The “Mary Martin” Note: Whittaker Chambers’s story vs. Contemporary State Department and Press Reports from Early 1938

Since Allen Weinstein published Perjury in 1978, there has been a consensus that the “Mary Martin” note in Alger Hiss’ handwriting was not singular but rather part of a pattern whereby Alger Hiss furnished copies of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to Soviet military intelligence. This is said to have occurred during the Soviet-American diplomatic crisis known as the Rubens-Robinson case. 1 The idea of such a pattern goes back to an unpublished article by Whittaker Chambers from late 1938, in which he described in some detail a prison interview which American diplomats conducted with Mrs. Rubens in Moscow on February 10, 1938. 2

To judge whether Chambers’s article was indeed a firsthand account of the cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to the Department of State in February, 1938, let us take a closer look at State Department records and contemporary press reports.

According to State Department records, on the evening of February 10, 1938, Loy Henderson, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, sent the Department of State a report on his prison interview with Mrs. Rubens earlier that day. 3

Henderson’s cable briefly described those present on the Russian side as:

… an investigating magistrate, apparently a brigadier commander of the military tribunal, an officer of the same tribunal who acted as an interpreter and Vinogradov of the Foreign Office.

It also described the interview procedure mandated by the Russians:

Prior to the interview the commander informed us that the prisoner was to answer no question until after it had been translated to him [the commander] and he had given his permission to reply … he stated that the interview was to be limited strictly to questions and answers.

As a result of heavy censorship imposed by the Russians, the efforts of American diplomats to obtain from Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens full details of her arrest and detention were not successful. In response to the American offer of help, Mrs. Rubens stated that she did not need any assistance from the Americans.

Henderson sent his cable in the least confidential “grey code.” Its contents were immediately released to the press, and the next morning both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported details of the prison interview. 4

The New York Times featured a front-page report wired from Moscow, which divulged the contents of Henderson’s February 10 cable to the Department of State:

Moscow, Feb. 10. – Soviet officials imposed heavy censorship today on the efforts of U.S. diplomats to obtain from Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens full details of the American woman’s arrest and detention as a suspect spy.
A carefully supervised interview in Butirka  Prison on the outskirts of Moscow shed little new light on Mrs. Rubens and her mysterious mission in Russia. A Russian military court official was present throughout the hour and fifteen minutes to shut off questions that the Soviet Union did not want her to answer.
Although the judge was understood to have objected to questions that might have brought out the full story, the United States officials were believed to have gathered the impression that Mrs. Rubens would be held in prison for a considerable time.
Loy W. Henderson, United States Chargé d’Affaires, did not divulge how far the often-postponed interrogation – demanded by the United States when Mrs. Rubens was proved to be an American citizen – had pierced the mystery. Mr. Henderson cabled a full report of the interview to Washington.
Mrs. Rubens, paler than when she was last seen before her arrest, wore an American zipper-fastened house dress for the interview. Present were a representative of the Russian Foreign Office, an officer who acted as official interpreter and the United States consul, Angus I. Ward.
Mr. Henderson put the questions to Mrs. Rubens in English. They were translated for the benefit of the judge, who wore the uniform and insignia of a brigade commander. He then gave or refused permission for Mrs. Rubens to answer.
Mrs. Rubens, it was believed, was prohibited from disclosing any details of her arrest, including whether a warrant had been served on her as Russian law demands, and from mentioning “Donald L. Robinson,” as whose wife she was traveling on a false passport. …

The article went on to describe the prison entrance and the prison itself – details missing from Henderson’s February 10 cable and obviously divulged by U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow. 5

On February 12, the Department of State officially released to the press the contents of Loy Henderson’s February 10 summary of the interview. 6

The story was further expanded in a New York Times front-page special report from Washington, D.C. on February 12, 1938:

Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11—Loy W. Henderson, American Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow was told yesterday by Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens, an American citizen, in an interview in Butyrskaya Prison, that she did not need any assistance, the State Department announced today.
Mr. Henderson and Angus I. Ward, second secretary of the embassy, were permitted by Soviet authorities to talk with the prisoner.
Mrs. Rubens, according to Mr. Henderson’s report, appeared to be well and had no complaint to make. She was described as “neatly dressed and fairly well groomed.” She told the American diplomats that she was not now represented by counsel, and that she did not desire counsel.
The interview was conducted in the presence of an investigating magistrate, a Russian official who acted as interpreter, and a representative of the Soviet Foreign Office. Mr. Henderson asked her if there was anything the embassy could do to make her more comfortable or to be of assistance to her. She thanked him, but said she needed no help.
All questions dealing with the circumstances leading up to her detention were barred by the Soviet authorities, Mr. Henderson reported, on the ground that their preliminary investigation had not been completed.
Mrs. Rubens admitted to Mr. Henderson that she had left the United States on a passport under her own name and that, in transit, her husband had produced a passport under the name of Ruth Norma Robinson. She professed not to know how he had procured it or why he wanted her to use it. However, she used it to enter the Soviet Union, thus committing an offense for which she could be punished under Soviet law. The use of a fraudulent passport is also an offense under American law, for which, presumably she will be tried when she returns to this country. 7

This second report repeated verbatim the description of the Russian personnel present at the interview from Henderson’s February 10 cable, but replaced the phrase “a Russian military court official” from the February 11 story with “an investigating magistrate.”

“Investigating magistrate” is exactly the term appearing in a fascinating report from Moscow wired the next day, on February 13, by New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. On the surface, Duranty’s story seems strange, as it opens with the following amazing statement: “Since the United States Embassy and State Department have said very little about the interview that Loy W. Henderson, American Chargé d’Affaires here, had last Thursday with Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens, the writer proposes to do something unusual and unorthodox for a newspaper correspondent by giving a fictional account of what he imagines took place.” A large part of that “fictional account” turned to be a denunciation of “fantastic nonsense about Soviet methods with prisoners – torture, sweat baths, hypnotism, mysterious will-annihilating drugs from Tibet.” Duranty advised his American readers, “Don’t believe a word of it. The Russians know that information extracted under pressure frequently is not worth anything and their investigators nowadays are a sort of combination of psychoanalyst and father confessor. With infinite patience they draw the story from the prisoner bit by bit until the whole tale is told.” 8

By that time, some horror stories of the deeds of these “father confessors” had already been circulating in Moscow and had reached the West – a fact that suggests a probable Soviet source for Duranty’s reflections. Given Duranty’s confidential contacts with the Soviets, as revealed in Russian diplomatic and “cultural” files, his “fictional” account most probably came from Soviet sources.

There were no more cables on the February 10 interview for Alger Hiss to copy and hand over to Whittaker Chambers – and no more newspaper stories about that interview. Hence, I leave it to the reader to decide what could be the source of Chambers’s account in his unpublished late 1938 article.

  1. Most recently, this view was expressed by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr in Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 113.
  2. See Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. Vintage Books, pp. 246-247; p. 247, footnote 41 (see p. 618).
  3. Loy W. Henderson to the Secretary of State, February 10, 8 p.m. – RG 59, State Department records, Decimal File 1930-39, Box 1590, 361.1115-ROBINSON, DONALD L./117.
  4. U.S. Envoy Speaks with Mrs. Rubens. – The New York Times, February 11, 1938, p. 1; by the AP: U.S. ‘In Dark’ In Spite of Talk to Mrs. Rubens. – The Washington Post, February 11, 1938.
  5. The New York Times, February 11, 1938, p. 1.
  6. U.S. State Department Press Release, February 12, 1938, p. 260; Loy W. Henderson, American Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, was told yesterday by Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens, an American citizen, in an interview in Butyrskaya Prison, that she did not need any assistance, the State Department announced today. – The New York  Times, February 12, 1938, p. 1; by the AP: Wife of Rubens Blames Trip to Russia on Mate. – The Washington Post, February 12, 1938.
  7. The New York Times, Feb. 12, 1938, Saturday, p. 1.
  8. The New York Times, Feb. 14, 1938, p. 4.