Michael Straight, 87; Former Magazine Publisher Wrote of His Spying for Soviets

Times Staff Writer

Michael Whitney Straight, the former magazine publisher and National Endowment for the Arts official who belatedly described his involvement in spying for the Soviets in his candid but poorly received 1983 memoir, “After Long Silence,” has died. He was 87.

Straight, who wrote for, edited and published the New Republic magazine from 1940 to 1956, died Sunday at his home in Chicago of pancreatic cancer.

The writer was born in New York City, the son of Willard D. Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight, who founded the New Republic. Michael was reared in England after his widowed mother married a British man and founded a progressive private school there.


Inclined to the arts but imbued with political fervor, Straight spent a year at the London School of Economics and then went to Cambridge University in 1934. There he became part of the circle of socially prominent students that included Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, who would become officials in the English government and Soviet spies.

Straight said it was Blunt, then an Oxford don, who in 1937 ordered him to return to the U.S., take his place in the American establishment and spy for Moscow. The writer, who titled the chapter in his memoir describing his reaction to the assignment “Horribly Startled,” duly got an unpaid job as a State Department economist in Washington.

But he asserted in his memoir that he never passed anything of value to his handler, giving him only political analyses he wrote himself. The final item, he said, was his own appeal to the Soviet Union to cooperate with the West and give up subversion.

During World War II, Straight interrupted his work at New Republic to serve stateside in the Army Air Forces. And although he turned against communism and Stalinism, he also campaigned against the zealous tactics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).

“The rabble rousers in Congress who whip up hysteria undermine the faith of Americans in their government,” Straight said in a speech to Town Hall Los Angeles at the Biltmore Hotel in 1951, when he was national chairman of the American Veterans Committee. “They seek to suppress free speech in the name of anticommunism and are really the best friends that the Communists possess.”

In 1954, he published a book critical of McCarthy, “Trial by Television.”

Straight said nothing, however, about Blunt and his other former spy colleagues until 1963, and waited 20 more years to discuss his own assignments for the Cambridge-rooted espionage ring.

When he was offered a top arts job in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Straight realized that he faced security checks and went first to his friend Arthur Schlesinger, a special assistant to Kennedy, and then the FBI.

He revealed to the bureau his Cambridge recruitment by Burgess (who had long since defected to the Soviet Union) and Blunt, by then a prominent British art historian and Master of the Queen’s Gallery. British intelligence used Straight’s information to obtain a confession from Blunt, but left him quietly undisturbed until the news media stumbled on the secret in 1981 and also began pursuing Straight.

Straight turned down the position that led to his meeting with Schlesinger. But the writer later served as vice chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He also wrote several books, including novels based on historic events surrounding the cavalry in the American West, and a play, “Caravaggio,” which was produced at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park in 1971.

But Straight’s best-known book unquestionably was “After Long Silence.” Although intended as an explanatory apology, his effort earned no praise, little sympathy and poor critical notices.

“The spies apparently never took Straight very seriously, and it is equally difficult for the reader to grant the author much moral stature,” fumed Time magazine. “Straight’s belated mea culpa has the character of an after-thought: Treason had long since been done.”

Richard Eder, in reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times, commented bluntly: “His book tries to recount what happened, to figure out why it happened and above all to account for the ‘long silence’ of the title. It never really succeeds. The writing is as indecisive, as wavering as the author’s own long hesitation whether to come forward with information about men whom he supposed still to be spies.... This is a sad book and often a silly one. Straight does not write very well.”

Twice divorced, Straight is survived by his third wife, Katharine Gould; five children, David, Michael, Susan and Dorothy Straight and Dina Krosnick; and four grandchildren.