“This is a story about a spy,” writes Millicent Dillon in Harry Gold: A Novel. “And a spy, by definition, lies.” On the book’s jacket someone at Overlook Press added, “Eschewing the confines of traditional biography and inverting the glamour of espionage…Dillon blends fact and fiction to chronicle the human drama of Harry Gold, the American chemist who became a Soviet spy.” Harry Gold, many Nation readers will recall, is not just any old American chemist who became a Soviet spy. He was self-confessedly the courier who brought to the Russians physicist Klaus Fuchs’s reports on the Manhattan Project. And, allegedly, Gold climbed a flight of stairs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one summer day in 1945 and spoke words that fueled the red scare of the fifties and sent two people to their death: “I come from Julius.” Whereupon Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law, David Greenglass, a machinist who had failed every technical course he took in his brief college career, handed over a crudely drawn picture of an implosion lens that disclosed to the Russians the secret of the atomic bomb. Yeah, right. That Harry Gold.
Harry Gold, its cover tells us, is “innovative bio-fiction that brilliantly breaks new ground” between genres. Join the crowd: Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, even Edmund Morris have been traveling this same territory. Is it a novel based on fact or a biography with some fictionalized patches? What does it mean to base a novel on the real testimony of a habitual liar–a fiction built on a fiction masquerading as fact? Does this show us something about the multiplicity of reality, or is it all just a game?
Considered purely as a novel, Harry Gold is a good one. Dillon creates an interesting and usually believable inner life for Gold. This must have been a challenge, since Gold was, in some respects, a very ordinary man. For much of his life he lived with his parents and younger brother in working-class Philadelphia. Prevented by the Depression from studying chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, as he had planned, he worked as a chemical technician. Eventually he took courses in chemical engineering at Drexel Institute, and some years later he was awarded a degree in chemistry by Xavier University in Cincinnati, which led to more responsible jobs. Gold spent long hours in the lab and seems to have had few friends or outside interests.
But of course Gold was not an ordinary man. In the shlumpy body of the plodding lab tech lived a spy. The story is that during the Depression first his father and then Gold himself lost their jobs. A colleague who was still employed at Gold’s former lab told him that a friend was leaving a job at a laboratory in Jersey City and might be able to arrange for Gold to succeed him. Gold got the job and a grateful friendship with its previous inhabitant, whom Dillon calls Dave White. (His real name was Tom Black.) White/Black was a Communist, and pushed hard for Gold to join the party. But Gold, whose politics ran only to sympathy with the underdog and a dislike of anti-Semitism, fell asleep in meetings.
Nevertheless, when “White” asked Gold whether he would be willing to help representatives of a Russian trade organization gather information about US industrial processes, he readily agreed. And so began Gold’s underground life, full of street-corner meetings and trips to places Gold would not ordinarily have gone. When one of his Soviet controllers suggested that people might trust a married man more than a single one, Gold invented a wife and twin children, about whom he spun elaborate stories. Finally, after several years of low-level espionage–much of it involving information that was either in the public domain or became available to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program–Gold was chosen to be the courier for Klaus Fuchs, an exiled German physicist turned British citizen and Russian spy. When Fuchs joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Gold traveled there to pick up his reports. There, too, he visited David Greenglass. After the war ended, Gold returned to his daily life. But after the arrest of Fuchs, who had returned to England, the FBI tracked Gold down. He told all, yet refused to bargain for a shorter sentence and was given thirty years.
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That’s the outline of Harry Gold’s story as Millicent Dillon tells it. Her achievement is to make this improbable tale seem real and Gold appear almost sympathetic. Dillon’s Gold is an isolated man, hungry for human contact, who experiences his brief meetings with Russian agents and American informants as friendships. He enjoys his work in the laboratory and takes great pride in his professionalism as a spy. The book opens with a description of Gold’s roundabout method of getting on a train from New York’s Penn Station to Boston. (First he buys a ticket to Philadelphia; he boards the Philadelphia train and walks through it, exiting before the train leaves but after the railroad personnel have left the platform; stands in line again and buys another ticket, this time to Boston. Thus anyone who has been watching him will think that he has gone to Philadelphia.) This sequence is repeated any time Gold must take a trip; only when he goes to visit his family in Philadelphia (after he has moved to New York) does he travel directly.
