My father was a spy

This account is based on 3 main sources:  First, my own recollection, with the internet to check dates (I hope I have them all correct); second, a book by Alistair Cook, A Generation on Trial, and finally the transcripts of some taped interviews my daughter did with my father about 20 years ago.


My father’s name was Henry Julian Wadleigh, but he was always called Julian, except sometimes, in his family, he was called by his nickname, Ribby, because he was quite skinny.  He was born on Feb 2, 1904. He was American, but his parents lived in Europe (various countries – Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy) and he was educated in England. 


He went to Marlborough, a “public” school, and then to Oxford, where he read classics.  My grandmother insisted he do classics, because that is what she believed an English gentleman should do.  She was a consummate snob.  He had wanted to study entomology, and as a youth, for his own amusement, he wrote a paper entitled, “Insect and Man.”


At Oxford he was considered brilliant, and he expected to become a fellow of Christ Church College.  However, he had a long bout of jaundice at the time of his exams, and as a result he took second class honors.  At least, that was the excuse for the second.  At Oxford he leaned left politically, and was known by other students as “that Bolshie American.” 


He was a good looking man, though somewhat nerdy and earnest, completely innocent in all worldly matters.  He had a habit of guffawing loudly at things nobody else thought were funny, and not getting the point of most jokes.  But he was gentle and good natured, always more comfortable dealing with abstract ideas than with anything concrete or the personal.


Because of the second at Oxford, he gave up the idea of a fellowship and enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he met my mother, a New Zealander.  Together they came to the United States.  He had a fellowship at the University of Chicago.  My mother also got a fellowship there.  Both of them later had fellowships at the Brookings Institution.


I was born in 1932 in Washington, DC.  I think my father was unemployed at the time, but soon he got a job as an economist at the Department of Agriculture.  When I was 3 my mother left to be with another man, a Canadian economist they had met at the University of Chicago.  About that time my father transferred to the State Department.


At the end of his tenure in the Department of Agriculture he got mixed up with radical left wing politics.  He joined the Socialist Party and got to know a woman named Eleanor Nelson.  She turned out to be a communist, and when he wanted to do something active against the growing fascist movement in Europe she put him in touch with the communists in Washington. 


At that time we lived in an apartment at a place called Cathedral Mansions, which was across the street form the Washington Zoo.  Almost every evening in summer, when he came home from work, he would take me for a walk in the zoo.  We walked mostly at the upper end where they kept the elephants.  I often rode piggy-back on his shoulders.  I had an anxious fear that they would close the gates of the zoo before we got out, and we would be stuck there all night – an eternity to a 3 year old.


Eleanor Nelson introduced my father to a man who would never reveal his real name.  He called himself Harold Wilson.  Harold Wilson explained to him that if he wanted to work for the communists he would need to submit some of his writing.  My father gave them some samples of reports he had done about foreign trade barriers to American farm products.  Apparently this satisfied the murky characters in charge of espionage, and he was recruited to take documents from his work, to be copied. 


At first he would give the documents overnight to Harold.  Later another man was introduced whose name was Carl.  This man turned out to be Whittaker Chambers, and he became my father’s usual contact.  My father began this activity in 1935.  That was when I was 3 and we were walking in the evenings in the zoo. 


After my mother left I was taken to my aunt Clare’s because my father couldn’t take care of me and work.  I stayed with my aunt for a year.  My father moved to the State Department where he worked in the trade agreements division.  He came to my aunt’s to visit me several times during that year.  My mother came back in 1936 (the Canadian economist dumped her).  My father continued his espionage activities.  I went to kindergarten.


Early in 1938 my father went to Turkey for nine months to negotiate some trade agreements, about tobacco, among other things.  Before he left, at the end of 1937, there was some backing off of his contacts – they had begun to be nervous, not only about getting caught, but also about power struggles in the USSR over the defection of Trotsky.   Some spy in Switzerland had been murdered, presumably by Stalin’s secret agents.  My father told Harold and Chambers that he would be away anyhow in Turkey.


