Classic Essays

Michael Straight: The Reluctant Renegade

Michael Straight, perpetually at-loose-ends figure of the moneyed establishment, writer, reviewer, publisher of the New Republic, Communist spy, and White American renegade
Dorothy Payne Whitney, Michael’s mother

DOROTHY WHITNEY was an all-American blue-blooded baby. Her father, William C. Whitney, was Secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland. At Dorothy’s christening in Washington in 1887, the President, his Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the leaders of Congress were all on hand. Today, when America is much less a nation and its leaders are much less a family, so warm a tribute to the future — to tribal continuity personified in miniature — would be most unlikely.

Willard Straight, Michael’s father

Dorothy Whitney married Willard Straight, a J.P. Morgan partner. Son Michael also had an extended “family” of sorts, which stood ready to aid and encourage him in times of confusion and aimlessness. But, as we shall see, these kind souls were interested in events and issues that ranged far away from Michael’s cultural and racial matrix.

Michael Straight was born on September 1, 1916. Felix Frankfurter, the future Supreme Court justice, who was “All in the Family,” wrote to the infant:

Dear Michael:

Let me welcome you to a good world! Good not because all is nice and lovely in it. Far from it. But good because there never was a better chance to help make it nicer and lovelier . . . .

Walter Lippman

When Michael’s father died in France just two years later, it was young Walter Lippmann who wrote the letter of condolence to his mother which Michael would quote 65 years later in his memoir, After Long Silence (Norton, 1983). His father Willard Straight, although the moneybags of the New Republic, had been a “conservative,” at least by Michael’s reckoning. Once her husband was buried, however, mother Dorothy took to visiting the New York settlements with Lillian Wald, touring “the sweat shops . . . with Rose Schneiderman and Emma Goldman, women whom her brothers regarded as dangerous Reds.”

Straight’s birthplace, Applegreen, in Old Westbury, Long Island. (In 2011 it was sold by Steven Kantor, a Jewish Wall Street operator, to Qin Hui, a shady Hong Kong entertainment mogul, for about $16 million. Kantor’s real estate agent was Michael Berman.)

The trendy heiress sent her children to a school on the edge of Harlem where each morning “our underprivileged classmates would be lying in wait for us.” Michael and his “best friend, Bernard Naumberg . . . short-sighted and fat,” formed an “Alliance of the Weak.” Sister Beatrice Straight’s best friend was one Nina Fonaroff. Brother Whitney’s tutor was one Albert Crystal. Musicians like Fritz Kreisler and Joseph Hoffman, and hypersensitive poets like Siegfried Sassoon, enlivened the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion. But soon mother was remarried to an Englishman named “Jerry” Elmhirst, who founded a “progressive school,” Dartington Hall, in South Devon. Why Devon? “Because Rabindranath Tagore, his teacher and guide, had praised it.”

Harold Laski

(Dartington Hall was featured in the British scandal sheets in 1983. Twenty pupils were involved in 50 cases of housebreaking, either as burglars or receivers of stolen goods; three were arrested for drug-dealing; underage girl pupils were found to be having sexual intercourse with outsiders; etc. The principal himself, Dr. Lyn Blackshaw, had to resign suddenly in September when the Sun reproduced a photograph of him and his wife in the nude, describing it as “one of several amazing pornographic photos” first published some years ago in a sex magazine. News of the resignation came on the same day that parents received a letter from Dartington Hall trustees pledging “unequivocal” support for their principal. Even in the 1920s, recalls Straight, Dartington Hall promoted free love, nude bathing, voluntary classes, and student self-government “carried to ludicrous lengths,” while suppressing authority and punishment. “We [boys and girls] studied together and stood side by side in the showers. The notion that this would vaporize our adolescent desires was seen in time by our elders to be naïve.”)

Felix Frankfurter

At Dartington, the young students — three Straights and 14 local “waifs and strays” — neglected the three Rs but “were all too familiar with Freud’s interpretation of dreams.” When college days arrived, and Michael frantically realized how little he knew, he turned to Felix Frankfurter, who was “living in Oxford that year.”

Frankfurter had the answer. He sent me to see his close friend Harold Laski . . . a man despised by the right wing in Britain as a Socialist, an intellectual, and a Jew.

