Inside the Garden of Evil
Harlan Crow wants to stop talking about Clarence Thomas.
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When you collect statues of Lenin, Harlan Crow told me, “you get to be a bit of a snob.” The first Lenin I had seen that morning was a brass likeness in the entryway to Crow’s Dallas mansion—a house that capitalism built, if ever there was one. Lenin was in his Finland Station pose, but with his head replaced by Mickey Mouse’s. Crow’s office had at least one more Lenin. Now we were outside, pelted by rain in Crow’s Garden of Evil, admiring the fourth in a series of Lenins, an 18-footer harvested from western Ukraine. “There’s so many statues of Lenin,” Crow said, educating me on dictator-statue appreciation the way another rich guy might introduce a friend to the world of fine wine. Having a good story was crucial. “You don’t want a Lenin From Factory 107. You want Politburo.”
The many Lenins joined dozens of other petrified tyrants and world leaders, among them Communist revolutionaries (Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara), a few secular autocrats (Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak), and a few hunched babushkas, in remembrance of communism’s victims. “Most are Communist,” Crow said, but he acknowledged that he hadn’t sorted the statues perfectly according to gradations of evil. Some had been moved years ago, not because of a historical reevaluation but during renovations when he built a batting cage for his kids, who are now grown. When they were little, he said, “the kids used to be scared of them.”
The garden is really a mishmash of 20th-century evil, evil-lite, and a few of Crow’s heroes (in the last category: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Winston Churchill). “I have a number of people who are [just] dictators, like Pinochet and Juan Perón,” Crow said. “You can argue about Juan Perón, whether he was a force for good or a force for bad … You can argue about Mubarak.” He noted that Yugoslav President Josip Tito was preferable to Stalin, and Zhou Enlai (“one of my favorites”) was a big step up from Chairman Mao. “There are probably a few more guys in storage that I’ll eventually put out,” he said. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: “Probably more for good than bad,” he said. “But it’s complicated.”
Last month, Crow’s eccentric hobby became a side drama in a broader scandal over his friendship and financial relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Critics of that relationship drew attention to Crow’s garden statues as well as a small hoard of Third Reich memorabilia inside Crow’s enormous home library and museum. He owns a signed Mein Kampf, paintings by Hitler, and a Third Reich–era tea service. Crow said he hadn’t felt the need to sort the interior collection by level of evil, either. In the garden, he said, “I like these guys”—he motioned to Thatcher and Reagan, then to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro—“and I don’t like those guys. In my world, that’s blindingly obvious … But one thing I have learned from this is that I must not assume that things are obvious.”
“This is my era. I was born in 1949,” Crow said. “Communism was the great threat to the world.” The choice between capitalism and communism, freedom and serfdom, was a “big philosophical argument.” The Greatest Generation, he said, had a dramatic, existential shooting war. The Baby Boomers did not (“thankfully,” he added). “In my lifetime and your parents’ lifetime … we didn’t have the Battle of the Bulge or the storming of the beaches of Normandy.” But the big argument was worth memorializing. “I want us to remember it. I want us to learn from it,” he said. “And it’s pretty damn important that we remember it.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I should just get rid of it all,” he said. He knows that strangers have doubts about him, and about anyone who associates with him. “I’m not looking to be odd.” But the oddness was a colorful part of the case against his friend Thomas. “If you said, ‘Are you glad you did this?’ I would say, ‘I’m not sure.’”
When the twin Thomas and Third Reich scandals broke, I wrote that Crow is not a Nazi, and that to smear him as one is an offense against victims of actual Nazis, and against Crow himself. A week later, a public-relations firm representing Crow wrote to me to offer their client for an interview. When we met, Crow said he had read my article when it came out, and that very morning had reread the first couple of paragraphs, before hitting the Atlantic paywall. Even to be defended from this charge, he said, stung. “‘Harlan Crow Is Not a Nazi,’” he paraphrased the headline. “A bit too much like ‘Good News! Harlan Crow Stopped Beating His Wife.’”
