Harvey Klehr, The Millionaire was a Soviet Spy; The Twisted Life of David Karr, 288pps Encounter Books, $25.99
David Karr, born in 1918 as David Katz to a Brooklyn Jewish family, led a life large enough to require the several names to go along with his multiple careers and identities. Karr is depicted by famed historian of Communism Harvey Klehr in a new book, The Millionaire was a Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr as a man of many wives and personalities. Klehr began writing about Karr’s convoluted careers more than a quarter of a century ago before the Cold War ended. In the interim, the Soviet Union has collapsed and the Soviet archives have been opened and then closed. And on the way to his book about Karr, Klehr, meanwhile, has written several other volumes including: The Secret World of American Communism; In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage; and Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. All are co-authored with John Earl Haynes.
The latest book on Karr is, in a sense, the dramatization of the themes of the preceding two as it centers on an American Communist—among other things—whose role could only be fully understood through revelations still contained in the Soviet archives.
According to the famed journalist Jack Anderson, Karr was the model for the window washer who worked his way to the top in the 1950s best-seller How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. But on the way to his success, Karr—the man formerly known as Katz—started off in the 1930s as a young non-card carrying Communist writing for Party newspapers like The Daily Worker. In the early 1940s he spent a brief stint working for the Office of War Information (OWI). Government work came to an abrupt end in 1943 when he and several other OWI employees were called before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities investigating suspected communists in the government and Karr testified under oath that he was actually an FBI informant before resigning from his post. Leaving the OWI, Karr was hired straight away as a legman for Drew Pearson, one of the most celebrated columnists of the post-WWII years. In the 1950s, the great age of corporate proxy wars, Karr became, for a time, a capitalist. In the 1960s, as he was moving though his third wife, he took up residence in Hollywood and became, for the first time, a passionate supporter of Israel. Come the 1970s as he moved towards his fourth marriage this time to a wealthy and culture Jewish French woman—he already had 5 children—Karr settled in Paris and signed on with the KGB while continuing to work as an international businessman.
It was an extraordinary journey for a guy from Brooklyn who had just barely finished high school. Karr’s ability to take on such a range of roles leads Klehr to compare him with Woody Allen’s mockumentary subject Zelig, a chameleon who becomes a world-historical figure by adopting the personas of more important people. But that doesn’t quite work since Zelig succeeded by blending into his surroundings while Karr was never so modest. Parlaying his work as a corporate relations man into a job as CEO of Fairbanks Whitney, a leading defense contractor, Karr relied on a certain brashness and high test rhetoric in his command of the corporate battlefield. Karr is perhaps best compared to Sammy Glick, protagonist of the novel What Makes Sammy Run and an archetype of the striving, and sometimes scheming, second generation of Eastern European Jews driven to make it out of the tenements and to the top of American society at all costs.
In 1973 Karr appears to have been recruited by the KGB. This time around, though, he appears to have been motivated less by the ideological commitments of his youth than by money. Between 1973 and his death in 1979 Karr, sometimes working with American business tycoon Armand Hammer, sometimes trying to undercut Hammer, served as an intermediary for American companies looking to win a foothold in Russia.
Karr was never famous but he was “well known in a world where journalism, business and government intersected, well known to Washington insiders for more than three decades. He knew or met with every American president from FDR to Gerald Ford,” as Klehr writes in his book. But Karr’s relentless ambitions also cost him. His ties to Communist Party journalism left him caught in the tentacles of McCarthyism long after he’d tried to bluff his way free of suspicion with the claim of being an FBI informant. His extraordinary talents at self-promotion led to great wealth and public success but left his private life in shambles. Karr’s mysterious death in 1979 led to an extended brawl between his 4 wives and 5 children over financial and personal legacy and generated controversy even from the grave as claims arose, though without credible evidence, that he had been murdered by the KGB.
Karr never used checks or credit cards he dealt in cash so that his machinations couldn’t be tracked. When he was alive he purchased loyalty with generous expense accounts and cruises on his beautiful yachts.. He lied to dupe scoops out of sources, he lied to win proxy battles, he lied to put together business deals at Fairbanks Whitney, and, undoubtedly, he lied to his many wives and the children he left behind. He died as he lived. A great fabulist, Karr was always able to keep more balls in the air than his critics, investigators and wives could track.