of my job is to find and talk about the many amazing bi role models out there. I could write poems in iambic pentameter to the perfection of Stephanie Beatriz and stanzas about how awesome it is that Travon Free is talking about his bisexuality. In fact, I spend more than a little bit of my time doing just that, and it’s wonderful. I love being able to show the world how many wonderful, intelligent, powerful, talented, beautiful, artistic souls are, and have been, bi.

However, in doing all this delightful research, I occasionally run across a person who was definitely bi, but also somewhat less delightful. Of course none of us are perfect. Alexander the Great was a famous bi, but he also conquered some people who were not so interested in being conquered. There was good and bad, but history generally remembers him as a person to be in awe of and so he is included on our list of famous bis.

Then there are some bis who are more infamous. There are bi gangsters, murderers, and spies. Their stories are more complicated and the way that history remembers them is more complicated. When I read about these people I often sigh because they are a part of our bi history and they are still interesting people. However, I don’t quite feel like they belong on our famous bis list, because the picture isn’t quite so sunny.

And so I’ve decided to create a bi “Rogues' Gallery.” This is for the folks who history doesn’t remember as fondly, whose stories aren’t as easy to tell, who did things that are frankly villainous, but are also bi. Just as our famous bis aren’t the stars they are because they are bi; our rogues are not rogues because they are bi.

I initially thought that this would be an easy project. Find a “bad bi,” plant tongue in cheek, and write about the person. Of course people are never as simple as they seem at first glance and this proposition became more complicated than I expected. None of you will be surprised that there are no perfect saints and that there are no perfect villains. Regardless of how the scales balance in the end, history has remembered my rogues as infamous for one reason or another, but I leave you to make up your own mind.

And so, let me present to you my first bi rogue: Whittaker Chambers. I hadn’t heard of him until very recently, and I fully admit I was hooked by the words “Soviet Spy.” After reading that there was a bi soviet spy somewhere in the history of the US, I needed to know more.

Whittaker Chambers
Whittaker Chambers during the HUAC investigation of Alger Hiss

In his own best-selling book Witness, Whittaker Chambers laments that he was actually born with the name Vivian Chambers on April 1st, 1901. It does not sound like an auspicious start. Supposedly his father didn’t believe his mother was in labor because of the date and no, not even in 1901, was Vivian a common boy’s name.

However, young Vivian was an incredibly intelligent and ambitious polyglot. He saw the many problems in his own middle class family; his father’s alcoholism and infidelity, his brother’s depression and eventual suicide, his mother’s poverty and aspirations and concluded that something was deeply wrong with society.

He briefly attended Williams College and then enrolled at Columbia University. His professors and fellow students were impressed by his writing. It was while he was there that he was exposed to Communism. In 1924 he read and was deeply moved by Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet’s at Work. He saw the crises of his own family as symptomatic of the failing of the middle class.

In the early 1930s he was also earning money as a translator. He is probably best known for translating the best-seller Bambi, A Life in the Woods into English. Yes, the same Bambi that Walt Disney later turned into a movie.

Eventually Chambers joined “the underground.” (In college Whittaker Chambers started going by Whittaker, forever burying the name Vivian.) While in the underground, Chambers went by a number of aliases. This often makes reading accounts of his life very confusing and so for clarity, I shall continue to refer to him as Whittaker Chambers. As a spy for the Soviet Union, he dealt with a number of agents in the US government bringing information to his handlers.

Eventually, Chambers grew disillusioned with Communism and went underground to escape the party (and avoid the often deadly Soviet retaliation). There are two major reasons he gives for leaving Communism, something that he had dedicated so much of  his life to. One is that he became a devout Christian and he felt that Communism is antithetical to Christianity. He was also frightened by Stalin’s Great Purge, which was leading to the death of many of his former heroes and friends.

In the 1978 book Perjury, Allen Weinstein revealed that Whittaker Chambers had also had relationships with men while he was a member of the Communist Party. The FBI has a copy of a letter in which Chambers described his same-sex relationships and also stated that he ceased having same-sex relationships in 1938 when he left the underground and became a Christian.

After leaving he stayed off the radar before reappearing, working with the US government (not as a spy this time). In 1939, he named 18 Communist spies or sympathizers who were or had been in the US government. This list included Alger Hiss who had been in the State Department.

Through most of the 1940s Whittaker Chambers became well known as a writer and editor at Time magazine. While there he wrote and edited for almost every department. One of Chambers' cover stories, about Marian Andersen, became so popular that, at the request of readers, the magazine broke its rule of non-attribution.

In 1948, Chambers was interviewed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and once again gave the name of Alger Hiss. There was little evidence against Hiss, but Richard Nixon, working with secret information from the FBI decided to pursue Hiss. Chambers eventually produced some documents that had been hidden in a pumpkin (yes, a pumpkin) on his farm, supposedly proving that Hiss had been a spy.

Because of the statute of limitations, Hiss could not be tried for espionage, so he was instead tried for perjury. Chambers was one of the most important witnesses in this trial which was breathlessly followed by many around the world.

Hiss had been high up in the State Department, so if he was found guilty of espionage (technically of perjury) this could have serious consequences for those that allowed him to remain in the government after the initial accusations. Some conservatives used this trial to imply that presidents Roosevelt and Truman were soft on communism (and by extension the Soviet Union) and that New Deal Democrats could no longer be trusted. The amount of time that had passed, the absurdity of the "Pumpkin Papers" and the seeming untrustworthiness of a former spy, led many to doubt Chambers' testimony. The first trial ended in a deadlock, and Hiss was found guilty of both charges of perjury in the second. This victory helped to strengthen HUAC's influence in the government.

Ronald Reagan would later credit Chambers’ book Witness (which was part autobiography, part navel-gazing, part anti-Communist rant) with turning him from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican. In 1984, Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers The Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to “the century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism.”

In 1955 William F. Buckley Jr. started the conservative magazine National Review and Chambers worked there as a founding editor for a year and a half. I could go on endlessly about his colorful life both as a spy and as a father of modern American conservatism, but I think that the late great journalist Christopher Hitchens (who was also bi) does an excellent job summing up Chambers' life:

“An unstable fantasy-merchant signs up as an agent of Josef Stalin. He lives a series of lies for almost a decade, and cultivates the habits and practices of deception. He then tries to go straight, and denounces his former comrades. But he steadfastly denies that Communists and fellow-travellers were involved in spy work. Then, as the Cold War pressure-cooker heats up, he remembers that there was some espionage after all. He lends himself to the most depraved right-wing circles, whose real objective is the undoing of the New Deal and the imposition of a politically conformist America. He amends and updates his story. Eventually, under what amounts to a threat to make good on his allegations – a threat issuing from the ambitious and neurotic Richard Nixon – he finds evidence against Alger Hiss hidden inside a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm.”

Was Whittaker Chambers a rogue? When reading his slightly over the top autobiography/anti-communist tirade, I suspect that he is simply an inconsistent egoist who needs to feel as if he is in the center of history (which still isn’t excellent). When reading other accounts of the impact of the book Witness and the Hiss trial on modern-day conservatism and the rise of the religious right, I suspect he is a rogue. I am also sure that there are those who would argue that spying on your country for a foreign power would put you safely in the rogue category. I’m sure still more would feel that turning in your former fellow communists to HUAC is equally roguish. Rogue, rebel, or hero, Whittaker Chambers was certainly unique.

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