“In the 1930s and ’40s,” David Evanier writes, “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 wasn’t one of them. Yes, born in 1918, he was raised in the Jewish immigrant Brooklyn from which emerged many American Jewish Communists, and yes, he spent the early years of his adult life as a true believer, and yes, he may have been a Soviet mole—but he certainly didn’t disdain payment for his efforts.
Karr went on to amass a $10 million-dollar fortune from careers as varied as muckraking columnist to corporate raider. All the while, the one constant in his life seems to have been his involvement with the USSR. But what he wanted from the Soviet Union is hard to say. Reviewing a new biography of Karr by the historian Harvey Klehr, Evanier summarizes the matter:
Throughout it all, writes Klehr, “Karr cooperated with Soviet intelligence agencies, tried to act as a middleman between the USSR and the U.S. on several issues, and attempted to get close to American officials and politicians at the behest of the KGB.”
Was he a double agent? Whose side was he really on? Klehr would seem to have answered that question definitively with his title, “The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole.” But no: The author’s final verdict is that while Karr began as a Communist true believer, he ended, at age sixty, as an amoral monster, an “unscrupulous and driven” man who in all his business dealings—especially those between Russian and Western parties—played both ends against the middle, using his connections mainly to enrich himself, no matter who got hurt.
Karr wasn’t entirely unusual, though. As Evanier’s own recent essay in Mosaic shows, that kind of cynicism turns out to have been normal for aging American Communists.