Crow made clear that his preference would be not to talk at all about the current scandal—which had made him introspective about his relationship to politics, if not repentant. “My hope is that this is the last conversation I have on this topic in public,” he said. “I’m not the private person I was. I’m sad about that, but there’s nothing I can do. I just still kind of hope that it’ll all fade from memory, and I can go back to being just an old guy.”
He surely knows deep down that the desire to be “just an old guy” is somewhere between delusional and a forlorn dream. Crow is not even a normal old ultrarich guy.
His statue garden and in-home museum are nothing compared with the living friends and politicians he has collected: ex-presidents (George W. Bush and the late Gerald Ford are especially beloved), scholars and writers (Charles Murray, David Brooks), and foreign dignitaries (the socialist British Prime Minister James Callaghan was an early guest on his yacht, on a cruise with Ford up the Dnipro River to Kyiv in the 1990s). His patronage of the American Enterprise Institute—to name just one of the venerable conservative institutions that take his money—has placed him near the center of the conservative movement for decades.
And his relationship with Thomas is irregular to the point of suspicion. ProPublica’s investigation revealed that Thomas accepted various goodies from Crow, including luxury vacations on Crow’s yacht and jet, private tuition for Thomas’s grand-nephew, and a real-estate deal with fishy particulars. Crow bought a house owned by Thomas. Thomas’s mother lives there rent-free. Thomas’s failure to report these gifts and transactions has led to accusations that the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court votes according to the wishes of his wealthy friend, a prolific donor to right-leaning political candidates and think tanks. Even if Thomas votes autonomously, they say, for the sake of transparency and the Court’s integrity, he should have reported the gifts, hospitality, and transactions.
Rules and norms apply to justices with integrity and to justices without it, to free the former from suspicion and to expose the latter. Thomas has resisted these rules more aggressively than any other justice. His critics have enjoyed a feast of cynicism at his expense. “We should all have friends like Clarence Thomas’s,” Eric Levitz of New York magazine wrote. At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick and Lisa Graves described this behavior as “stunning” and “astonishing,” because of the “appearance of impropriety,” and because even if Crow has no business before the Court, he certainly knows people who do, and he supports think tanks that have submitted amicus briefs. (Although I agree that the transparency standard for justices should be a full monty—nothing less than total disclosure of financial arrangements—the accusation of corruption is different. Justices with connections to Harvard or its myriad donors, supporters, and alumni are not automatically corrupted by these connections. And Harvard, unlike Crow’s think tanks, is a respondent in the most prominent case currently pending before the Court.)
But even if justices are bound by strict rules, their unbound friends are still subject to speculation, reasonable and unreasonable, about the nature of their relationship to those in power. Crow is like most people, in that he feels he has acted with the purest and most honorable intentions. He is unlike many, though, in thinking that the world should take his word for it—and that if it does not, that’s the world’s fault, and not his.
“I probably have more influence than the ordinary Joe,” Crow told me. “But I still don’t think of myself as a center of influence. I think of myself as a real-estate guy that lives in Texas.”
One common feature of the rich and powerful is that they do not feel rich and powerful. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is an absolute monarch, told me he couldn’t just rule by fiat. He listed all the ways in which he was constrained by history, by family, by tribal interests. Last month Joe Biden told a group of visitors to the White House that “the one thing I thought when I got to be president, I’d get to give orders. But I take more orders than I ever did.”
With Crow, the psychology is similar. The liberal world thinks he orchestrates a vast right-wing conspiracy, because he is in fact surrounded by huge numbers of influential people, some who want his money and access to power, and some who are just friends. But Crow kept insisting that he has little power over the American political scene. Even with his fantastic wealth, he was incapable of preventing the rise of the politicians he most abhors, in particular Donald Trump.