I spent the summer of 1938 in Italy at my grandmother’s villa which perched high on a hill overlooking the Riviera at a town called Alassio.  It was a beautiful summer of swimming and sunshine.  I listened to the grown-ups talk about the coming war, and worry about the fascists.  Of course, I didn’t understand, but I felt their fear, and I was afraid.  From the balcony of my bedroom I watched them after dinner as they had coffee and liqueurs on the terrace below.  They dressed for dinner, the ladies in long chiffon skirts that fluttered in the breeze, and the men in worn tuxedos.


My parents came back from Turkey, and I was brought back by my aunt from Italy.  We took the night train from Italy to, I think, Marseilles where boarded the Normandy, an elegant ocean liner that later burned in New York harbor (we traveled third class).  At the border crossings in Austria and France soldiers with guns came on the train to check papers.  I was very frightened of them. 


At home I started first grade.  My mother was working for the Treasury Department as an economist and my father was still at the State Department.  He was no longer in contact with the communists, but one day Chambers called him at his office (a very unusual thing to do) and said he wanted to meet him in Lafayette Park.


“Lafayette Park!” my father said, “That’s right in front of the White House.”  They met, however, and Chambers told my father that he had quit the Communist Party and advised my father to do the same.  Chambers believed that he and my father were suspected of being Trotskyites and were in danger of being killed.  My father hoped that Chambers was being paranoid.


Since my father had had no contact with the communists for more than a year, and he was becoming disillusioned their tactics, he decided that the best thing to do was just stay quiet.  Then in August of 1939 Stalin made a non-aggression pact with Hitler, and Stalin and Hitler divided up Poland between them.  My father was disgusted by this and vowed to have nothing more to do with the communists.


He was worried, however, that on the one hand Chambers would go to the FBI and tell them everything, and on the other hand that there might be some retaliation against him by the communists.  He believed that, in fact, Chambers did go to the FBI, but he went without proof.  My father believed that the lack of proof kept the FBI from acting – after all, Chambers might have been a crack-pot.  But he felt that his own career in the State Department failed to prosper because of lurking rumors of his communist sympathies.


The war came.  Life everywhere changed forever.  My mother and father were divorced when I was 8, and I remember Pearl Harbor.  My mother remarried, another economist named Carroll Daugherty.  I lived with them in New York for a couple of years.  There were practice air raid alerts and we had special black-out shades on the windows.  My stepfather was called to Washington to head the division of wage stabilization during the war. I went back to my aunt’s house to live permanently.


My father remarried and his choice was less than ideal.  My stepmother was a selfish, bad-tempered woman.  When troubles came to my father she made them worse.    


My father went to Italy for the State Department after the allies invaded, in order to asses the food situation for the war stricken population.  He shared an apartment with his brother, Richard Wadleigh (Dickie) in Rome.  Dickie was an intelligence officer in the army because he spoke fluent French, Italian and German.  He had led the first armored division into Rome because he knew the roads.


The war ended and the post war era began.  I was in high school at a girl’s prep school in Andover where my aunt and uncle lived.  In 1948 Richard Nixon, an ambitious young congressman who was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee met Whitaker Chambers, a former editor of Time Magazine who was making headlines by accusing Alger Hiss, a State Department official of being a communist spy.


I think Nixon was an opportunist without any particular ideology.  But he saw anti-communism as a way to gain public attention quickly.  He summoned Hiss to testify, and Hiss denied the charge.  The charges and countercharges dragged on.  Hiss sued Chambers.  Chambers initially made his accusations without any documentation, but in November Chambers led a group from HUAC to his farm in Maryland and produced a lot of microfilmed documents from the interior of a pumpkin.


I was always interested in politics, so I had been following all this.  Even as a small child in Washington I listened to my parents discussing politics and absorbed some of it.  My father said that when I was about 5 a neighbor told him, with a sly grin, “I know quite a lot about your political views.”  He asked her how she knew and she replied, “From hearing your daughter expressing them.”


