“David Karr was the ‘Zelig’ of 20th century American life,” begins Prof. Harvey Klehr’s book The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr, from Encounter Books. Zelig was the fictional character from Woody Allen’s 1984 mockumentary of the same name, about a mysterious figure who swam in the currents of celebrity in the 1920s and ‘30s. Karr’s wild life careened from Communist activist to muckraking journalist, from publicist to corporate executive, from moviemaker to hotel executive, from international businessman to Soviet spy. He rubbed shoulders with presidents and politicians, and was even denounced on the floor of the Senate by Joseph McCarthy.
When Karr died suddenly in 1979, rumors abounded that he had been murdered. The fact that the suspects included everyone from the KGB and CIA to the Mossad and Mafia gives one some idea as to how varied and shadowy his career had been.
The author of this riveting new biography, Harvey Klehr, is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Politics and History and former chairman of the political science department at Emory University. He is the author, co-author, or editor of thirteen books, three of which have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, including Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. He has also written for Commentary, The New Republic, Wall Street Journal, and Weekly Standard.
I reached out to Prof. Klehr with some questions about The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole.
Mark Tapson: Prof. Klehr, how did you come across the name David Karr and what makes this man of mystery a figure of importance?
Harvey Klehr: I first encountered his name in the 1980s doing research for a book on the Amerasia spy case of the 1940s. Karr was a journalist working for [Washington columnist] Drew Pearson. Some of the people involved in the case had been leaking classified material to Pearson through Karr. I set out to learn a bit more about him and became fascinated by the remarkable life.
He is important because he played a role – rarely a starring role, but a supporting one – in any number of significant events in twentieth-century American history. He figured in the anti-communist crusades of the 1940s, was a controversial investigative journalist, played a key part in the proxy wars that roiled American companies in the 1950s, and was an early participant in normalization of business relationships with the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Along the way, he knew American presidents beginning with FDR and parlayed friendships with prominent politicians like Alan Cranston, Sargent Shriver, and Jerry Brown into profitable business deals. And he agreed to work as a source for the KGB in the 1970s.
MT: As a budding journalist in the late ‘30s, Karr seemed deeply involved in the Communist Party of the USA, and yet simultaneously he managed to distance himself from them. Was he ever a true believer, or did he simply use the Communists the way he seemed to use everyone else – for personal advancement?
HK: I think as a young man he did believe in Communism and was willing to work with the Communist Party of the United States. By the end of the 1930s, partly out of distaste for the Nazi-Soviet Pact and partly because he recognized that the brand had become toxic, he grew more cautious. Thereafter, he cooperated with people he knew to be Communists, but also began to provide himself with protective cover – telling people he had worked as an informer for the FBI, for example.
MT: In 1950, Sen. Joe McCarthy accused Karr of being “an important member of the Communist Party,” one of the “grease-monkeys of the Communist conspiracy that is trying to conquer us.” Can you expound a little on that?
HK: McCarthy hated Karr’s employer, Drew Pearson, and Karr’s background in and close to the CPUSA was a convenient cudgel to hit at Pearson. There was abundant evidence that Karr had been closely associated with the CPUSA and he had told so many conflicting stories about his relationship that he was vulnerable. By the time McCarthy made his attack on Karr, however, he had distanced himself from the Party. He and Pearson, for example, had been vociferous and enthusiastic supporters of the Marshall Plan.
MT: You point out that sometime during his business trips to the Soviet Union in the early ‘70s, Karr was recruited as a Soviet asset, and began trying, “in ways both subtle and obvious, to serve Soviet interests.” Can you give us a couple of examples?
HK: Karr was providing Soviet intelligence with reports about Shriver’s presidential campaign in 1976. After it tanked, he transferred his affections to Jerry Brown, Governor of California. Karr first provided a back-channel for Ted Kennedy to communicate with the Soviet Union. He tried to curry favor with Gerald Ford’s administration, and provided Soviet talking points on disarmament issues to it.
MT: Karr died from apparently natural causes at the age of 60, but his last ex-wife claimed that he was murdered, and the suspects included everyone from the KGB to the CIA to the Mossad to industrialist Armand Hammer. What’s your take on his death?
HK: I think he died of a heart attack. He had had a previous attack and his high-stress life no doubt exacerbated his health issues. But it is impossible to rule out murder, although I think it is unlikely. If he was murdered, the most likely suspect is the KGB. A series of scandals involving contracts Karr had obtained for the Moscow Olympics threatened to implicate a high-ranking Soviet official who was the son-in-law of Alexi Kosygin, the number two man in the Soviet Union. So there was a strong motive. But again, I think a natural death is more likely.