The real Gold was a prosaic writer. A memoir of his called The Circumstances Surrounding My Work as a Soviet Agent (quoted by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in The Rosenberg File) sounds like this:
When on a mission, I just completely subordinated myself to the task at hand…. Once I had started out on a trip, I totally forgot home and family and work and friends and just became a single-minded automaton, set to do a job…. And when the task was completed and I returned home, the same process again took place, but this time in reverse.
Dillon describes the same process in images:
I see him on a subway train from Queens to Manhattan, approaching the mid-point under the East River.
I see the lights blinking, and in the dimness he seems to be in the process of switching. Before the mid-point, he is in one life. After the mid-point, in another. And in the moment in between, there is a strange sound, a hum, a mild roaring, like the reversal of a tide, a change of pressure in the air, in the ears.The image of the subway tunnel, the flashing lights and the change of pressure, appears again and again as Gold sets off on a mission.
Dillon’s Gold, like his creator, thinks poetically about double lives. Looking out a train window, he sees another train on the next track: “The inhabitants of the two trains are mirror images of each other, leading parallel lives in adjacent traveling rooms.” Waiting for a meeting with a Soviet contact on a snowy evening, he reflects:
Only now and then a figure emerged like a dark shadow and then slipped back into the whiteness. When he came to the river, he looked out over the dark water and saw how the falling snow disappeared, melting into the blackness. Hiddenness was here too. Hiddenness was all around him. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Secrecy was in the air, thick as snow, protective as well as exciting.
When he studies at a Catholic university,
The mystery of the mass, which he witnessed on several occasions, intrigued him with its intertwining of the real and the not real…. He wondered what it would be like to enter into that small dark box [the confessional]…. Through that screen…would flow the most intimate and dark secrets.
Harry Gold is spun from such language. The book is full of journeys and twinnings (including, obviously, Gold’s imaginary twin children). Much is underground–Gold’s subway rides (which he once describes as “this underground world” and the basement apartment he rents in Queens. And it seems as if almost everyone in the book has a secret–Gold and the other spies, of course, but also Klaus Fuchs’s sister (in real life she was married, but Dillon gives her a lover and has Gold interrupt their assignation), the wife of a colleague at Los Alamos who tries to befriend Fuchs and, in the end, even Gold’s mother, who in her dying delirium talks about what sounds like an experience in the Russian political underground–literally. (“She was mumbling something about a tunnel, about a trapdoor in the floor, and a rug covering the trapdoor that led to the tunnel…where they could hide. ‘I have to hide…so they won’t find me.'”) The fictional Gold’s (and probably the real Gold’s) instinct is to routinize everything, even his secret life, following the procedure for showing up at a rendezvous with the same precision as he showed in the lab. “He was capable of transforming anything that happened to him, no matter how bizarre or unpleasant, no matter how painful or sad, no matter how mysterious or wonderful, into the mundane.” But Dillon’s language is just the opposite, and though at times overwrought, it keeps Gold’s story mysterious and exciting.
Harry Gold has another secret, though. He’s a chronic masturbator who has virtually no relationships with women other than his mother, and when he finally gets together with a woman who works in his lab, he is unable to perform. Gold’s masturbation, too, does symbolic work. One time after a night of frenzy, unable to sleep, he eats powdered Jell-O straight from the box; the next morning he feels “the faintest taste of the too sweet Jell-O powder upon his tongue.” The sweet taste is a memory of sex and shame, but it also points ahead to the torn Jell-O box that will be Gold’s symbol of recognition with David Greenglass. After his mother’s death, Gold “brought himself to climax and then again to climax, and again. Deep in the corridor of his mind [again with the tunnels!] was the sense that he was committing sacrilege. Afterwards…there arose in him an awareness of a murkiness at the depth of his being, something deeply hidden, so covered over it antedated his own history.”