And although he often says he wants to go back to being just a normal guy, it is not obvious that a man is normal when he is standing with you in his house next to a life-size mannequin of Winston Churchill and makes no comment about it until prompted. In the one-minute walk to his home office we passed perhaps a hundred objects—paintings, death masks, statues, swords, and other curios—whose presence in any normal guy’s home would have merited a proud explanation. He said he stopped giving tours long ago, after realizing that “most people just want to see a rich man’s house.” Crow happily acted as docent on request, but on our first pass through the collection, the only object that he flagged for special interest was a small ziggurat of foil-wrapped breakfast burritos and a tray of doughnuts, to which The Atlantic’s photographer and I were welcome.
Clarence Thomas and his family “have been dear friends for almost 30 years,” Crow said, denying that their friendship was political in any way. “It’s an ironic friendship, in the sense that I came from a world of silver spoons, and he came from a very difficult upbringing.” (Crow’s father, Trammell, who died in 2009, was at one point described in the press as the largest private landowner in the United States. Thomas did not see an indoor toilet until late in childhood.) Crow has taken Thomas on his yacht in Indonesia; he has hosted him at his resort in the Adirondacks.
I asked if he ever talked about law with Thomas. “I have never, nor would I ever, think about talking about matters that relate to the judiciary with Justice Clarence Thomas,” Crow said. He added that they “talk about the kind of things friends talk about,” such as weather and sports. In an email, he told me that “it’s not like we haven’t talked about work-related issues,” but that those conversations were casual and unrelated to jurisprudence. “It’s not realistic [for] two people [to] be friends and not talk about their jobs from time to time.” Thomas has spoken to him of his fondness for his clerks, or about bumping into Justice Stephen Breyer at Target. But Crow wrote that “it would be wrong” for him to talk about Court cases. “From my point of view, that is off limits. He and I don’t go there.”
Crow said he wasn’t a “law guy” and professed ignorance about any details of constitutional law. (The closest Crow has come to a Supreme Court case was in the early 2000s, when an architecture firm asked the Court to adjudicate a dispute with a firm in which Crow had a minority interest. The Court declined to hear the case.) “It would be absurd to me to talk to Justice Thomas about Supreme Court cases, because that’s not my world,” he told me at his house. “I could probably name maybe five or six cases. Brown v. Board of Education. Marbury v. Madison.” He thought for a bit and stopped at two. “We talk about life. We’re two guys who are the same age and grew up in the same era. We share a love of Motown.”
He wanted to be normal, he said. But I noted that Thomas is not a normal friend, and friendships with Supreme Court justices are laden with responsibilities that normal friendships are not. Singing Diana Ross together on the deck of a yacht in Bali would be wholesome fun with a non-justice. But with Thomas it raised all sorts of issues. Between choruses of “Baby Love,” did Thomas wonder whether his next trip to Bali depended on his continuing to vote a certain way? What guarantee did Americans have that their friendship transcended such doubts?
“I’m not trying to say I’m this moral paragon, because I’m not. I’m just a guy that made lots of mistakes in my life,” Crow said. “But I do believe that I’m on the right side of right, morally and legally.” He said that it was “kind of weird to think that if you’re a justice on the Supreme Court, you can’t have friends. That’s not healthy. Should I have changed my life in order to have these friends? Or should I behave differently around them because of who they are?” He said if the billionaire and patron of leftist causes George Soros were hunting buddies with the chair of the Federal Reserve, he would not particularly care. “If they are genuine friends and people of good character”—he said his friends’ interactions with Soros suggest that he is—“I don’t think it’s up to me to decide.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong with your questions,” Crow told me. He recognized that character is “one of those highly subjective things.” But ultimately it is all that matters. “And I believe Justice Thomas to be a person of the highest character.”
For Crow, much hinged on this question of “good character.” In discussion of politicians, he often defaulted, in a way I found almost inspiringly optimistic, to analyzing them not by their policies but by their integrity. Integrity, he seemed to think, would isolate a politician or judge from influence, and would naturally incline that person toward a moderate, decent position. We discussed his nostalgia for a “good America,” whose politics existed on the spectrum between Reagan and Roosevelt, or better yet, between Romney and Obama (“an honorable man”), with his personal preference toward the Romney side. Thomas, he said, is “one of the most amazing and admirable people I know,” and it was as blindingly obvious that Thomas would not sell his soul for a series of vacations as it was that Harlan Crow was not a supporter of Adolf Hitler.