“In my-ah-opinion,” said Laski, “you should-ah-attend the-ah-London School of-ah-Economics-ah-for one-ah-year.” Qualifications? “That-ah-will depend on-ah-the Committee on-ah-Admissions, and-ah-since I happen to be-ah-the ah-Committee on-ah Admissions-ah-I ah-suspect that it might-ah-be arranged.” At the LSE, Straight immediately fell in with the radical student crowd, led by the future Buckleyite Frank Meyer, an American Jew who “looked like an Aztec priest, with his high cheekbones, his arched, sensual lips, and his long, narrow nose.” After one Hyde Park rally, Straight was sexually propositioned by a small, dark refugee from Germany named Leo Silberman: “I thought you were one of us,” Leo explained.

Frank Meyer

Soon it was on to Cambridge, where Maurice Dobb, “the tutor to whom I was assigned,” just happened to be one of the top intellectuals in the British Communist party. Someone also presumably encouraged Straight to attend Trinity College, where he was approached by James Klugman and John Cornford, Cambridge’s leading student Reds. Michael wound up rooming with a Hugh Gordon — who might, for all one knows, have been a Scot! The pair liked to invite the local Communists over for booming renditions of the “Internationale.” Directly overhead, the aged homosexual poet A.E. Housman “gnashed his teeth in impotent rage” at the Benny Goodman records.

Michael was asked to join a century-old secret society called the Apostles.

We met in [John Maynard] Keynes’s rooms. I held up my right hand and repeated a fearful oath, praying that my soul would writhe in unendurable pain for the rest of eternity if I so much as breathed a word about the society to anyone who was not a member.

Keynes was an anti-Marxist. Fellow Apostles like Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt assuredly were not.

With his curly hair, his sensual mouth, his bright blue eyes, his cherubic air, [Burgess] seemed at first sight to embody in himself the ideal of male beauty that the Apostles revered. Then, on a closer look, you noticed the details: the black-rimmed fingernails; the stained forefinger in which he gripped his perpetual cigarette stub; the dark, uneven teeth; the slouch; the open fly. If he was angelic, you sensed that he was a fallen angel. That sense was heightened when he spoke to you. He smiled before he said anything, but most of his comments had a cutting edge . . . .

There was a suggestion that Guy was up to something; but what? He was close to the Rothschilds; were they supporting him? Jews were deeply concerned about the developing ties between Hitler’s agents and the Conservative party. So were others. For those ties were of immense potential significance. If the Conservatives were resolute in resisting German expansion peace might be prolonged. But if a Conservative government established secret ties to Hitler . . . .

But what? This is the only place in his memoir where Straight leaves a sentence conspicuously unfinished.

Straight as a Cambridge student, 1936

One day early in 1937, Anthony Blunt listened to Michael describe his dream of campaigning for Parliament on the Labour ticket. “Some of your friends,” said Blunt, “have other ideas for you.” “Other ideas?” “Your father worked on Wall Street,” Anthony continued. “He was a partner in J.P. Morgan. With those connections, and with your training as an economist, you could make a brilliant future for yourself in international banking.” Michael detested the idea.

“Our friend,” said Anthony a bit later, “has given a great deal of thought to it. He knows you and respects you.” At a subsequent encounter, it emerged that Kindly Big Brother may have been Joseph Stalin himself. Straight was flattered but still reluctant. He pleaded to be released from the prospect of a double life. He even offered to surrender all his wealth. But to no avail.

One day Blunt ordered Straight to meet him in London.

He directed me to a roadhouse on the Great West Road. There, a stocky, dark-haired Russian met us . . . . He was more like the agent of a small-time smuggling operation than the representative of a new international order.

Herbert Feis

Having caved in to the Stalinist network and returned to the States, the 21-year-old Michael “went to see Roosevelt in his White House study” (an easy trick for him). The President “tried to think of agencies that might take me on.” Straight ended up as an unpaid volunteer in the Office of the Economic Advisor. His boss was Herbert Feis, who “looked like Harpo Marx” with his “sheepshead of white curls.” In the spring of 1938, Straight’s Communist control, a “Michael Green” (“dark and stocky, with broad lips”) paid him the first of many visits in Washington. Straight insists he gave Green nothing vital, and the clandestine connection ended in 1941. Meanwhile, Ben Cohen and Tom Corcoran (an Irishman, for a change) were Michael’s closest high-and-mighty friends in the Roosevelt administration.

Ben was born in Muncie, Indiana -the place, as he was fond of pointing out, that Robert and Helen Lynd had portrayed in their study: Middletown. For them, Muncie was a model of provincial America, but there was nothing provincial about Ben. He had been an active Zionist as a law student and had worked in New York until Tom brought him to Washington.

