- - Tuesday, October 29, 2019

“It often feels like David Karr has become an inescapable presence in my life. He has been around for nearly thirty years, sometimes part of my work virtually every day; sometimes hovering in the background. So it is a bit unnerving to prepare to let him go,” writes Harvey Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Politics and History at Emory University, and author of the highly-regarded “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.” 

As Jonathan Brent, a fellow scholar and author of “Inside the Stalin Archives” puts it, “‘Harvey Klehr is unquestionably the most important living historian of American Communism and Soviet espionage in the United States.’” It was that world of which David Karr was a denizen, a world which collapsed suddenly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

It was the nature of that now dead world — the central role of the Communist Party USA, a totally-owned subsidiary of the Soviet Union, with orders coming directly from Moscow — that made Karr’s career possible.  It’s hard to imagine today, but there were decades during the last century when a number of thoughtful people actually believed that communism, despite Soviet brutalities, was the winning ideology, the inevitable wave of the future. 

As Whittaker Chambers told us, when he decided to make his activities as a Russian spy public, he believed he was leaving the winning for the losing side. But because of Chambers, and his unwavering support by Richard Nixon, Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official directly involved in our dealings with Russia was exposed as a Russian agent, intensifying an already heated war between east-coast liberals, who were thought to be soft on communism, and the rest of the more sensible parts of country (which included California, in those days). 

It was a time of great opportunity for apparent ideological chameleons like David Karr, who had graduated from writing for the Daily Worker and other Communist publications, while denying he was ever a party member, to working in Washington as a leg man for Drew Pearson. (Mr. Pearson, the much-loathed but widely-read political gossip columnist who attacked the supporters of Nixon and Chambers, had the distinction of once being kneed in the groin in a Washington restaurant by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.)

Early on, during the war years, Karr had landed a job working for the Office of War Information, but was quickly let go when his resume came to the attention of investigators. Yet somehow he seemed always able to rewrite the script, to convince people he wasn’t what he seemed to be. In other words, a perfect spy. 

As Mr. Klehr writes, Karr, born David Katz in Brooklyn in 1918, “was the Zelig of twentieth–century American life.” Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, “he popped up at key moments and important places,” often next to significant political figures He caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, schemed with Aristotle Onassis, and was a personal friend of Henry Wallace, FDR’s former vice president, and candidate for president on the Communist Party-controlled Progressive Party ticket in 1948. 

But although he was singled out for investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, condemned by Sen. McCarthy on the Senate floor, and left a trail of evidence strongly suggesting he was a valued Kremlin asset, he would become a trusted advisor to politicians like Sargent Shriver and Jerry Brown.

From Washington to New York, Karr, who had never attended college, became a successful business executive, engineering several corporate takeovers, and incredibly enough, becoming CEO of Fairbanks Whitney, an important defense contractor, until being run off the premises by outraged shareholders. 

Never short of funds — he died a millionaire — and close to Moscow-connected business tycoons like Armand Hammer, he moved to Paris, facilitated the construction of a Western hotel in Moscow, and obtained North American rights to the marketing of Misha the Bear, the official mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He was also named official salesman for the Olympic commemorative coins. 

Before he could enjoy the games, however, he died unexpectedly at 60.  “When he died, his last wife (there were three earlier wives, all of whom he cheated on, and the current wife was on her way out) halted the burial with a court order for an autopsy, convinced that he had been murdered. She named as suspects the KGB, CIA, Israeli Mossad, and the Mafia. 

“No hard evidence ever turned up, but every one of them did have a plausible reason for desiring his silence,” concludes Mr. Klehr. 

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

• • •


By Harvey Klehr

Encounter Books, $25.99, 272 pages

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