One evening in the winter of 1948 I came home from school and the news was on the radio in the kitchen where my aunt was preparing dinner.  My 6 year old cousin Deborah was there also.  As I entered the room I heard my father’s voice on the radio saying, “I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me.”  As Nixon was asking his next question Deborah began making some sort of loud noise and I screamed at her to be quiet.  My aunt said, “Don’t talk to her that way, she’s just a child and doesn’t understand.”


I was sorry I had yelled at Deborah, and overcome with distress about what was happening in the news.  I think my aunt had known about it for a while, because my father had already been testifying before a grand jury in New York.  Nobody had told me.


The Boston Globe the next day had a headline something like “NIXON QUESTIONS AS AID SQUIRMS” My father’s name, Julian Wadleigh, was all over the front page.  My school, Abbot Academy, pulled all the newspapers from stands around the school so that the other girls wouldn’t see them.  Wadleigh is not a common name.


I immediately assumed that all the accusations against my father were false.  I thought he could do no wrong.  My aunt gently tried to tell me that I would be disappointed, but I was positive I was right. 


A couple of weeks later he came.  In the big front hall of the Andover house as he arrived and took off his scarf and gloves and I said to him, urgently, “You didn’t do it, Daddy, did you?”


Looking down at the hall table he said in a voice tinged with irritation, “Of course I did it.”


I guess that’s when I grew up.


That spring, in 1949 I graduated from high school.  I spent the summer in Vermont with my mother and half sister.  My stepfather was arbitrating a labor dispute in the steel industry on a board appointed by Harry Truman.  The Hiss trial was proceeding and my father was a key witness for the prosecution.  At the time he had been testifying before HUAC he was also telling all he knew at the grand jury in New York.  Both my stepfather’s and father’s names were often in the newspapers.  I went square dancing almost every night with my handsome new boyfriend. 


All this happened a long time ago.  I have seldom spoken to anyone about it over these years, except for the family and very close friends.  Why write about it now?


Because it happened.  It was a piece of history, albeit a footnote, and to the best of my ability I have told it truly, as my father ultimately did.  I think telling the truth is important.  Life is not all happy, our elders are not all inspirations.  Life’s fabric is flawed; the flaws make beautiful.


Do I judge my father?  The honest answer is yes.  He did not do what he did for any sort of personal gain.  He was taking action, he thought, to help stop the fascists from enslaving the people of the world.  He thought he was joining in a great revolutionary movement.  But he was wrong to do what he did.  He betrayed a trust, he broke the law, and it was a really dumb thing to do.  To carelessly toss aside the ordinary rules that govern us all was to arrogantly put himself above the rest of human kind.  He thought himself superior in intelligence and judgment.


There are degrees of error.  Ultimately he saw that it was wrong.  He stopped doing it, and when confronted, he told the truth.  He paid dearly.  It ruined his life from the time it began until he was a very old man.


Alger Hiss continued to betray his country long after it was clear to everyone that Stalin was evil and the USSR was our enemy.  Alger Hiss went to his grave an unrepentant liar.


Alistair Cook, in A Generation on Trial, wrote:


“If Hiss had said he had done all this, that he had passed papers proudly to confound the Nazis, to quicken the day of deliverance of enslaved populations, he could have been a greater Wadleigh”





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26 Responses to My father was a spy

  1. Mike Goad says:

    How very, very interesting.

    Thank you for sharing this. I knew a little about it, enough to recognize the names of some of the principles, but not your father’s.

  2. Maggie, living in Bliss says:

    What a fascinating piece of history, OW. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    You really need to write your stories for your descendants. My folks have passed on, and how I wish I had taped them telling their stories. Of course, I have my memories of those stories, but they’re slanted from my point of view. How wonderful it would be to have their stories in their own words.

  3. Alan G says:

    Wow….now that’s not your typical memoir is it?

    Your account would seem to indicate that as a young daughter you fortunately seemed to be under the radar for the most part. I hope that was the case.

