In his new book The Millionaire was a Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr, Harvey Klehr, the distinguished historian of Communism, recounts the colorful, sordid, and altogether unlikely story of a man who, born into an ordinary middle-class Brooklyn family in 1918, was, in turn, a writer for Communist newspapers like the Daily Worker, an employee of the Office of War Information in Washington, a flunky for the syndicated D.C.-based columnist Drew Pearson, a PR guy in New York, the CEO of a major defense contractor, a corporate raider, a Broadway and Hollywood producer, the general manager of the George V Hotel in Paris, and – finally, from 1973 until his mysterious death in 1979, which has been attributed variously to the CIA, the Mossad, the Mafia, and the KGB – a Soviet spy.
Along the way, Karr acquired a multitude of friends, enemies, and acquaintances in high places, becoming a target during his years with Pearson of Senator Joseph McCarthy and columnist Westbrook Pegler; after relocating to France, he became a business partner of Aristotle Onassis and a friend of Kennedy clan member Sargent Shriver, who introduced him to famous oil tycoon Armand Hammer. In turn, Hammer, who had enjoyed close ties to the Kremlin since 1919, and who helped fund Communist operations in the U.S. and Europe in exchange for business concessions in the Soviet Union, introduced Karr to Soviet officials and ended up with a lucrative job helping U.S. firms set up business in the USSR. It was Karr, for example, who set up the financing for the first Western hotel constructed in the Soviet Union.
What exactly did Karr do during his brief stint as a KGB agent? He provided his Kremlin bosses with inside information on the presidential campaigns of several Democratic candidates – Shriver, Henry Jackson, Jerry Brown, and Jimmy Carter. “He tried to insinuate himself in the Gerald Ford White House,” said Klehr in an interview. “He probably also worked for the Mossad.” Was he a convinced Communist, betraying his country in the name of principle, however misguided? No. Throughout his life, Karr seems to have been a man who believed only in advancing his career and lining his pockets. Almost certainly, he committed treason – serving the interests of America’s totalitarian enemy – only because it was profitable. When you think about it, becoming a Kremlin pawn was the natural last act in the career of this sleazy, thoroughly unscrupulous character.