[The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr by Harvey Klehr; Encounter Books, 2019; 288 pp., $25.99]
A distinguished professor of history at Emory University, Harvey Klehr has in a number of books exposed the workings of foreign communists and their American counterparts and fellow travelers in academia, government, the media, and the military. Among his best-known works are Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999) and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2009). Both of these, co-authored with John Earl Haynes, provide irrefutable evidence that the United States faced a serious Communist problem from the New Deal era onward, despite continuing denials by left-wing historians that any significant infiltration happened.
In his latest book, Klehr attempts to wrap up a long preoccupation with the enigmatic spy David Karr, an American who collaborated with the Soviet Union for a number of years until his death in 1979. Klehr has assembled an impressive array of facts about his subject, despite the refusal of the American and Russian governments to declassify many potentially important documents. His prose is clear and declarative, a model of straightforward historical writing.
Born in Brooklyn in 1918 as David Katz, Karr changed his name as a young man to conceal his Jewish parentage. He would remain a chameleon for the rest of his days. He drifted through high school and parlayed some dabbling in investigative work among National Socialist support groups into a brief writing gig with a handful of publications, including the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the U.S. Communist Party.
A gadfly by temperament, Karr early learned the fine art of opportunism. By 1940 his journalism brought him to Washington, D.C., where he ingratiated himself with big names such as Drew Pearson, the longtime author of the Beltway gossip clearinghouse column Washington Merry-Go-Round, as well as Treasury official and KGB operative Harry Dexter White, and Lt. Andrew Roth, one of Philip Jaffe’s co-conspirators at the Communist front journal Amerasia.
Aided by some creative lying about his credentials, Karr managed to land a position in the Office of War Information. Investigated in 1943 by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in part for his association with the Daily Worker, Karr wheeled and dealed his way out of the situation by playing his contacts against each other and stonewalling the committee with one outlandish alibi after another. Karr survived the storm in Washington, but was radioactive from the scandal and forced to leave town.
If Karr was in fact a “mole,” as Klehr’s title claims, then there should be some early evidence of his association with the Soviets. The evidence is somewhat sketchy. Klehr notes that as early as 1944 Karr met with Samuel Krafsur, a Soviet agent working for Russian news agency TASS. A partially decrypted message sent to the KGB indicated that Karr had shared information with Krafsur. What is not clear is whether Karr knew he was sharing information with a Soviet agent.
Back in New York in 1948, Karr repurposed his network of political and newspaper contacts into a new career as a Madison Avenue ad executive. An inveterate exaggerator, Karr was perfect for the ad business. He spun a fortune out of blandishments, bluster, and BS, managing to salvage his brand from the Washington debacle and reinvent himself as a creator of similar personae for others who needed to change the way that people thought about them or their line of work.
Public relations proved to be Karr’s real schtick. Working as an adman in the late ’40s and ’50s Karr discovered that public relations could be very lucrative if deployed as a smokescreen, enabling him to gain control of oil, railroad, and machine tool companies. He would wring as much cash as possible from them before taking a buyout and moving on.
By 1959 Karr had established himself as the CEO of a major company, Fairbanks Whitney, which held a number of lucrative defense contracts. However, it turns out that running a company is the opposite of smooth-talking a reporter. After the company had suffered major losses, Karr was forced out in 1963. But by 1966, he was back on his feet. He married a Rothschild heiress, moved with her to a swanky hotel in Paris, and reinvented himself yet again, this time as a devout Jew.
The sincerity of Karr’s Judaism is impossible to gauge. The reality is that he became deeply enmeshed in Zionist politics, working with left-wing Zionists such as Eliezer Preminger, a founder of the Hebrew Communists, while cutting deals to line his own pockets. Karr’s entrée into globalized deal-making in the Levant was also a way into a world of international espionage. Karr’s Zionism was about using Israel as a base to go global, not about the ingathering of the exiles. Karr’s contacts in Mossad, the CIA, European intelligence agencies, and the KGB stood him in good stead in the late 1960s as he parlayed for profit his ever-expanding network of clients and associates.
Karr worked his French contacts hard to develop a good relationship with the U.S. ambassador in Paris, Sargent Shriver. Shriver had married into the Kennedy family and so was Karr’s golden ticket into the stratosphere of global influence. In 1971, Shriver introduced him to Armand Hammer, who was well-connected with the Soviets. With Hammer’s ties to the Soviet authorities on the one hand, and Shriver’s to the American equivalent of a royal family on the other, Karr had the makings of an extraordinary series of deals.
The Russians needed money and they also wanted the Americans to ease sanctions against them. The Kennedys, especially Teddy, saw the possibility of a Russo-American thaw as a way to shore up political power and make a killing for companies donating to the right candidates in American elections.
In the 1970s, Karr, while supplying information to the KGB, minted both his business and political connections into hard cash, representing Mitsubishi, Blue Bell, Peugeot-Citroën, Gulf Oil, Arthur Anderson, Volvo, and more as these companies sought out profits in the Soviet market. Soviet meddling in Afghanistan threatened to sour Karr’s business deals. However, Teddy Kennedy saw in the chaos an opportunity to make an end-run around his rival Jimmy Carter in the upcoming presidential election. Karr helped Kennedy connect with the Soviets to undermine U.S. foreign policy. Every time someone connected with Karr gained access to the Russians, he walked away with another payout.
Klehr quotes one former KGB agent who stated that Karr had been recruited in the ’70s during a Moscow trip. Of course, nobody operated in the Soviet Union without the permission of the KGB, and KGB documents describe Karr as “a competent KGB source.” Karr worked on behalf of Soviet intelligence to find actionable information, not only from the Kennedys but also the Ford administration and others.
Karr died suddenly in his Paris apartment in July 1979. According to the official autopsy, the cause of death was a heart attack, but Klehr does not altogether rule out foul play. What is certain is that Karr had associations with some of the most unsavory people and groups in the world—Palestinian terrorists, Soviet authorities, mafioso fixers in a dozen countries, a string of businessmen and financiers, and the Kennedys. This is to say nothing of the many women whom Karr had callously used and abandoned along the way.
It is not clear who or what killed David Karr—whether heart attack, hitman, jilted lover, KGB team, PLO operative, or the Mossad—and Klehr confesses that he doesn’t know, either. In death as in life, Karr was inscrutable. Klehr is more confident of Karr’s motivation: egoism and greed.
This is certainly plausible. Karr became very wealthy, buying yachts, chartering planes, and cavorting with powerbrokers on a truly planetary scale. Every time the chips fell, Karr either held a winning hand or was sitting right next to the emergency exit. A man like that is nothing if not an expert at looking out for number one.
In a brief aside, Klehr parallels the Kennedy-Karr traitor-work in the Soviet Union with the alleged activities of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn. He puzzles over the fact that Karr’s widow at one point hired the law firm of Roy Cohn, the anti-communist crusader who served as the Trump family’s lawyer and political advisor. And, in the last paragraph of the book, says that Karr “was not the last American enticed to cooperate with a foreign power hostile to American interests.”
These asides are transparent attempts to cast aspersions at Donald Trump, and they hit a sour note. A better comparison would have been with the foreign dealings of the Bidens, Bushes, Clintons, and Feinsteins. That sphere of corruption, on both sides of the aisle, is precisely what Trump rode into office to shut down. Trump is not a rent-seeker like Karr, but something closer to a Wyatt Earp, come to bring an end to a gang and an era that allowed people like Karr to thrive.