I’m not sure what Dillon means by “it antedated his own history,” but I can guess what was so deeply hidden for Harry Gold. His secret life–with its clandestine meetings in bars and restrooms, special signs of recognition and stories about an imaginary wife and children–sounds like that of closeted gay men in the thirties and forties. Dillon’s fictional Gold is not overtly gay, and I’ve read nothing to suggest that the real one was either. Still, the symbolism of his secret life carries unmistakable overtones. And the feelings of Dillon’s Gold about Klaus Fuchs also have a homoerotic tinge:
In this brilliant light his hair gleams red-gold. He is lean, sun-tanned, sturdier than Harry remembers him. But in his face there is still that tension between the open and the closed, between that which would hide secrets and that which would reveal them. No one else would see that, he tells himself, but me. It touches Harry so, tying him to Klaus in ways he has never been tied to anyone before.
Dillon’s Fuchs is sometimes irritated by Gold’s physical presence and manner. “Something in this man, perhaps his very emptiness, is waiting to suck the secrets out of him,” he thinks. Still, Fuchs is aware that he and Gold have placed their lives in each other’s hands. The Gold-Fuchs relationship is in its way a love story.
So Harry Gold–largely on the strength of its language–is compelling, drawing the reader into Gold’s secret life and revealing the secrecy all around us. Dillon has imagined her Gold mostly within the confines of the facts of the real Gold’s life, though she nowhere claims that her novel is also a biography.
Yet establishing those facts is not so easy, because Gold was a liar, and not just in the sense of “a spy, by definition, lies.” The well-embroidered and frequently told saga of Gold’s relationship with his wife and children was not a necessary lie. Gold also told people that his brother, a paratrooper, had been killed in the Pacific. At another trial (not the Rosenbergs’), Gold famously testified, referring to his lies, “It is a wonder that steam didn’t come out of my ears at times.” In yet another trial, the defendant’s lawyer, quoting the “steam” statement, asked Gold, “You lied for a period of six years?” “I lied for a period of sixteen years, not alone six,” Gold replied.
The real Harry Gold was creepily eager to ingratiate himself with others. He told the FBI–and Dillon repeats the story several times–that as a schoolboy he spent so much time writing compositions for classmates about how they spent invented summer vacations that he had no time to write his own. At the various labs where he worked, Gold was known as a soft touch who lent people money and was so embarrassed by having it returned that the borrowers often didn’t bother. Sometimes he borrowed money himself in order to lend it to others. Once he rode a streetcar to the end of the line to bring money to someone who had asked to borrow it, a man he didn’t even know. Can we believe that such a man would refuse to gather information for the Russians when asked to do so by someone who had gotten him a job? Can we believe that he would refuse to testify to something that was important to the FBI agents who spent so much time with him, who, like the Russian agents, seemed like friends?
Dillon does address one instance of Gold’s lying. He told the FBI two stories of how he happened to go to Xavier University. In one story, Xavier was the only school that would accept his credits from Drexel’s night school. In the other, the Russians, hearing that Gold was considering Xavier and noting that it was near Wright Air Force Base in Dayton, offered to pay his tuition and other expenses if he went there. Here Dillon makes a rare foray into the first person, mentioning “the first [story], the one I have just reported.” “Obviously, both stories can’t be right,” she continues. “Which story is one to believe? Is one a lie or the other a lie? Or are both lies?” Dillon then suggests: “Perhaps one should not be surprised, if Harry lied about anything, that he lied about money…. Undoubtedly, for Harry money was connected with many other feelings, urges, and possibly even desires.”
Dillon concludes this discussion by writing,
Whatever the explanation, and explaining is, after all, a rather hopeless endeavor in trying to tell the story of a man’s life–or two lives–when the time comes to confess, Harry will tell two stories. What is curious is that for some reason, when Harry does tell, the second story will not replace the first. Rather, the first lingers on, side by side with its alternate version, as if uncontradicted, as if story itself can have two lives.
Leaving aside the likelihood that money is connected with “feelings, urges, and possibly even desires” for almost everyone, this is gobbledygook. Although fictional narrative may be able to have two–or multiple–lives, one grounded in biography does not, and the impossibility of perfect explanation doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and not even try. Perhaps Dillon is warning us that all the facts of Gold’s life can’t be accounted for. But why is that a problem if this is a novel and not a biography? Dillon seems to be trying to have it both ways; flagging this instance where the real Gold’s testimony is obviously bogus suggests that the rest of it is true.