Corcoran’s ambition was to be solicitor general, but the ubiquitous Felix Frankfurter blocked the appointment.

Felix had been appointed to the Supreme Court with Tom’s assistance. He feared that as an Irish American, Tom would fail to press for the legislation that would be brought to the Supreme Court by the solicitor general to aid the Allies.

Tom never mentioned these setbacks to his career. Nor did he discuss the general strategy that we were pursuing in 1940; yet Roosevelt’s hidden design seemed clear.

At this time, Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. ambassador in London, “left the government in disgrace” for frankly saying that Britain’s war prospects were dim. John G. Winant was named to replace him. Straight met with the former New Hampshire governor, then “picked up my telephone as soon as he was out of hearing and called Felix Frankfurter at the Supreme Court. I told him that I wanted to go to London as a member of Winant’s staff.” Curiously, FDR overruled FF in this case, but Straight still “wanted to play some part in pushing America into the war.”

Louis Brandeis

Meanwhile, over at the New Republic, which Willard and Dorothy Straight had founded in 1914, Frankfurter continued to crank out advocatory articles. But Michael Straight neglects to say that the “Great Unseparator” (as Instauration dubbed him in July 1982) had also served as the conduit for fellow Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s unsigned editorials in the family’s magazine. Nor does Straight criticize the man whom legal scholar Bruce Allen Murphy nicknamed “Double Felix” for his outrageously broad and fiercely partisan powers in American government and opinion-making.

My Life with Our Crowd (cont’d)

In 1941, Straight and some young Washington economists organized a weekly discussion group known as the Economic Policy Club. “The best [member] of them all, I felt, was Robert Nathan.” Straight also helped start the Washington Chapter of Fight for Freedom, a New York-based pro-war outfit. A prosperous attorney named Donald Richberg was made chairman, but the group went nowhere –until June 22, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

It took a month or so for the Communist party and its fellow travelers to recover. From then on, we were besieged by new-found friends. I was summoned to speak at lunchtime rallies in a score of federal agencies. At each rally a crowd had been assembled by the United Federal Workers Union . . . . Posters that I had never seen were pinned up on government billboards damning Senator [Burton K.] Wheeler and his fellow isolationists and praising us. They were, of course, in violation of civil service regulations, as Senator Wheeler was the first to point out. We did not pause to apologize; success was in sight.

Michael’s most memorable wartime experience seems to have been serving as best man at a Jewish wedding in Nebraska.

Louis Sohn

Immediately after the war, two international lawyers, Grenville Clark and Louis Sohn, convened a conference in Dublin, New Hampshire. Straight attended and signed the resulting declaration, which called for a world government. At the time, a “frantic” Michael was trying to “find a role for myself in the postwar world” but — typically — had “no idea” what to do. His wife had taken up psychiatry, whether Freudian, Adlerian, or Brand X, he doesn’t say. Michael finally decided to become secretary of a leftist group headed by Albert Einstein. Then, in the spring of 1946, he returned at last to England, with Milton Rose, “our family’s legal advisor.” Dorothy Straight would later choose Rose and Michael as her trustees, an action which “deeply offended my brother, Whitney. He felt that, as the eldest son, he was entitled to control the family fortune.” (Whitney was the family “conservative,” Michael explains.)

In late 1946, Straight made Henry Wallace the figurehead editor of the New Republic. He also “brought in an urbane intellectual, James Newman, to work with Henry.” A problem arose when a certain “shapeless figure” arrived at the magazine’s office one day and “closeted himself with [Wallace] in his corner room.”

After an hour, they walked out arm in arm. They went out together a good many times in the weeks that followed. We tried to find out who Henry’s mysterious companion was. All that we could learn from Henry’s secretary was that he came from Brooklyn and his name was Max. Months later, we were told how they spent their days. Max, who was a retired grocer, would lead Henry down the streets of the East Side, stopping at one delicatessen after another. “Mister Iushewitz,” Max would say, “meet my good friend Henry Wallace. Mister Wallace, meet my dear friend Eli Iushewitz.” Henry would return from these excursions with his overcoat pockets bulging with tins of gefilte fish and bottles of borscht. In the immense and alien city, he found the human warmth that he needed in these men who venerated him.

