Sam Tanenhaus: Whittaker Chambers


Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997)

One problem I had with reading the Whittaker Chambers' autobiography Witness (1952) was the depth of the closet from which he wrote; the Sam Tanenhaus biography Whittaker Chambers (1997) remedies Chambers' reticence. Early on, Tanenhaus acknowledges the bisexuality of both Whittaker Chambers and his father Jay:

It was many years before [Whittaker Chambers] realized the origins of [his mother's] frustration and rage. [His father] Jay Chambers was bisexual. But even as a child [Whittaker] had grasped that his father's life was divided into "separate compartments." So would the son's be, with far greater complexity. (p. 7)

Tanenhaus examines Chambers' bisexuality in as open a manner as could have been done, I suppose, although I still wish he had tied it back to the omissions in Witness that I mentioned previously. Tanenhaus writes that "Chambers's sexuality had become a new and troubling question for him" after adolescence:

He seems to have begun his affairs with women as a means of overcoming an attraction to men. He confided his secret to [Henry] Zolinsky, who was surprised. [...] Chambers himself barely understood it. He was shocked when he heard friends whispering about his "homosexual relationship" with Henry Bang's younger brother, Bub, seven years Chambers's junior. (p. 40)

The feelings Chambers had for Bub Bang may not have been requited or consummated, but the situation was indeed worthy of a few raised eyebrows. Chambers vacationed with Bang (pp. 53-54) and paid his college tuition (p. 63), but this episode is particularly intriguing:

Chambers insisted Bub Bang move in [with him and Gertrude Hutchinson] as well. [...] The quarters were close--two rooms plus kitchen--and stimulating, at least for Chambers, who ruled this tight roost. He proposed that Bub acquire sexual experience by sharing the favors of Hutchinson, who consented reluctantly, no doubt aware her body had become the means by which her two roommates consummated their passion for each other. The situation grew "rather intolerable and tense," and Chambers finally ended it and the "marriage" in 1929. (p. 61)

Chambers, however, disingenuously dismissed the gay rumors when they surfaced during the trial:

What about the talk of "something strange" in Chambers's relationship with Hiss--that is, that one or both were homosexual? "I know all of those stories," Chambers said. "There is just nothing to them." (p. 244, to Bert Andrews, Washington bureau chief of the Herald-Tribune)

Later, however, he revealed the truth to the FBI. Here he described his first homosexual experience, in 1933 or 1934:

"It was a revelation to me. As a matter of fact it set off a chain reaction in me which was almost impossible to control. [...] Since that time, and continuing up to the year 1938, I engaged in numerous homosexual activities both in New York and Washington, D.C. At first I would engage in these activities whenever by accident the opportunity presented itself.

However, after a while the desire became greater and I actively sought out the opportunities for homosexual relationships. [...] I never had a prolonged affair with any one man..." (p. 344, to the Baltimore FBI, 17 February 1949)

Chambers' early homoerotic poetry attracted some attention, with "Tandaradei" being read at trial. Michael Kimage observes in The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009) that "[t]he question of Chambers's homosexuality is complicated by an extreme thinness of documentary evidence. The existing evidence consists almost exclusively of Chambers's own homoerotic poetry and a brief FBI statement." (p. 321)

In addition to sexuality, I also read the Tanenhaus biography with an eye toward the final decade of Chambers' life. There are some insights here into his relationship with the young Bill Buckley and his columns for National Review, but I suppose I'll have to read Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 and Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers/Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960 to get a fuller picture of the position Chambers occupied in the nascent conservative movement of the Fifties. Tanenhaus notes how the Hiss/Chambers case kicked McCarthy's Red Scare into overdrive:

On February 9, fifteen days after Hiss was sentenced...Joseph McCarthy, addressing the Ohio County Women's Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, declared that as many as 205 known Communists "are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department."

So began the most destructive chapter in modern American political life. (p. 439)

The author was no fan of McCarthy, writing that he "moved in a world of blissful ignorance" and "knew nothing about communism as an ideology, a movement, or a party." (p. 454) Later, Tanenhaus noted the failures at the end of that paranoid era:

McCarthy's five-year rampage failed to produce a single certifiable Red. To the senator--and many of his followers--it scarcely mattered, as long as there remained a sufficient supply of liberals to smear. (p. 455)

Chambers himself played no small part in that psychodrama, smearing communists, atheists, and liberals with his writings both at Time and in his autobiography. In this context, his credibility-straining claim that he "had only the vaguest impression of the [House] Committee as a whole" before becoming its most famous witness:

I never read the reports it issued from time to time, and which occasionally reached my desk at Time. I almost never read a news story about it. I am a selective reader of the press, and among news I seldom read was crimes, disasters, scandals, the U.N., and news about the House Committee on Un-Americans Activities. (Witness, p. 536)

fails to convince. Tanenhaus is, on balance, far more even-handed and comprehensive--one reason why this biography garnered such significant praise. As one who knew Chambers during his Time years, Arthur Schlesinger writes in "The Truest Believer" (New York Times) that "Mr. Tanenhaus' biography goes as far as one can reasonably expect in unraveling the puzzle." In "The Great Pumpkin" from The Nation, Elinor Langer writes that Tananhaus' biography is "an honest and indispensible book...written in a clear, unpretentious prose that makes it a pleasure to read" but quibbles with his elisions and emphases. "The Authority of Witness" (Sewanee Review) provides many examples of Tanenhaus' over-deferential attitude toward Chambers as a source:

Tanenhaus does not distinguish between his own authority and that of Chambers. Over and over again Tanenhaus reports as undisputed fact interpretations and incidents (sometimes startlingly bizarre) for which the sole or chief authority is Whittaker Chambers.

The murky nature of the Hiss/Chambers case will likely persist, given such evidentiary problems. Tanenhaus, however, is to be commended for illuminating at least some of Chambers' secrets.


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