But it isn’t. Gold verifiably lied in at least one other, extremely significant instance. Describing Harry’s first meeting with David Greenglass, Dillon writes, “He says the words he is supposed to say” without telling us what they are. Later, when Gold is being interrogated by the FBI, Dillon writes, “Yes, he remembered a Jell-O box, with the torn halves that had to be matched, and the phrase, ‘I come from—-‘ but he could not for the life of him remember the name of the man he was supposed to come from. Joseph? James? Jesse?” When the agents show him pictures of suspicious soldiers stationed at Los Alamos, he recognizes Greenglass and “at that moment Harry remembered the name of the man he was supposed to say had sent him with the torn half of the Jell-O box. It was Julius.” A few pages earlier, Dillon has Gold explaining to the FBI that he doesn’t remember the soldier’s name but that it doesn’t matter because “I’m sure it wasn’t his real name. That wouldn’t have been the way things were done.” Gold’s whole career as a spy has been based on aliases, yet suddenly the password is a man’s real name!
This story has two lives only in the sense that Dillon renders one based on Gold’s trial testimony, and the fuller historical record renders another. In the latter, David Greenglass didn’t remember that Harry Gold said “I come from Julius” or anyone else. He thought Gold introduced himself as “Dave from Pittsburgh,” although Gold remembered calling himself “Frank Kessler.” Gold was sure that he had said “I come from,” although he insisted that the name he had used was Ben. On December 28, 1950, before the Rosenberg trial began, the FBI arranged a meeting between Greenglass and Gold (who had in any event been housed in the same hall, in the Tombs, for six months). The purpose of the meeting, as described in The Rosenberg File, was “to iron out the differences between their stories.” Quoting FBI records, Radosh and Milton show how Greenglass and Gold were encouraged to agree on a consistent story about Gold’s alias. (Neither man, Radosh and Milton reveal in a footnote, had initially remembered that the recognition symbol was a torn Jell-O box.) According to the FBI record,
GREENGLASS proposed that possibly GOLD had said “greetings from Julius” which would of course make sense to GREENGLASS. GOLD’s spontaneous comment to this was that possibly GREENGLASS was right and that he had mentioned the name of JULIUS rather than BEN. GOLD, however, is not at all clear on this point.
Radosh and Milton claim that Gold remained unsure until the day before the trial began; he nevertheless testified that he had said “I come from Julius.” They report that an FBI agent who was present at this meeting later told a filmmaker that Gold happily latched on to his suggestion that the name he spoke was Julius.
Gold’s account of his meeting with Greenglass is extremely peculiar, and one need not believe that Julius Rosenberg was innocent–or argue, as some do, that the records of Gold’s hotel stay in Albuquerque were forged, or that Gold invented his relationship with Fuchs (who never definitively identified him as the courier)–to think so. Why does any of this matter, and who, outside a small circle of Nation readers, cares? If Millicent Dillon had written a novel based on the life of Harry Gold and called it, say, Larry Silver, it wouldn’t matter at all. But by using her main character’s autobiographical name, she suggests that the book is simultaneously fact and fiction, not a roman à clef. Gold’s supposed meeting with Greenglass was a linchpin of the government’s case against Julius Rosenberg (if it had other evidence, that was not presented). Dillon doesn’t seem much interested in Gold’s participation in the Rosenberg case; she brings him to testify against the Rosenbergs for only three paragraphs on the next-to-last page. Her focus is on Gold’s secret life and on the intense moments under the desert sun with Klaus.
Millicent Dillon is certainly entitled to her own views about what Rosenberg and Greenglass were up to and, as a novelist, to her own imaginings about Harry Gold as well. But Gold isn’t George Smiley, he’s a historical figure, and his importance rests on the Rosenberg trial. Klaus Fuchs was not the only Manhattan Project scientist passing information to the Russians; according to the Venona documents, there were three others. And physicists agree that the Russians would in any case have eventually developed an atomic bomb on their own. If Harry Gold had never met Klaus Fuchs, nothing much would have changed. If Harry Gold had never testified against the Rosenbergs, though, the politics of the fifties might have unfolded very differently. Ending Gold’s story with his own trial is a novelistic decision–it leaves him a more sympathetic character. But it’s also a political decision, and an intervention in a debate. Unless, of course, Dillon means the reader to share my skeptical reaction to her retelling of Gold’s account of his visit to Albuquerque, and to conclude that both stories linger side by side, as if story itself has two lives…