No wonder that in the 1948 presidential election, Wallace would win nearly half of his nationwide third party vote in New York state alone! As of 1947, however, America’s liberals were split between Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and the Communist-controlled Progressive Citizens of America (PCA). The PCA chairman was the well-known Jewish sculptor Jo Davidson. Henry Wallace gradually swung over to the Communists. Alfred and Martha Stern, later unmasked as Soviet agents, persuaded the naive Iowan, who was then Truman’s main challenger for the Democratic nomination, to fly to a Communist rally in Paris. Meanwhile, Straight’s friend Lew Frank had managed to become “an invaluable aide to Wallace –and an impassable barrier, isolating Wallace from liberals like myself” (just as “Max from Brooklyn” had done).

Gerold Frank

On a trip to Palestine in 1947, at least two Franks tagged along: “Lew Frank went with us, since [the PCA’s] Beanie [Baldwin] and his friends did not trust me. A publicist named Gerold Frank also joined us, since the Zionists did not trust any of us.” In Palestine, Wallace met with the terrorist Stern Gang. Homeward bound, he called on the Pope in Rome. During this period, writes Straight: “Wallace made no decisions. He was carried along in a current, and the current was strong.” Phil Murray, the powerful president of the United Steelworkers Union, was similarly letting himself be guided by Lee Pressman, “an undercover Communist.” Both Wallace and Murray, like so many others, would eventually come to their senses — after most of the harm had been done.

The McCarthy era brought new challenges to Straight and “our crowd.” The New Republic‘s arch-liberal rival, The Nation, called the penitent Red spy Whittaker Chambers a liar. “Any neurotic exhibitionist who can claim to have been a Communist is now assured of absolution, soul-satisfying publicity and, probably, more material rewards.” To his credit, Straight telephoned Chambers’s nemesis, Alger Hiss, and quickly sensed he was lying.

Hiss had been an associate and protégé of Felix Frankfurter’s. It was Frankfurter, so I was told, who had induced the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, to defend Hiss. “I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss,” Acheson told the newspapers in January 1950. I chided him in an editorial for indulging in a personal luxury that could only damage the State Department and the Foreign Service.

Frankfurter was infuriated by my editorial. He summoned me to his chambers in the Supreme Court building and gave me a tongue lashing for my lack of courage. “We must never be afraid to be identified with our friends!” he cried.

The door to his office opened at that moment. His secretary looked in and told him that some important visitor had arrived to see him. Frankfurter sprang up from his desk and bundled me out of his office by a back door.

A “Galician Patriot”

Human chameleon Ludovico Brecher, shown here using his alias “Louis Dolivet” in his role as “International Secretary” of the “Rassemblement Universel Pour la Paix”

Another important person in Straight’s life was the human chameleon “Louis Dolivet,” a “Frenchman” who had married Michael’s actress sister Beatrice (“Biddy”) about 1943. Though Dolivet’s “closest friend” was Henri Laugier, the assistant secretary general of the United Nations — a man presumably capable of spotting a phony Frenchman — a 1947 column in the Washington Evening Star revealed that Dolivet was really Ludovicu Brecher, a “Rumanian” who was an important agent of the Communist International. Meanwhile, a good friend of Straight’s had hired Ladislas Farago, the international investigator, to find out whatever he could about Dolivet/Brecher, and Farago soon “returned [from Europe] loaded down with material, all of which was defamatory . . . .” Yet Dolivet had never found it difficult to meet with and raise money from men like Nelson Rockefeller and John Hay Whitney. Straight later sought the advice of Robert Joyce, a Foreign Service intelligence officer with a fat dossier of his own on Dolivet.

“What it tells us,” said Joyce, “is that Louis was not a man whom any cause or any country could claim as its own.”

“Where did his ultimate allegiance lie?” I asked.

“Let’s say that he was a Galician,” Joyce said, “and leave it at that.”

On the advice of a psychiatrist, Biddy took the position that she could no longer share custody of [baby] Willard.

Michael’s Red-lining activities had been directly responsible for his sister’s disastrous marriage to Dolivet. Soon its sole melancholy fruit, the baby Willard, would be drowned accidentally.

In 1951, the Straight family split in two following Milton Rose’s appointment as a trustee. The year 1954 brought the fortieth anniversary issue of the New Republic, and Straight “went to see Felix Frankfurter to seek his guidance on my essay.” Alas, Michael said something which hit a nerve.

Frankfurter had welcomed me into the world in 1916. When I took my stand with his enemies, he turned on me in a fury. He pounded the top of his desk until his pince-nez fell off his nose. He shouted at me for ten minutes, barely pausing for breath.