Moreover, the hospitality he offered to Thomas was not unusual. “For a long time, I’ve lived a certain lifestyle,” Crow said, sounding like he was about to confess to a kink. But the lifestyle he described was simply that of an extremely wealthy guy who likes to travel and host friends on holidays. “I’ve been successful. I have lived a comfortable life. I have a really big house,” he said. At his home in the Adirondacks, he said, a typical summer means 150 guests—work associates, parents of his children’s friends, a few wonks and political types. His yacht, too, is best understood as a floating extension of his hospitality. The only reason to have a yacht, he said, is to go places where one cannot go any other way—hopping around guano islands in the South Pacific, visiting the grave of a favorite Antarctic explorer on a tundra island in the South Atlantic, following the Northwest Passage. He likes to fill the staterooms with guests, both when he’s aboard and when he’s elsewhere.
“That’s the life I’ve lived. I don’t think there’s anything bad about it,” Crow said. He sees no reason to exclude Thomas from it. “I didn’t want to change my life.”
The ado over Thomas’s mother’s house seemed to baffle Crow completely. He said he considers Thomas’s rise “the kind of American story you dream about,” and he’d donated money in Thomas’s hometown of Savannah, Georgia, that would memorialize both his bootstrapped success and the Gullah-Geechee culture that produced him. Crow sent money to the Carnegie Library there; he bought the dilapidated former cannery where Thomas’s mother had worked (and gave the former owners a “life estate”—the right to remain living there until their deaths).
He said he’d had dinner at Thomas’s mother’s house “several times.” “She was a great cook, and probably still is at 94.” He’d asked Thomas if he could buy the house, at fair market value, and develop the area with the aim of eventually opening the house to the public to “honor” him. “I’m a real-estate guy,” Crow added modestly, and he figured that the neighborhood would improve if he bought and razed the drug dens and brothel on the same block, then sold the lots on the condition that the buyers build new houses. Thomas’s mother received a life estate as part of the transaction, which he said was “very common” in real-estate deals involving the elderly, and an “insignificant” expense in comparison to the cost of the deal as a whole.
“One day, I walked down that street with Justice Thomas, and there were mixed-race families living in the neighborhood,” he said. “The brothel and the crack houses were gone. There were kids riding bikes in the streets, families planning and working in their gardens. It was a neighborhood. And I’m very proud of that.”
Surely, I suggested, he could have structured the deal in a way that would not have involved writing a personal check to a Supreme Court justice. Create a foundation for public education, put impartial trustees on its board, and let it buy the house. Crow said he had done many deals in his life, and every one could, in retrospect, have been done a little better. This one wasn’t even a bad one, let alone corrupt. “It was a fair-market transaction, and I had a purpose,” Crow said. “I don’t see the foot fault.” But the idea that he had secretly corrupted his friend left him aghast. (I asked him whether he had any other financial relationships with Thomas or anyone related to Thomas, and he declined to answer, saying he doesn’t keep track of the hospitality extended to friends.)
Crow is aware that being denounced in the press is an occupational hazard of being absurdly rich, and that one of the unwritten rules of the billionaire life is that one must not complain about being a billionaire. (As Anthony Hopkins said, playing a billionaire in The Edge: “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.”) But Crow certainly feels embattled. “If I go out and help an old lady across the street this afternoon, there’ll be something written about my diabolical purpose and evil intent.”
