In the 1930s and ’40s, there were any number of American communists so enamored of Joseph Stalin and the shining tomorrows he promised that they would do anything for the Soviet Union, disdaining payment of any kind.
David Karr was not one of them.
Karr, writes Harvey Klehr in his riveting biography of the man, was something else entirely: He was the young American communist on the make, his eye “ever alert for the main chance,” his hand ever open to Soviet largess. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the son of Jewish immigrants, he gained access to power—and methodically amassed a $10 million fortune—by his wits, intelligence, radiant personality and, above all else, a matchless talent for Soviet-American networking. His early career was that of an idealistic sympathizer, working first as a freelancer for communist and far-left periodicals, including the Daily Worker. His later career, however, saw him assume an array of overlapping, ever-shifting personae, “from muckraking columnist to public relations flack, from corporate raider to corporate executive, from moviemaker to hotel executive, from business fixer to Olympic Committee confidant.”
According to some sources—and to stories unverifiable because the corroborating evidence remains classified or kept from public view by his former associates—Karr was also an “arms smuggler, . . . protector of Jewish emigrants from Russia, [and] behind-the-scenes political fixer.” Throughout it all, writes Mr. Klehr, “Karr cooperated with Soviet intelligence agencies, tried to act as a middleman between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. on several issues, and attempted to get close to American officials and politicians at the behest of the KGB.” He had an uncanny ability to befriend major American business figures, including corporate raider Art Landa, health-care innovator Henry Kaiser and Occidental Petroleum’s Armand Hammer. He knew or met with every president from FDR to Gerald Ford and was a trusted adviser to many politicians, including Sargent Shriver, Scoop Jackson and Jerry Brown.