    Most reasonable adults would hold someone in contempt for the sins of their fathers but as a child, sometimes our peers can be quite cruel out of ignorance.

  4. Alan G says:


    I mean’t to say….”Most reasonable adults “would not” hold someone…

  5. rosie says:

    what a story, amazing

  6. dale says:

    I think what your father did, lots of generous-minded and impractical men could have (and did) do. That was a strange time: the divide was so sharp that it was hard to balance on, and if you started sliding one way — left or right — you tended to slide all the way to someplace horrifying. God send my kids don’t have to negotiate that kind of thing till they’re settled adults.

  7. zuleme says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for writing about it.

  8. That’s quite a story! I recognize most of the names (not your father’s, though) and all of the places. I work quite near that apartment building. Thank you for telling it, and for your thoughts on it as well.

  9. Hattie says:

    Fascinating. A lot of people got caught up in this.

  10. Anne — You tell the most incredible stories. What a life you’ve led!

  11. Vivian says:

    As a genealogist I applaud your writing this and other events. I believe if we wait too long the history will disappear. So glad you visited my site so now I can keep reading. Memoirs are the best givt to leave our descendants. The story is remarkable. Most all of us have skeletons in the closet and time does deemphasize criticism of those left behind.

  12. Mage Bailey says:

    Thank you so very much for this portrait of your father. I could see your father as you wrote….your mother too. Thank you.

  13. When I started law school, there was a party for the incoming class at a professor’s house. I became involved in a conversation about politics with a few classmates, and somehow Nixon came up. I mentioned that I had grown up in a family in which there was an almost pathological hatred of Nixon, and I hated him too both in my own right and as a loyal family member. I mentioned that he had ruined my grandfather. One of my classmates asked me who my grandfather was, and I told him he was Julian Wadleigh. He started yelling Julian Wadleigh! Julian Wadleigh! You HAVE to tell me the SECRETS! You HAVE to tell me the TRUTH! He grabbed my arms. I was alarmed. I left the party as soon as I could. I later discovered the subject of Neil’s Masters Thesis was Alger Hiss. He stalked me all through law school, and would never leave me alone about my grandfather. My boyfriend thought it was funny. I didn’t. The only funny thing about it was that I had no secret to tell. Now I know it all. But I won’t tell Neil. Ha Ha!

  14. Marja-Leena says:

    Fascinating story of a fascinating parent! Wonderful that you have recorded this for posterity.

  15. Mage Bailey says:

    RYN: Yes, and I thought I had cut tightly. Then G came home and dug another 200 out to cut. We eat out too much and shop at estate sales for the fun of it. Not any more, darn it.

  16. Jan says:

    I haven’t commented on this yet, because I didn’t know what to say beyond, “WOW.”


    You have, on more than one occasion, praised my frankness and bravery when posting about sensitive subjects on my blog. As a person with a (in)famous grandfather, I praise you. I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether I’ll post about him, but you’ve made me reconsider my flat refusal to do so.

    This was fascinating, Anne.

  17. wisewebwoman says:

    Anne, you never cease to astonish me. What a story! And your youth destabilized by all the carry on of cloak and dagger, literally and mother betrayal.
    You have to write the book and put me first in line to buy it!

  18. Pingback: Jan’s Sushi Bar » Take My Flamingo…Please

  19. Cathy says:

    Anne, you are always full of surprises – this is one story of yours I hadn’t heard yet. Thanks for taking the time to put it down. It brings back my own memories of my Mother watching the HCUA proceedings on TV when I was a little girl. She was a wannabe-fanatic “John Bircher” ranting about “commie pinkos.” My Dad was a Chicago-very liberal-Democrat. It made for interesting, but mostly angry arguments over the dining room table while we ate and watched the news – the source of a few tummy aches for us young, timid little girls. C

  20. jt says:

    Hi Anne,

    I came across you blog one day last summer whilst searching on-line for information on old fashioned flower gardens. Your posts very interesting, and your snaps are quite nice, too, so I began reading all of your archived posts. This one was one of the most interesting, and after reading it, I wondered what you thought about wikileaks. I do not know if you will find this comment, as this post is now one and half years old, but I thought I would submit the comment anyway.