Crow’s sensibility is bound in the local culture of Dallas. I grew up there and recognized it instantly. It is not familiar to most Americans. Austin is proud of its bumper sticker KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD. But Dallas’s weirdness is so deep that it perpetuates itself unintentionally, without noticing it. An auto-insurance agent specifies on his sign that he is named Ross but prefers to be addressed as “Pistol.” At the most famous historic site, you can have a picnic and watch tourists drive by and mimic the way John F. Kennedy’s head jerked “back and to the left” as it exploded. Crow has statues of fallen dictators in his yard, and those baffle outsiders. But I remember that Goff’s, the burger joint down the street from my house, had a statue of Lenin out front, salvaged in the 1990s from an Odesa, Ukraine, crane factory and outfitted with a plaque that said AMERICA WON. It was all very Dallas, and even without the plaque everyone would have known that its owner planted it there to mock rather than revere the Soviet Union, much as a high-school student might steal and display his crosstown rival’s mascot.
Crow’s emphasis on integrity is also vintage Dallas. Dallas’s citizens may not have more integrity than anyone else, but they surely do talk about it more. A classicist friend told me he was asked to translate a Dallas family’s made-up motto, “Do the right thing,” into Latin. (His suggestion, Fac Rectum, was not accepted.) Dallas is an honor society, like much of the South. And it is no surprise that a wealthy Dallasite who aspires to be a good citizen would revile the politician who more than any other has obliterated the idea that integrity is a requirement for office.
The figure of Donald Trump looms over conversations with Crow, perhaps especially when his name hasn’t been uttered for some time. Crow’s loathing for Trump and Trumpian politics is well known. “Countries don’t survive forever,” he told me, and he thought “reasonably small groups” on the right and left in America were sowing discord. Without Trump, he said, “we wouldn’t have gone as nuts on the right as we have.” He said he had proudly self-diagnosed himself with “Trump derangement syndrome” and preferred not to sidetrack our conversation about Thomas by going on an “anti-Trump jihad,” although he was tempted to do so. He was morose and reluctant for much of our conversation but lit up when he noted how the country had “repudiated” extremists of the right and left in the 2022 elections. The extremists of the right were the Trumpists. “I don’t think the left has a Trump equivalent,” Crow wrote to me later. “Thank God.” But he does consider the “progressive wing of the Democrat party” extreme, and he said he wished it had even less power than it does.
Crow describes himself as “center right,” and he deviates from the Republican Party not only in his refusal to genuflect to Trump but also in other ways, such as his support for legal access to abortion. He is a backer of the No Labels movement, which is a quixotic—some say foolhardy—attempt to vanquish extremists by fielding a presidential ticket across party lines. He spends a great deal of energy cultivating politicians who might be bipartisan-curious. (I told him I wondered if that sort of grooming by rich donors had empowered Trump in the first place. Many voters don’t want their politics determined through backroom dealing. He acknowledged that he did not understand reactionary politics, and he committed himself to listening more to the views of those enraged by the power of people like him.)
But for Trump himself, his distaste is permanent and unalterable. Part of this animus comes from the stunning 2016 repudiation of Crow’s political causes, into which he has poured millions. But the animus is even deeper, I suspect. Crow’s view of politics, and the viability of his argument that a rich man and a Supreme Court justice can just be friends with yachting benefits, depends on voters’ and elites’ voting out people of bad character. “Trump is a man without any principles at all,” Crow wrote in an email. “Bernie Sanders has principles; I just think they’re wrong. Trump doesn’t have any.”
In superficial ways, the two men are similar. Like Trump, Crow is a real-estate developer with political interests and assets that require the use of scientific notation to estimate. Both men grew up rich, then took over his father’s empire. In almost every other respect, they are total opposites. Trump cratered the empire he inherited, while investing in the sleaziest possible ventures; under Crow’s stewardship, the family fortune increased. Crow is appalled at the accusation that he used a shady real-estate deal to funnel money to a crony—which is, frankly, the kind of thing Trump would do. Trump commands attention and bellows; Crow speaks in a reluctant mumble. Trump inflates his net worth; Crow does not. Trump contemplates pulling out of NATO. Crow says he has no time for any politician who wavers in supporting Ukraine. (“The Ukrainians’ courage is unique in recent history,” he wrote to me. “I believe they’ve earned the right to their own independence.”) Crow begs to be assessed on whether he is a person of “good character.” Not even Trump’s most loyal fans could keep a straight face if their leader asked the same.
