Michael Straight, Who Wrote of Connection to Spy Ring, Dies at 87


Michael Straight, the patrician former magazine publisher who described in a political memoir his lingering involvement with Soviet spies whom he had first met when they were all students at Cambridge University, died yesterday at home in Chicago. He was 87 and also had a home on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Arthur Mahon, his lawyer.

In a life of rubbing shoulders with the privileged, Mr. Straight went through a series of identities, from Communist during his student days at Trinity College, Cambridge, to reluctant Soviet agent in New Deal Washington to liberal anti-Communist during the cold war. He also went through a series of jobs, including economist at the State Department, editor and publisher of The New Republic magazine and, in the Nixon and Ford administrations, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

He confessed all in his memoir, "After Long Silence" (1983), citing his hesitancy to spy when ordered to do so in 1937 by Anthony Blunt, then a young Cambridge don, and insisting that upon taking a job with the State Department under Roosevelt, the only papers he passed to the Soviet agent he knew as Michael Green were political and economic analyses written by himself.

He added that in 1951, a decade after he had turned against the Communist Party, apparently over his objections to the Nazi-Soviet pact, he ran into Guy Burgess, once his fellow student at Cambridge, on a Washington street corner and assumed he must be running a spy ring out of the nearby British Embassy. He said he warned Burgess to stop and go home or he would expose him. Shortly after, Burgess defected to the Soviet Union with his colleague and lover, Donald Maclean.

Mr. Straight's own exposure came finally in 1963 when he was offered a top arts post in the Kennedy Administration. Fearing a background check, he went to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a special assistant to the president, who in turn directed him to the Justice Department. His talks with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and British intelligence led to the unmasking of Blunt, by then knighted and the curator of Queen Elizabeth's art collection. Mr. Straight turned down the Kennedy Administration post, although some years later he took the position of deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Although avowedly written as an apology and explanation, "After Long Silence" was not greeted with great sympathy. Critics on the right accused Mr. Straight of confessing to the F.B.I. only to clear his career path and speculated whether blowing the whistle sooner might not have saved lives. Gentler reviewers acknowledged the book's well-meaning thoughtfulness but accused the author of sentimentality and narcissism. Mr. Straight himself wondered in the book why his life had not added up to more.

Michael Whitney Straight was born Sept. 1, 1916, in New York City, the third and youngest child of Willard D. Straight, an investment banker with J. P. Morgan & Company, and Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight, an heiress. Together in 1914 the couple had started The New Republic. Their elder two children were Whitney, who became a racing-car driver and head of British Overseas Airway Corporation, and Beatrice, who became a distinguished actress.

Mr. Straight was educated at the Lincoln School in New York City and at Dartington Hall, the progressive English school founded and run by his mother and her second husband, Leonard Knight Elmhirst, whom she had married in 1925. Her first husband died in 1918 of septic pneumonia while serving with the American Expeditionary Forces in France.

After Dartington Hall Mr. Straight spent a year at the London School of Economics to offset literary tendencies in himself that he saw as useless to a world in political crisis. Going on to Cambridge in 1934, he became a member of the circle around John Maynard Keynes, socialized with young radical patricians like himself and joined the Communist Party, he said in his memoir, mostly in sympathy with its Popular Front objectives of supporting democrat governments against the rising tide of Nazism.

Moving from Cambridge to Washington in 1937 after spurning Blunt's order that he take a job on Wall Street he worked as an economist for the Department of State. He continued to pursue both politics and his stratospheric social life, sharing a house with Joseph Alsop, drafting speeches for and dining with the Roosevelts, and writing his analytic memorandums, some of which he passed on to Soviet intelligence. He wrote that he broke with Burgess and Blunt in 1938, when he left the State Department for the Department of the Interior, where he worked as a ghostwriter.

In September 1939 he married Belinda Crompton, a child psychiatrist. They had five children, David, Michael, Susan Straight, Dina Krosnick and Dorothy Straight, all of whom survive him, as do four grandchildren. The couple divorced in 1969, and in May 1974 Mr. Straight married Nina Gore Auchincloss Steers, a half-sister of Gore Vidal and stepsister of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They subsequently divorced. In 1998 he married Katharine Gould, a child psychiatrist. She, too, survives him.

In 1940 Mr. Straight returned to the State Department and then became Washington correspondent for The New Republic, which his mother still financed. He assumed the magazine's editorship in 1941 and shifted its stance from neutrality toward Europe to support for fighting Hitler and Fascism.

He served in the Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1945, a period when he learned to fly a B-17 but to his disappointment was stationed the whole while in the American Midwest. In 1946 he returned to The New Republic and became its publisher, remaining in that post until 1956. He enlisted Henry A. Wallace as the magazine's editor until Wallace, the left-leaning former vice president, became the Progressive Party's presidential candidate in 1948. Mr. Straight shifted editorial policy to a position opposing Stalinism and supporting the Marshall Plan. Yet he fought Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's brand of anti-Communism, publishing a book critical of both the senator and Communism, "Trial by Television" (1954).

After his mother's withdrawal of support of the magazine he enlisted new patrons and gradually ended his connection, reverting to his youthful interest in the arts. He turned to novel writing, publishing "Carrington" (1960) and "A Very Small Remnant" (1963), both westerns that received respectful reviews, as well as "Happy and Hopeless" (1979), a love story set in the Kennedy administration that he published himself. His memoir "On Green Spring Farm: The Life and Times of One Family in Fairfax County, Va., 1942 to 1966" is to be published in March by Devon Press.

From 1969 to 1977 he was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which led to his writing "Twigs for an Eagle's Nest: Government and the Arts, 1965-1978" (1979) and "Nancy Hanks: An Intimate Portrait: The Creation of a National Commitment to the Arts" (1988), a memorial to his superior at the endowment.

But his association with the Cambridge left never ceased to haunt him, and he went on defending his actions for the remainder of his life. To the end he insisted, as he put it in a 1995 letter to The London Review of Books responding to a reference to him as "a Cambridge Spy," "I was not a spy in the accepted usage of that word."


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