David Karr made a name for himself in several fields, espionage among them. His name sometimes appeared in newspaper stories under headlines about this scandal or that intrigue. That attention gratified his ego, but also left him exposed to would-be enemies, and he had more than a few.
His transformation from David Katz, born in Brooklyn in 1918, to David Karr, who died in Paris in 1979, is told in “The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr,” written by Harvey Klehr, professor emeritus in politics and history at Emory University.
Klehr outlines in considerable detail how a Jewish boy from New York City with a high school education became a player in the fields of journalism, public relations, film, hotels, manufacturing, trade and espionage – certainly for the Soviet Union, likely for Israel, and possibly for others.
Karr was less than virtuous in his dealings with friends and family (all the more so when there are four wives). He went to exceptional lengths to ingratiate himself with powerful people, who found him a useful back-channel conduit. He changed ideologies in chameleon-like fashion, as the wind changes direction, and created alliances that were broken as easily as they were built.
“He left a trail of angry and embittered former friends, but he commanded the deep loyalty of several powerful men. Charming and knowledgeable, he was also capable of gratuitous acts of cruelty and lacerating rudeness, delighting in parading his affluence and importance in front of family and friends,” Klehr writes.
Klehr is an expert in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Communist Party in the United States, and has been the author, co-author or editor of 13 books. [Full disclosure: A letter that Klehr sent my father in 1994 is responsible for my having spent 25 years working on an as-yet unpublished book based on the life of my great aunt, a lifetime member of the Communist Party.]
Klehr told an audience at this year’s Decatur Book Festival that Karr’s “fantastic story is the stuff of a picaresque novel” and the audience chuckled at some of the stories he told about Karr, who “did few things in life from conviction” but was always open to a proposition that would enrich him financially.
In “The Millionaire Was A Soviet Mole,” Klehr describes Karr as “a self-interested operator and manipulator, playing every side against each other, all in an effort to enrich himself.” Even in death, Karr’s life was ripe for conspiracy theories that tried, but often failed to fully answer the question: What side was David Karr on, besides his own?