The Communist Roots of the Sackler Dynasty

The Sackler Family’s Dynasty of Guilt

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday: 2021), 560 pages.

It hasn’t been easy to get to the bottom of the Sackler story. From the beginning, the family hid its business dealings in a tangle of subsidiaries. When reporter Barry Meier blew open the story of OxyContin in 2003 with his book Pain Killer: A Wonder Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death, the Sacklers convinced his employers at the New York Times to ban him from writing about opioids over a contrived conflict of interest. Depositions have been sealed, whistleblowers intimidated, critics bought off, publications threatened with lawsuits.

Patrick Radden Keefe got the full Sackler treatment when he published his blockbuster article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” in the New Yorker in 2017, which launched the trend of taking the Sackler name off various endowed buildings, galleries, and professorships. Their lawyer fired off dozens of letters to Keefe’s editors alleging factual errors and threatening to sue Keefe if he proceeded with this book project. Some unknown party even sent a mysterious man in an SUV to stake out Keefe’s house. These attempts at intimidation failed, and we now have the book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.

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His advertising firm came to the attention of the FBI during the McCarthy era. Sackler had a habit of hiring refugees, immigrants, and blacklisted journalists who had been fired from other jobs for their political connections. The result, Keefe says, was a radical atmosphere around the office. “On one occasion, a Swedish designer, who was a communist, made a scene by starting a small fire in the office and burning some of the firm’s own advertisements, to indicate his distaste for such ‘capitalist trash.’” According to one coworker, “We all thought it was hilarious.”

The FBI might have been onto something. It was not until the FBI files were FOIA’d by Keefe and other researchers that it became publicly known that at least one Sackler brother, and possibly all three, were Communist Party members. Raymond and his wife Beverly Feldman cared enough to transfer their membership to the Boston chapter when they moved there in 1944 and then back again to New York when they relocated. Arthur was close friends with millionaire Soviet spies Alfred Stern and Martha Dodd. One veteran Daily Worker journalist who worked for Arthur told a researcher in 1991 that, as he understood it, “all three Sacklers had been party members early on.”