I sat in silence, filled with a cold disdain. Frankfurter wound down at last; he sat there, his small frame heaving. He glanced down at his desk and spied a small container. He pushed it across his desk toward me.

“Have a cough drop,” he said.

After trying his hand at writing a couple of banal pro-American novels, Michael Straight was flattered to receive, in 1963, an appointment as chairman of the new federal Fine Arts Commission. It seems his mother-in-law, Catherine Crompton, an American married to a British scientist, had decided he “needed some job to keep me occupied,” and enlisted the patronage of Senator Paul Douglas. It may have been solely because of Mrs. Crompton that Anthony Blunt was ever positively identified as the “Fourth Man” in Britain’s elite spy circle. Straight wanted the arts job badly (“good causes were hard to find”), and knew it meant a thorough FBI check into his past. So he decided to tell all he knew before it was “found out” (a rather far-fetched assumption). Incredibly, his revelations included the first hard evidence on Guy Burgess, who had defected to Moscow with Donald Maclean back in 1951!

Michael Straight in the 1980s. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.

As suggested in Instauration‘s review of Andrew Boyle’s The Climate of Treason (Nov. 1983), this reticence was the real scandal of Michael Straight’s life. He knew for decades that several of his old Cambridge pals had secret ties to Moscow, and he also knew that they held sensitive posts in the British government, yet he did nothing to alert the authorities. Meanwhile, as editor of the New Republic, he self-righteously attacked Senator McCarthy’s fumbling and heavy-handed efforts to uncover Reds in high places. This is naturally the theme upon which most of Straight’s reviewers have focused, but Instauration, being Instauration, could not resist the bait he offered with all of his name-dropping. Anyone who recognizes Jewish names — who more-or-less knows who is Jewish and who isn’t — cannot read Straight’s memoir without being flabbergasted by the extent to which he and his family surrounded themselves with (or were surrounded by) Jews.

The Big Clean-up

Patrick J. Buchanan admirably sums up the case of Michael Straight:

[H]ad he marched into the office of Walter “Beedle” Smith at CIA or J. Edgar Hoover, [Straight] could have compromised and possibly crippled the most damaging ring of spies and traitors in the history of British intelligence, and, conceivably, saved the lives of scores of Russian patriots, communist defectors, and British agents betrayed to the Soviets by the comrades of Burgess and Blunt during the Cold War.

Surely, Straight’s story, if told to Smith or Hoover, would have blown Burgess and Maclean, and, conceivably, Kim Philby, the Third Man who did not finally flee to Moscow until 1963 . . . .

When one reflects upon the sins of excess of Joe McCarthy, and how he was therefore persecuted and punished unto death, and the sins of omission of Michael Whitney Straight and how they were forgiven and forgotten, washed away in the good fellowship of Establishment camaraderie, all I can say is: Tail Gunner Joe, we done you wrong!

Straight declines to excuse his sins of omission. But he does return repeatedly to this mitigating circumstance:

In stable societies, institutions exert their claims upon the individual; traditions provide a sense of continuity and brotherhood. Transplanted as I was, I lacked a sense of loyalty to British or American institutions; I was not held in place by a national tradition. I had been uprooted; I was waiting to be reclaimed.

Why didn’t I take Anthony’s [treasonous] scheme by the throat and fling it away? . . .

If I had been English by birth or American by upbringing, I would have been held in place by the traditional loyalties. But these loyalties were no buttresses for me.

Under Western Eyes was published in 1911. It is perhaps the most perceptive of Joseph Conrad’s novels.

Kyrilo Sidorovitch Razumov, the central character, is a third-year student at St. Petersburg University in Russia. He is regarded by his fellow students as being an “altogether trustworthy man.” But, Conrad adds, he had no family:

“No home influences shaped his opinions or his feelings. He was as lonely in the world as a man swimming in the deep sea.”

Razumov went wrong. So did Michael Straight. The sociologist John Murray Cuddihy reminds us that

One’s . . . audience enters, often determines and “censors,” the inner meaning of one’s work. “What will they think?” one asks oneself. “How will it appear to them?”

Cuddihy was thinking here of writers, but what about Straight’s “audience,” the men and women to whom he “played”? Almost certainly he would never have strayed so far from the racial fold if, instead of Felix Frankfurter, he had had to face Joe Doaks from Nanticoke the morning after.

* * *

Source: Instauration magazine, January 1984

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