Michael Straight

Former spy who unmasked Anthony Blunt
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Whitney Straight, magazine publisher, government official and writer: born New York 1 September 1916; Publisher, New Republic 1946-56; married 1939 Belinda Compton (two sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1969), 1974 Nina Gore Auchincloss Steers (marriage dissolved), 1998 Katharine Gould; died Chicago 4 January 2004.

In 1935 a rich young American student at Cambridge with intense sympathies for Communism paid a visit to the Soviet Union, the imagined workers' paradise. In a Moscow hotel, he turned to a friend on the trip and asked whether he looked like a proletarian. No, his friend replied, "You look like a millionaire pretending to be a proletarian."

That, in a sense, was the story of Michael Straight's life. His was mostly a patrician's career, a tale of old Wall Street money and connections that saw him dining with the Roosevelts, marrying into American high society and publishing the venerable New Republic magazine. But in the end, it was a life strangely unfulfilled. Ultimately it was defined and dominated by an interlude, a flirtation with Communism during a few turbulent years in England in the 1930s, when Straight served as an outrider of the most famous spy ring in history.

Straight was an author of some note, and a man of considerable culture who was offered a senior arts position in the Kennedy Administration and served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. But he will be remembered as the man who unmasked Anthony Blunt to the FBI and to MI5 as a Soviet agent, the "fourth man" after Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean in the group of spies recruited by the Soviet Union at Cambridge University.

Michael Whitney Straight was the son of Willard Straight, a senior investment banker with J.P. Morgan and of Dorothy Payne Whitney, an heiress, philanthropist and social reformer, who took the young Michael to England to be educated at Dartington School in Devon, a community based on Utopian principles which she and her second husband, Leonard Elmhirst, had founded in 1925. He then spent a year at the London School of Economics before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1934 to read Economics.

The young man who had been brought up on the progressive teachings of Dartington was inevitably attracted to the socialism sweeping Cambridge in general and Trinity in particular in those Depression years, when Stalin's crimes were hardly suspected, and Russia seemed a beacon of hope for a Europe sliding into Fascism and dictatorship.

Straight had first encountered Blunt, then a young Trinity don, on the 1935 trip to the Soviet Union. But the real magnet was John Cornford, the charismatic poet and ardent Communist whom Straight met at sessions of Trinity's Socialist Society. Cornford persuaded the American self-professed "amateur Communist" to infiltrate the Cambridge Union for the Party - a task Straight performed with much success, being elected Secretary in 1936 and President in 1937.

However it was Blunt, himself newly recruited to the NKVD, who brought Straight into the serious business of espionage. In his confessionary memoir, After Long Silence, Straight would portray the relationship as one between icy manipulator and idealistic dupe, attributing his enlistment by Blunt primarily to his distress and confusion at the death in December 1936 of Cornford in the Spanish Civil War, killed near Madrid while fighting for the Republicans against Franco's armies.

In After Long Silence, Straight described the climate of the era, and the reasons why Cornford, Blunt and the others, as well as himself, chose to betray their country and their class:

We did believe that society was collapsing. Historically capitalism had come to the end of its life as seen in the Depression. War was about to happen. All this would lead necessarily to the breakdown of society and out of that breakdown would emerge a new world order.

In his ordained new role as campus talent spotter for his NKVD handlers, Blunt instructed Straight to leave Cambridge and return to New York to penetrate Wall Street and tell Moscow of American capitalism's "plans to dominate the world economy". In the event, Straight's spying career was short and inconsequential. Instead of New York, he went to Washington, where he took a job at the State Department. The only documents he handed to the Russians were economic and political analyses he had written himself. By summer 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact destroyed most illusions Straight nourished of the Communist ideal.

At that point, his involvement with the espionage history of the 20th century might have remained secret. He became Editor of the New Republic, which his parents had founded in 1914, and served in the US military between 1942 and 1945. At the end of the Second World War he became publisher of the magazine and - though he was now a foe of Stalinism - published a book, Trial by Television (1954), attacking the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The embarrassing Cambridge secret seemed completely safe.

But, in 1963, Straight was offered a position in the Kennedy Administration. Fearful of what the background checks might unearth, he went to the FBI, and then to MI5, to tell all. Blunt - knight, world authority on the painter Poussin and keeper of the Queen's art collection - was revealed to the British authorities (though not yet to the British public) as a spy. Straight then resumed his well- connected existence, in 1969 becoming Deputy Chairman of the NEA, and writing novels and family memoirs into his retirement, as well as After Long Silence.

The book appeared in 1983 to decidedly mixed reviews. Some appreciated its frankness, but for others it was a self-serving apologia from a man who, had he gone to the United States and British authorities in the 1940s with what he knew, might have saved many secrets and many lives. Straight himself insisted to the end that he was the merest dabbler in espionage. "I was not a spy in the accepted usage of that word," he scolded a 1995 contributor to the London Review of Books who had referred to him as a Cambridge spy.

Rightly or wrongly, however, that is how Michael Straight will earn his modest footnote in history.

Rupert Cornwell