  21. jt says:

    P.S. Please excuse any misspellings in my earlier comment. It is nearly one a.m. here, and I am afraid I am a bit sleepy. : )

  22. Old Woman says:

    jt, I think that the case of wikileaks is rather different from that of my father. My father, I am sad to say, acted against the best interest of his country and what he did was illegal. The wikileaks guy, Assange, I think is his name, is not American and thus has no allegiance to the USA, and some people can’t figure out what exactly he did that was illegal. He published some things that someone else stole. And some people wonder how it is that a private in the army could have got all that stuff. Could it be that some higher-up is involved and the private is the fall-guy? I think there is a lot that isn’t known.

    And, finally, I don’t think that any terrible harm has been done. Sometimes it’s a good thing to shine the light of day on the inner workings of government.

  23. Fred W. says:

    Dear Old Woman: Researching the early lives of persons involved with the spy charges and countercharges (ca. 1945-1961), I certainly appreciate your especially courageous, personal and clarifying words (e.g. his actual meetings with W. Chambers). Trying to be accurate about birthplaces, dates, education facts, and so forth, I wonder, do you know where Julian Wadleigh was actually born, if his sole early education was in England, and if it was only at Marlborough? Thank you for considering my inquiry!

  24. John Martin says:

    I found this history very interesting. It was always baffling to me that if Alger Hiss and Julian Wadleigh were both passing papers to Chambers, how come Wadleigh confessed to Alger Hiss at the trial that he in fact WAS passing papers and Hiss was not aware. I think it was clear that Wadleigh was passing secret papers, but I haven’t been able to connect Alger Hiss to passing any papers. All the papers that Chambers revealed couldn’t have come from Hiss’ department, only Wadleigh’s. He did know Wadleigh as “Karl” but he knew Hiss as George Crosley, he met Hiss as a reporter and engaged Hiss in intellectual talk and Hiss offered him use of an apartment. I have never heard of a spy living in the apartment of his coconspirator. After Hiss realized that Crosley was a psychotic who took advantage of those around him, he never had anything to do with him. Both claim to have stopped all contact in 1938. Your words about Hiss seem to attempt to exonerate your father and claim Hiss could have been a “greater Wadleigh” whatever that means. I think Wadleigh felt he was doing a great service much like releasing the Pentagon Papers in trying to stop what in fact did happen. I don’t see the evidence that Hiss did the same. I don’t think he was greater or worse or “an unrepentant liar.” Your father did not testify against Alger Hiss. Only Whitaker Chambers who destroyed people’s lives as a part of a sinister psychotic plot who had a habit of developing a homosexual crush on unsuspecting “friends” and then after rejection proceeded to destroy them. I would never judge Wadleigh and in the end, he was right that Hitler should be stopped.

  25. Chris says:

    I knew your father for a short time in the 1970s. For some reason I looked up his name last night — not having thought of him for years — and found this. I met him when, after leaving grad school, I became moved back to northern VA and involved in Democratic politics before the 1974 congressional elections. I became a precinct organizer, first for a campaign in the primary, and then for the general election. Julian was a volunteer, distributing material and collecting signatures on nominating petitions. I learned some of his story with Hiss at the time, tho I do not recall how; might in part have been comments from his wife (to alert me?). He was very sincere, and very innocent, naive. Almost childlike in his judgments of people.

    I too had a very difficult father, tho for very different reasons (my father was born within a year of Julian, my half-sister the year you were). It is good to be realistic about our parents — we all share the finiteness and imperfections of the human condition. I appreciated your story.

  26. Ray says:

    I believe I knew your father. At the time I was in the tenth grade and attending the McLean Virginia High School. My best friend was a young fellow by the name of Robin Wadleigh and was a hemophilic. His fathers name was Julian. This would be circa 1957 or so. Julian was living in the basement of a unfinished log home working on a Masters in math as he couldn’t get a job.

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