And then there is the matter of the two men’s hobbies. The poet Clive James once observed that wealth and culture do not go together. As a rule, he said, “the bigger the yacht, the smaller the library.” Crow’s yacht, the Michaela Rose, could sleep every Supreme Court justice and still have room for Crow and the solicitor general. His library, which is a wing of his home, is not correspondingly small. It would be a jewel in the collection of any Ivy League school. He opens it more than 100 times a year for events and visits from schoolchildren and researchers.
Does Trump own any books? I browsed randomly on a few shelves in Crow’s library and found an early edition of Montesquieu’s L’esprit des Lois. Crow has a full-time archivist and librarian. At one point I asked Crow if he had in fact collected the signatures of every Supreme Court justice in American history. He paused, opened a small side door, and poked his head in to confirm with the librarian that the collection was complete. The librarian, who presumably sits there all day just waiting for such an inquiry, said they still lacked signatures from a handful of recent justices. (“Thanks!” Crow said, before closing the door.)
It is impossible to imagine Trump sailing for days in howling austral winds to reach the grave of Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia Island. Trump has no known friendships with Supreme Court justices, or indeed any friendships, period. Crow has many friends, and many acquaintances who have been his guests. One of his problems after the ProPublica exposé was that many possible character witnesses in his defense had been disqualified due to having accepted Crow’s hospitality. This includes Atlantic contributors who are employed, or have been employed, by think tanks he and his wife, Kathy, have funded, among them Arthur C. Brooks, a former president of the American Enterprise Institute, and Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute as well as those who have dined or stayed at his homes, including the Atlantic contributing writer and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
“What about the Hitler paintings?” I asked before leaving. He must have known the question was coming, but he took five full seconds before he gathered the courage to answer. “They’re put away,” he said.
He didn’t answer directly. He recalled a 2015 incident when he planned a fundraiser for Marco Rubio, and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called his display of Hitler’s paintings “the height of insensitivity and indifference.” “So I took them down, and I put them in storage,” he said. But he sees nothing inherently wrong with displaying them. “Three World War II leaders—Churchill, Eisenhower, and Hitler— all being artists is in itself an interesting story,” he told me. “And I think it would be reasonable at some point to show pictures of all three of them together … But in the current environment, I’m going to say permanently—until I change my mind.”
He said he understood that certain objects mean different things to different people, and even though it was obvious to him that Nazis were bad, others might misread his intentions. “In a sensible world, people would be interested in things like that. But right now we’re not there,” he said. And the outrage over his Hitler paintings had shown him that he should consider how others feel. (This willingness to consider others’ feelings is itself a sign of his anti-Trumpishness.) “The idea that I might offend somebody, particularly somebody I care about, one of my friends, with this stuff—that hurts. I would never want to do that.”
“How about Hitler’s teapot and table linens?”
“Oh, they’re still upstairs,” he said. He admitted that Kathy had urged him to just put them away. “I’ve felt that right now it would be kind of deceptive to do that.” He said I could see the items but could not take photos.
We walked to a small room, away from the main floor of the library. “Kind of a catchall,” he said—a room with random items that didn’t fit elsewhere in his collection. Here was a sword owned by Douglas MacArthur, and another by a Japanese general present at the surrender. Then he turned, looking tense, to a display case with a rectangular leather cover, and opened it up, expecting to reveal the Nazi tableware within.
The case was empty, except for a sign that read NOT TO COMMEMORATE, BUT TO REMEMBER, IN HOPES THAT IT MAY NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.
It was an awkward moment, and he seemed agitated at having misled me, even in this bizarre manner. “What I just said to you was wrong,” he said. “Somebody did something I didn’t know about.” He checked elsewhere in the room and found another empty case. “I didn’t know that. I’m not happy about it … I apologize.”
Crow looked ruffled. Even weirder than having Nazi memorabilia in your house is having it in your house but somehow losing track of it.