Born in 1918 to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, David Katz took the last name Karr and pursued a career in journalism, while moving in Communist circles and occasionally providing information to the FBI. During World War II he worked for the Office of War Information, but was fired after being hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His postwar successes reportedly made him the model for the main character in the bestselling novel How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. And his story gets even stranger thereafter, as Fred Siegel writes in his review of the new biography of Karr by the historian Harvey Klehr:
In the 1950s, . . . Karr became, for a time, a capitalist. In the 1960s, as he was moving though his third wife, he took up residence in Hollywood and became, for the first time, a passionate supporter of Israel. Come the 1970s as he moved toward his fourth marriage, this time to a wealthy and cultured Jewish French woman—he already had five children—Karr settled in Paris and signed on with the KGB while continuing to work as an international businessman.
It was an extraordinary journey for a guy from Brooklyn who had just barely finished high school. . . . Parlaying his work as a corporate-relations man into a job as CEO of Fairbanks Whitney, a leading defense contractor, Karr relied on a certain brashness . . . in his command of the corporate battlefield. Karr is perhaps best compared with Sammy Glick, protagonist of the novel What Makes Sammy Run and an archetype of the striving and sometimes scheming second generation of East European Jews driven to make it out of the tenements and to the top of American society at all costs.
In 1973 Karr appears to have been recruited by the KGB. This time around, though, he appears to have been motivated less by the ideological commitments of his youth than by money. Between 1973 and his death in 1979, Karr, sometimes working with American business tycoon Armand Hammer, sometimes trying to undercut Hammer, served as an intermediary for American companies looking to win a foothold in Russia.
Karr’s death, subject still to much speculation, remains a mystery.